The brief summer respite from controversies surrounding free speech on campus ended last week when the University of Chicago sent a letter to incoming students affirming its bedrock commitment to academic freedom, while decrying trigger warnings, “safe spaces” and censorship. The letter went viral, prompting impassioned responses ranging from full-throated endorsements to charges that it reeked of “arrogance, of a sense of entitlement [and] of an exclusionary mindset.”
Get ready for another contentious academic year on the free speech front. A recent Gallup poll concluded that college students support First Amendment rights “in the abstract” but “many are also comfortable shuttering free speech and impeding a free press” in order to restrict “offensive or biased speech.” Taking the measure of campus debates about free expression from this past academic year, the survey results provide additional evidence that real issues are at stake beyond the scorching, end-is-nigh headlines such as “The Death of Free Speech on College Campuses.”
Increasing skepticism about the importance of free expression is turning a significant -- and vocal -- contingent of students into cynics who regard free speech as nothing more than a weapon of the rich, the powerful and the privileged. That trend poses a threat to the development of robust critical thinking skills as well as to the health and vitality of participatory democracy.
For those students who imagine that First Amendment rights are monopolized by the “entitled,” free speech is seen as little more than a license to offend and oppress historically marginalized groups, especially people of color. If this sounds fanciful, you haven’t spent enough time reading through the editorial pages of college newspapers from the past few years. Here is a representative excerpt from a March 2016 op-ed from the Bates College newspaper: "Advocating for unlimited free speech privileges a certain group of people who already have the opportunity for their voices to be heard. It advocates for unlimited acts of violence and aggression towards marginalized people with little to no consequence. For this reason, it is hard for me not to argue for the censorship of what we say, to ensure that marginalized people have a verbal space to inhabit safely in public, as it is obvious that they do not always have safe physical spaces to inhabit in this country."
On the issue of censorship, the author has lots of company. The “Free Expression” Gallup poll reported that more than two out of three students say colleges should be allowed to “establish policies that restrict slurs and other language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups.” Setting aside epithets, more than one in four say colleges should be able to restrict speech “expressing political views that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups.”
Those numbers signal that many students are suspicious of -- or even downright reject -- the premise that the best antidote to offensive speech is always more speech, an idea that has long been a basic tenet of free expression. Among these students, the survey revealed, are men and women, whites and blacks as well as Democrats, Republicans and Independents; so let’s put to rest the charge leveled by some on the right that it’s just those “pesky” women, minorities and bleeding hearts who are calling into question First Amendment rights.
The Gallup survey also investigated the extent to which students feel comfortable articulating their opinions. Fifty-four percent of the students say the “climate on my campus prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find them offensive.” Senior administrators and faculty members bear some responsibility for this troubling state of affairs. According to a report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), more than half of colleges and universities have restrictive speech codes -- that is, “policies prohibiting student and faculty speech that would, outside the bounds of campus, be protected by the First Amendment.”
In addition, more than 100 colleges and universities (and counting) have Bias Response Teams, which are tasked with investigating and responding to complaints about so-called “bias incidents.” At Syracuse University, “name calling,” “avoiding or excluding others” and “making comments on social media about someone’s political affiliations/beliefs” are all potential instances of bias. In principle and practice, Bias Response Teams communicate to students that “no incident is too small to report.”
Regarding faculty members, under the powerful influence of the “linguistic turn,” we scholars in the humanities -- and occasionally those in the social sciences -- have been banging on for decades about the awesome power of language (or discourse, in its formal dress), outlining in exquisite detail the ways in which it may serve to coerce, subjugate and oppress. In this kind of environment where speech is oftentimes regulated and the capacity of words to inflict damage is frequently underscored, it’s no wonder that some students of all backgrounds are in favor of eliminating speech that might insult or offend.
Unless I’m gravely mistaken, the overwhelming majority of students who are afraid to share their ideas, opinions and beliefs are not closeted bigots. Even so, they are understandably reluctant to have frank conversations -- in classrooms and in proverbial late-night bull sessions -- about questions that might veer into controversial territory. Questions like: Is sexual orientation hard-wired or a personal choice? How do you tell the difference between cultural mixture and cultural appropriation? And is the Black Lives Matter movement achieving its objectives?
