This week, in response to concerns expressed by student activists, Washington and Lee University announced changes to the display of Confederate flags on its campus. Northwestern University recently studied the involvement of one of its founders with a massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, while Duke University removed the name of a segregationist politician from a dormitory.
And many Northern and Southern colleges are considering evidence that they benefited from the colonial slave economy, as documented in Craig Steven Wilder's book Ebony and Ivy (2013). Inevitably, the older a college or university, the greater the likelihood it has some history of which it is not proud.
The question for those of us who work on complicit campuses is how to respond to this knowledge. When institutional identity collides with identity politics, the result is a microcosm of our national culture wars: debates over the meaning of contested events and people; questions about apologies and restitution; and demands by some to jettison traditions that others cherish.
What should a modern, multicultural institution do about history and symbols tainted by exclusion or discrimination?
First, we must boldly research and acknowledge the past, and then we need to think hard about how – or whether – our institutional identity should be recast. A principled response may mean changing the stories that we tell about ourselves. It may mean altering or recontextualizing the names, iconography, and traditions of our campus. In short, we owe it to our students to interpret any uncomfortable facts in light of our current values.
Confronted with a history that is contested, troubled, or downright shameful, there is no need for embarrassment. Rather, we should gather as many facts as possible, acting proactively and pursuing this research with rigor and candor. In the words of Brown University’s Slavery and Justice Commission, which explored Brown's ties to the slave trade, “Universities are dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. They are conservators of humanity’s past.... If an institution professing these principles cannot squarely face its own history, it is hard to imagine how any other institution, let alone our nation, might do so.” The fearless embrace of scholarship and analysis is a powerful way of demonstrating institutional ideals.
In undertaking this work, we must be prepared for the possibility of dissent. Brown's review of its connections to slavery attracted the attention of both advocates and opponents of reparations, as well as demonstrations by white supremacists and the Nation of Islam.
But we cannot use the risk of conflict as an excuse to minimize the relevance of such “ancient” history. As Wilder says, this would be to “misunderstand the role that history should be playing in the modern academy. It reflects a sense that there is a problem to be managed rather than a history that has to be embraced and woven into the narrative of the institution. Every act of evasion only empowers those who actually are using the history politically.”
For colleges and universities, the past that we do not explain becomes the arena where others reveal the difficult truths we have avoided or, less constructively, project myths and agendas that contradict our institutional cultures.
Exposing the facts is only the first step. It is not usually the historical record that poses the problem; the hard choices arise in the interpretation of and response to that history.
Debate over the necessity for apologies or restitution is one common area of contention. These are decisions that institutions must make for themselves, but in the context of a contemporary college or university, acknowledgment is usually more important than apology, particularly when historical responsibility is murky or the recipient of the apology is not immediately identifiable.
At Brown, where the university was primarily a beneficiary of slavery rather than a perpetrator, President Ruth Simmons decided against a formal apology but committed the university to "restorative justice" activities, including the establishment of a scholarly center and creation of a traveling exhibit. In contrast, in June 2013, Babson College President Lewis Schlesinger chose to formally apologize to Brandeis University for the anti-Semitic behavior of Babson students at a soccer game in 1978 – an incident that took place within living memory under college auspices.
A second challenge arises from the messages embedded in campus iconography, names, and traditions. We are the present-day custodians of these symbols, and inaction on our part suggests an implicit or even explicit endorsement of such messages. At the very least, controversial symbols must be identified and explained, and in some cases the best response may be to abandon them.
Key factors for consideration are the level of connection between the problematic individual or event and the institution, and the existence of any relevant contractual requirements. Because the offensiveness of a name or tradition may be debated, colleges and universities must clearly explain their decisions to either retain or alter symbols.
At Northwestern, for example, significant honor has been given to the university founder John Evans, whose name appears on the alumni center and several professorships (as well as the town of Evanston, where the university is located). After a thorough review of the factual record, Northwestern’s John Evans Study Committee cleared Evans of direct involvement in an 1864 massacre of Native Americans but deplored his justification of it and noted that the university has benefited from Evans’ positive reputation. The committee recommended that Evans’s name remain in its honorific positions but that Northwestern also increase access for Native American students and enhance the study of Native American cultures.
At Duke University, following a similar review, President Richard H. Brodhead made a different decision, which was to strip the name of a segregationist politician from a campus dormitory. In Duke’s case, the eponymous man had minimal involvement with the university, and in the future the building will contain an explanation of the name change. Both of these differing approaches are appropriate to the circumstances, expressing a commitment to factual transparency while reframing the universities’ institutional narratives and reaffirming their modern values.
The situation currently unfolding at Washington and Lee University illustrates many of these considerations. Student activists demanded an apology for the university’s participation in slavery and a denunciation of Robert E. Lee’s participation; the removal of Confederate flags from the campus chapel; and an end to allowing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an unaffiliated group, to hold an annual program on campus.
