When Black Lives Matter Demands Action, College Presidents Listen

Half of university administrators say they’ve met with protesters about boosting racial inclusion.
Students celebrate the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe amid allegations of racism. (Photo: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Mar 23, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, in the highest-profile demonstration of its kind, black students at the University of Missouri protested what they argued was the school administration’s failure to address a toxic racial climate on campus.

Using tactics borrowed from their grandparents’ generation—sit-ins, walkouts, and hunger strikes—the protesters captured national attention and forced Tim Wolfe, the university’s president, out of office. They also triggered similar demonstrations at colleges and universities nationwide.

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Now, a new American Council on Education survey indicates that top college and university officials are responding to campus unrest.

Nearly half of the more than 560 senior administrators who responded to the ACE survey gauging the racial climate on campus have seen protests about social justice issues, including diversity and inclusion on campus. More than half of them said they’ve met with protesters more than once, and 55 percent say it’s helped elevate those issues to the top of their agenda.

At a time where affirmative action in college admissions has been repeatedly challenged in court—and fewer African Americans and Latinos who do make it to college are struggling to earn bachelor’s degrees—analysts say student activists’ push for diversity, and administrators’ willingness to listen, are positive signs.

The majority of college presidents who responded to the survey have been “engaged and responsive,” Lorelle Espinosa, ACE’s assistant vice president for policy research and strategy, told TakePart.

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“I do think that there’s a lot of good news here as far as how presidents are making campus racial climate a priority at their institutions,” Espinosa said. “As someone who has been studying these issues a long time, I see and I believe, and many [campus presidents] know, that there’s a lot to do, but there’s plenty of good news here.”

Brittany Packnett, executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis and the cofounder of the activist group Campaign Zero, was one of the protesters on the front lines after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in neighboring Ferguson, Missouri. Packnett, who helped organize volunteers to set up programs for kids whose schools were closed owing to the unrest, said student activism and the Black Lives Matter movement are intimately connected.

“The movement in Ferguson and beyond helped empower people to remember that we can do more than just change hearts or build relationships, but that we can hold institutions accountable for how they treat us,” Packnett told TakePart. “In fact, it’s our duty to do so. A municipal government, police department, or university—all of them are accountable to we, the people they serve.”

At the university level, added Packnett, “brave students around the country have been doing exactly that, and it’s been deeply inspiring to see and support.”

Last fall, the nation’s college campuses experienced a surge of protests over racial issues. The marches and sit-ins swept from East Coast Ivy League institutions, such as Harvard and Yale, to schools such as Claremont McKenna College, just east of Los Angeles.

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While each of roughly a dozen or so protests have been different, students’ demands have much in common, particularly a desire for increased campus diversity, more minority professors, and more cultural inclusion on a school’s general curriculum.

According to the survey, 53 percent of students at public four-year institutions have organized around issues of racial diversity, compared with 45 percent at private four-year institutions. At the same time, 75 percent of four-year presidents and 62 percent of two-year presidents “believe high-profile events (e.g., those related to #BlackLivesMatter, immigration, Islamophobia) increased the campus-wide dialogue or dialogue within certain groups,” the survey says.

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The pressure has helped put diversity issues on the front burner: 86 percent of four-year college presidents have met with protest leaders, 55 percent say the racial climate has become more of a priority, and 41 percent say the dialogue across groups on their campus has increased.

“You need to create those spaces where students can learn across differences, share perspectives, have open dialogue,” Espinosa said.

Perhaps the most striking result of the survey, she said, is the percentage of college officials who have taken concrete steps in reaction to the protests: 76 percent of university presidents installed plans to bring more minorities to campus as students and faculty; 63 percent added resources to help make it happen; 62 percent created diversity and cultural competency training for students and staff, and 51 percent publicly acknowledged there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

“When you look at actions institutions are taking in the last five years and steps institutions are taking going forward,” the protests have been effective, Espinosa said. “A lot of people are rightly shifting their focus away from diversity toward inclusion, which is the right view. They’re creating more inclusive practices instead of just boosting numbers.”

And diversity, she added, benefits whites as well, particularly as the nation moves to a majority-minority population, already reflected in the public-school enrollment

“Students can benefit from that diversity, especially as we think about an increasingly diverse country, a global society,” Espinosa said. Diversity and inclusion, she added, “are exactly the things we should be wrestling with.”