It was, in fact, an earnest attempt to reckon with the last question that sent Wesleyan University into a tailspin last September when a student named Bryan Stascavage wrote an op-ed in the campus newspaper challenging some of the rhetoric and tactics associated with Black Lives Matter. Judge for yourself, but the Washington Post seemed to get it right when the paper said his analysis was “no more radical than the conservative commentary you might see on mainstream op-ed pages” in national papers. Many Wesleyan students, however, were deeply offended by the piece -- in the midst of a campus uproar about the “frustration, anger, pain and fear that members of the student body felt in response to the op-ed,” stacks of the paper were stuffed into recycling bins, the student government slashed the newspaper budget in half and Stascavage was tarred a “racist.”
The calamity at Wesleyan set the tone for an academic year filled with troubling incidents of campus censorship and threats to free speech, including growing concerns about the “tension between academic freedom and Title IX enforcement,” an activist push to restrict or ban news-media coverage of student protests at several colleges and universities, and numerous attempts -- some successful, some not -- to disinvite “objectionable” speakers from coming to campus. Calls for trigger warnings about “disturbing” classroom content continued to proliferate, to the point where some students are now requesting trigger warnings -- or even alternative assignments -- for readings about the Holocaust.
The academic year came to a fitting end with the ACLU filing a lawsuit against the University of California at San Diego in May to “enforce core First Amendment rules against targeting the press.” Earlier in the year, the student government, aided and abetted by administrators, cut funding for all student media in an attempt to shut down the Koala, a raunchy and irreverent satirical paper in the tradition of the Harvard Lampoon and the Onion. The precipitating event was a column called “UCSD Unveils New Dangerous Space on Campus,” which ridiculed trigger warnings and safe spaces. In numerous complaints submitted to the UCSD Bias Response Team about the paper’s “sexist and racist comments masked under cruel humor,” students called for “an end” to the Koala or, at the very least, a system for “administrative approval of the content.”
Beyond the campus green, you cannot just shut down the presses when confronted by speech that offends you. “In a democracy,” the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin wrote in the wake of the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy, “no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended.” It’s not unreasonable to expect that a reluctance to engage with “distasteful” or "scary" ideas will render students defenseless when they step into the sometimes rough-and-tumble civic arena after they graduate. On too many campuses, widely held political positions that aren’t “progressive” -- such as being pro-life or against gun control-- are summarily dismissed as intolerable.
“Part of being an American is the obligation to listen to language that makes you uncomfortable,” criminal lawyer and staunch First Amendment champion David Baugh said in a recent interview. “If you’re going to be a citizen, if you’re going to speak freely, you have to be able to tolerate bad ideas.” For Baugh -- who is African American, the son of a Tuskegee fighter pilot -- his declarations on tolerance are not sanctimonious abstractions. Working with the ACLU in the late 1990s, Baugh volunteered to help defend Barry Elton Black, an imperial wizard in the Ku Klux Klan who had been arrested for cross burning, an outcome that Baugh considered a violation of Black’s First Amendment rights. (The Supreme Court, in its 2003 Virginia v. Black decision, agreed.)
Elaborating on how to address “bad ideas” such as racial supremacy, Baugh explained, “In a true free society, every idea has to be discussed if for no other reason than saying that’s a stupid, damn idea, we ought to throw it away.” This is a more colloquial version of the phrase from Yale University’s 1975 Woodward Report that intellectual growth and discovery require the freedom to “think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.” In an educational setting, playing devil’s advocate to consider unpopular or minority positions is an indispensable teaching tool. Beyond the classroom, tolerance for ideas we find misguided or repellent does not mean, as many students appear to believe, that we condone them. It’s possible to condemn ideas, broadcasting our misgivings to the high heavens, without censoring them.
Critical Thinking and Citizenship Rights
If colleges and universities shrink from engaging with materials students find too sensitive, controversial or offensive, the growth of their critical thinking skills will be severely stunted. We already have a tendency to misrepresent ideas that we disagree with. And that’s when we actually expose ourselves to them. Only 16 percent of college students say Americans do a good job at “seeking out and listening to differing viewpoints from their own.” A “just say no” approach to “objectionable” materials will turn us into intellectual sloths. Without the stimulation to interrogate our basic assumptions or to consider alternatives to our preferred explanations, our own ideas will devolve into pathetic caricatures. If you are in favor of affirmative action, for instance, how sophisticated can your position really be if you refuse to engage with the claims and evidence advanced by its critics?