In his response this week, President Kenneth P. Ruscio announced plans to modify the display of Confederate flags and provide more historical and educational context designed to clarify their ambiguous message. While acknowledging the complexity of Lee’s legacy, Ruscio chose not to apologize for Lee’s actions prior to his affiliation with the university.
I agree that an apology is unnecessary. Far more meaningful will be a thorough airing of Washington and Lee’s institutional ties to slavery, which Ruscio has already launched. I question the wisdom of allowing outside groups to use the campus to promote their own interpretive agendas, but thoughtful disagreement about such complex topics is to be expected.
Washington and Lee cannot change its history, but it is doing the hard work of engaging with its past to shape its current and future culture. All colleges and universities must be prepared to do the same. As the historian Wilder states, “We can’t evade the consequences of the past or shift the responsibility of research to others. This is something we have to wrestle with.”
Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.
A key federal job-training bill has been updated for the first time in more than a decade. The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which governs more than $3 billion in programs, many of them aimed at community colleges. The bill, which the U.S. Senate passed last month, has drawn praise from higher education leaders. It should eliminate red tape and redundancy, they said, while also creating standardized performance metrics and emphasizing better links between K-12, higher education and employers. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation, which has been hailed as a rare bipartisan compromise.
Spelman College on Wednesday announced that Beverly Daniel Tatum, president since 2002, will retire in June. The announcement came the same day the college announced that it has completed a 10-year fund-raising campaign that brought in $157.8 million. The campaign has tripled the available scholarships for Spelman students and supported significant enhancements to faculty research and facilities as well. Tatum is well-known as a scholar of race relations among young people, and she has continued to write about and speak about that issue during her presidency. Given Spelman's many roles, Tatum has also been an advocate for historically black colleges, women's colleges and liberal arts colleges. In 2012, Tatum announced that Spelman would eliminate intercollegiate athletics and instead focus on promoting wellness and fitness among its students.
Here is a Q&A interview with Tatum on the numerous racial incidents and tensions on campuses nationwide in fall 2013. And here is an essay she wrote on racial incidents after the 2008 election of President Obama.
Faculty members at the Scripps Research Institute, a free-standing research institution in California and Florida, are organizing to oppose a possible merger with the University of Southern California, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The scholars are criticizing both the idea of a merger and what they say was a lack of input in developing the plans, which have not been finalized. Administrators at Scripps did not respond to requests for comment.
Case Western Reserve University has settled a law professor's lawsuit alleging that the institution retaliated against him for reporting alleged sexual harassment by its former law dean, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland reported. Raymond Ku, a professor and former associate dean at Case Western's law school, had alleged that he lost his administrative post after informing university administrators about incidents he and others witnessed in which then-Dean Lawrence Mitchell caressed a female staff member and made inappropriate sexual comments to others.
Mitchell later resigned, and Case cited inaccuracies in Kuh's lawsuit. But in a joint statement reported by the newspaper and published on the website of Kuh's lawyer, the university and Kuh said they had resolved their differences, and both sides said they believed the other had acted in the best interests of the university and its students.
Terms of the agreement were not revealed, except to note that Ku has been named director of the law school’s newly created Center for Cyberspace Law & Policy.
Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System, released a statement late Monday outlining why he told Bill Powers, president of the flagship Austin campus, that he must resign promptly or be fired, The Texas Tribune reported. "The relationship between President Bill Powers, the Board of Regents and the Office of the Chancellor has been strained to the point of becoming fractured for several years," Cigarroa said.
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Cigarroa did not attribute the break to any one single issue, but to "a breakdown of communication, collegiality, trust and a willingness to work together for the good of the university." He said "nothing could be further from the truth" than the view of many Powers supporters that the chancellor has acted on the direction of the governor or a few regents close to the governor.
With Powers resisting the demand that he resign soon, offering instead to do so after the next academic year, the issue now goes to the university's Board of Regents, which meets Thursday.
NCAA releases guidelines (not rules) recommending limits on football practices that allow contact, provision of independent medical care for players, and consistent treatment of brain-related injuries.
In the Ivory Tower, labor organizing is no easy task. Teaching assistants, who have recently unionized at New York University and the University of Connecticut, don’t have factory floors where collective bonds can be readily formed. We’re scattered throughout classrooms spread over vast campuses, each grading for different professors and advisers, with different and often incommensurable working conditions. We don’t stand before an assembly line with parts of metal and plastic – we work face-to-face with students, who are sometimes apathetic and bemused by our decision to prolong our schooling, but sometimes enthusiastic and insightful enough to remind us why we thought a life of teaching and research could be worthwhile.
When I started graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I proudly signed a union card the first day of orientation. The unprecedented contractagreement reached this year between the University of California and my union, United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents graduate teaching assistants at all UC campuses, reflects our strategy for dealing with these challenges.
Since teaching assistants are also students, we have to insist on our work being taken seriously as work, not just a step on the way to a future career. In order to win higher wages, our union wrote a report (“Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Mismanagement and the Decline of UC Education”) demonstrating that the viability of the university depends on whether it provides livable conditions for its student-workers. Over half of our most qualified applicants currently choose to attend other institutions, which offer better compensation. We were only able to settle our contract when the UC – after a long, drawn-out struggle – agreed to close a third of this gap between pay at our university and other institutions.
What’s more, many graduate students are supporting families, and enticing as the prospect of a future tenure-track income may be, it doesn’t put dinner on the table tonight. So our new contract also includes increased child-care subsidies, as well as expanded parental leaves and guaranteed access to workplace lactation stations.
We think that we were able to win these demands because we responded to the specificity of our workplace, and expanded the boundaries of union activity. In this contract campaign, expanding the boundaries meant raising three issues alongside wages, and refusing to allow management to dismiss them: class sizes, opportunities for undocumented students, and rights for transgender students.
For teaching assistants, working conditions are a question of quality of education for undergraduates. Class sizes are perhaps the clearest point at which these two interests intersect: every additional paper we have to grade means less time to sit with students in our offices and less time grading the papers of other students. Every extra seat filled in our discussion sections means a reduced opportunity for quieter students to speak up – and they’re usually the ones who will benefit the most from asking questions. The impact that class size has on our workload is mirrored by its impact on the ability of the institution to serve its constituents. Unless educators like us play a role in determining what class size is appropriate, students will be left to flounder instead of thrive.
We’ve also tried to show that universities are one of the places where civil rights issues can be seen as labor issues. One of our most pressing concerns is the availability of funding for students who are undocumented immigrants. About 500 graduate students at the UC are undocumented, and face incredible challenges to completing their degrees. Without the opportunity to work as teaching assistants, undocumented students lead precarious lives, and they’re unable to gain the teaching experience they need to build their careers.
Another issue has been discrimination in the most personal of settings. Once upon a time, when women began to enter male-dominated academic departments, it wasn’t uncommon for them to discover that there were no bathrooms for them in their buildings. We realized that while our society is coming to recognize that transgender people need the safety of gender-neutral bathrooms – indeed, Governor Jerry Brown signed a California law dictating that public schools should provide these facilities last summer – this issue needs to be addressed in labor contracts, since it bears directly on conditions for trans workers.
The contract we’ve agreed on breaks new ground on each of these issues. After months of insisting that TA-to-student ratios were not a “mandatory subject of bargaining,” the UC has agreed to form joint labor-management workload committees in which class sizes can be discussed. The UC has also agreed to form an "instructional opportunities" committee, which will be directed toward providing equal academic and professional opportunities for undocumented students. Finally, we’ve successfully bargained for language in our contract that guarantees access to gender-neutral bathrooms as a “right,” setting a precedent for us to directly address other anti-discrimination demands in the future.
As graduate students, undergraduates, adjuncts, and others grapple with increasingly precarious conditions, unions will become a major force in shaping the future of the university. This is not always clearly understood; successfully waging our contract campaign required us, at times, to go on strike against unfair labor practices that interfered with our ability to bargain. Armed with the UC precedent, frustrated graduate students across the country can think creatively about how to meet their needs as educators. Instead of arguing about ballooning class sizes at interminable department meetings, they might take their demands to the picket line.
Asad Haider is Ph.D. student in history of consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and a member of the Executive Board of UAW 2865.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is currently facing legal challenges from several directions: the former University of California basketball player Ed O'Bannon's class action regarding players' likenesses, the high-profile lawyer Jeffrey Kessler's lawsuit about athlete compensation, and concussion lawsuits from athletes in several sports.
When college athletes sue the NCAA, they often win the initial round of litigation, the study concluded, but the NCAA eventually wins more than 70 percent of the time on appeal.
"The first round of litigation is essentially a coin flip, but the win-probability for the student-athletes quickly plummets in subsequent rounds of appeals," said Michael LeRoy, a professor of labor and employment relations and the study's author.
The findings could also point to the future of a case the NCAA is not yet directly involved in, LeRoy said. Northwestern University is currently appealing a National Labor Relations Board regional director's ruling that football players there are university employees. The law supports Northwestern's and the NCAA's theoretical model of amateurism, LeRoy said. The NCAA filed an amicus brief last week supporting Northwestern.
"Even though schools profit off the sweat of college football players, a federal appeals court is unlikely to view this commercial reality as legal justification to alter the NCAA's amateurism model," LeRoy said.