Scholars on the left rightfully challenge our most cherished national ideals such as “freedom,” “equality” and “opportunity,” showing how they have not applied to far too many groups of people based on their race, national origin or gender. (Women, for example, have been eligible to cast votes in less than half of our presidential contests.) Since the election of Barack Obama, the idea that we live in a post-racial society has been subjected to withering criticism from left-leaning academics. Supported by a raft of empirical data, professors like legal scholar Michelle Alexander of The New Jim Crow fame cogently argue that the notion of a post-racial United States is an illusion, a self-congratulatory lie we tell ourselves in order to justify gross social and economic inequalities. As Princeton University professor of religion and African American Studies Eddie Glaude Jr. acidly observes, “We have a black man in the White House and nearly one million black men and women in the Big House.”
The left’s attention to power dynamics and structural inequalities sometimes becomes a fixation. Consider the response of the University of Minnesota’s Council of Graduate Students to a draft faculty statement on free speech released this past March. “People found [the text] offensive,” a spokesperson for the Council of Graduate Students reported. In a letter objecting to the “Four Core Principles” document, the executive committee of the Council called some of the language used “tone-deaf” and “ill-advised,” dismissing as “deplorably patronizing” the proposition that “the most effective response to offensive ideas is to rebut them with better ideas.” It also roundly rejected the principle that “free speech cannot be regulated on the ground that some speakers are thought to have more power or more access to the mediums of speech than others.” Instead, the graduate student group argued, the university should give “special consideration to otherwise marginalized speakers,” a kind of affirmative action for speech that would provide distinct forums for “those who are not well-spoken or who use English as a second language.” (Whatever you think of this idea, it would be a logistical nightmare to implement.)
It would be unpardonably naïve for free speech proponents to ignore the fact that some voices -- the rich, the powerful, the white, the male -- have been amplified, while others have been tuned out or muted. Even in the age of social media where the public square is a click away, we need to be mindful that the speech of some individuals, rightly or wrongly, has more currency in the marketplace of ideas. Nonetheless, this marketplace is teeming and vibrant, energized by a multitude of different points-of-view. As I write, the book that has been on The New York Times hardcover non-fiction list the longest is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a text that argues, “‘White America’ is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control [black] bodies.”
It would also be disingenuous for strong advocates of free expression to dismiss the charge that ringing the free speech alarm bell sometimes serve as an excuse to malign student protesters and deflect attention from pressing conversations about racism or other social problems. This “diversion” thesis is not without merit -- just take a few minutes to skim through the contemptuous stories about campus activism on websites such as The College Fix, the Daily Caller or Heat Street.
But free speech, we are obliged to acknowledge, has been at the heart of every single successful movement devoted to expanding citizenship rights and enlarging the charmed circle of “we the people,” from abolitionism and woman’s suffrage to marriage equality. So it’s especially ironic that, while some students compare unfettered free speech to lynching, today’s most energetic social movement is devoted to ending violence against black people. Emerging from a hashtag, Black Lives Matter would not be a household name or a substantial political force without First Amendment rights, including the freedom of speech, the press and assembly.
Rue the day that “free speech” starts to appear more regularly in scare quotes. If we encourage the same kind of sneering disdain for free speech that some reserve for ideas like colorblindness, meritocracy and the “American dream,” we will be in deep trouble. Our democracy will be impoverished and so too will our minds. Taking any kind of stand that undercuts free speech is like launching a vendetta on the air we breathe. If it’s successful, we will all suffocate.
Jeffrey Aaron Snyder is an assistant professor in the department of educational studies at Carleton College.
Felician University is investigating a possible hack of its housing director's email after a mass email was sent out denigrating black students, NorthJersey.com reported. The mass email upset many on the campus. Felician officials said that they suspect a hack because it was sent to some email lists to which the housing director does not have access, and because they don't believe the email is consistent with her views. The email, in part, complained about the attitudes of black students and said that parents wonder about whether the university has a drug problem.
Syracuse University has been criticized by some of its minority students for an increased emphasis on rankings and for scaling back involvement with the Posse Foundation, a highly regarded program to attract low-income students to colleges they might not otherwise select. New data from the university show that the percentage of minority students in the class enrolling this fall is 24 percent, down from 28 percent a year ago. The figure includes all minority groups, and those who identify with more than one racial and ethnic group. The university is pledging a series of steps to enroll more minority students. Among the steps:
Creating a team of four experienced recruiters focused specifically on diversity recruitment.
Charging all admissions staff members to prioritize recruiting a diverse student body.
Creating and enhancing incentive financial aid to encourage minority enrollment.
A federal judge issued an injunction Friday blocking the University of North Carolina from enforcing HB2, the law requiring state agencies to block transgender people from using bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, with regard to transgender students and employees of various campuses who have sued over the law. The judge ordered further hearings on other parts of the law and claims against it. The injunction notes that UNC and state officials have said that transgender people have -- without incident -- been using bathrooms of their choice for some time before this year's enactment of HB2.
The university system issued a statement indicating that it would follow the court order, but that nothing would change as a result. "Our attorneys are still in the process of reviewing the court’s 83-page order, and we will fully comply with its directive," the statement said. "We have long said that the university has not and will not be taking steps to enforce HB2. As President [Margaret] Spellings has emphasized all along, the university has been caught in the middle of a conflict that we did not create between state law and federal guidance. We welcome resolution of these issues by the court so that we can focus all of our efforts on our primary mission—educating students. As reflected in long-standing university policy, we do not discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, and we are fully committed to being open and welcoming to individuals of all backgrounds."
Whatever final decision the judge issues is almost certain to be appealed.
It's the season when parents drop off sons and daughters to start their college educations. In recent years, one part of that season has been sexist signs that "welcome" women to campus by making jokes dropping off the women at fraternity houses. This year seems to be no exception. A sign at an off-campus house near the University of Cincinnati has prompted complaints and demands for punishment of those who live in the house, The Cincinnati Enquirerreported. After photographs circulated on social media, the sign came down. The Student Government issued a statement saying that such signs are "misogynistic" and promote "a predatory environment."
I teach at an elite Ivy League university, where, for several years now, debates over free speech, racial justice and diversification have been explosive. Last year was, in a word, rough. Following several high profile police shootings, there were protests and hunger strikes and sit-ins nationally, and our own campus was turned upside down by two incendiary opinion pieces in the student newspaper and a disturbing, physical encounter between a visiting student and the campus police. As an institution, we struggled, worked hard, changed some things right away, and made some big claims and promises about our future.
In just a few days, our students will return to the classrooms. They will expect an engaged faculty and will want new classes addressing contemporary social and political issues. Together, we will be looking to solve problems. At times, too, they will be hoping for some kind genuflection to their humanity, their youth and the dark, merciless world in which we live. In short, they will be looking for exactly the sort of “safe space” that other faculty members at other universities -- like the dean of students at the University of Chicago -- have closed off as merely self-serving “retreats” for the weak-kneed.
I hope that at the end of the day, Chicago’s cold, Darwinian approach will be an outlier nationally -- and that students almost everywhere will be received this academic year more graciously, more thoughtfully and more constructively than those who imagine such things. Because, in the end, we will all need each other to do the work that must be done. And that work is not some sort of Thunderdome, in which two ideas do battle until one survives. This is a crucial moment for higher education, and the brisk response from Chicago reveals the stakes clearly. We -- faculty members, students, administrators and our publics -- are actually on the verge of making significantly more comprehensive adjustments to the mission of higher education than were made previously. We should embrace those more dynamic, more revolutionary changes and drive them home.
One of the big, challenging reforms is the notion of a “safe space” for our students, a concept that is both old and new and nearly impossible to define. It can mean a single room on a campus, the floor of a building or an entire center or department. It can refer to the presence of trained counselors, the support of friends and allies, or the absence of hurtful material. Our students deserve such spaces on a campus because the absence of such spaces is counter to the very mission of higher education.
In surveying the groundwork, however, not everyone thinks higher education is on the right track, especially when attention turns to race. The dean at the University of Chicago is not alone. Critics dismiss protesting students as spoiled, “self-infantilizing,” pampered brats, and they imagine that, by responding to their complaints and taking them seriously, universities are abrogating their mission to foster an unregulated exchange of ideas. A vocal handful of faculty members worry that their free speech -- or, on a lower frequency, their academic freedom -- is under siege. Videos of student’s screaming at white faculty members and administrators circulate on right-wing blogs and websites as proof. Some donors, as TheNew York Times reports, complain that universities are now spending too much money on diversity, leading to a noticeable downward turn in giving this past year.
In this context, “safe space” is too easily parodied – as the Onion did, with its headline from July of 2015, “Parents Dedicate Safe Space on Campus in Honor of Daughter Who Felt Weird in Class Once.” Too easily parodied -- and too easily undone, as well, as the recent decision by Michigan State University to open a “women’s only” space to men reveals. The solution to our student’s weakness, so many critics all too often suggest, is bold, direct, repeated engagement with ideas that civil society has already deemed noxious, hateful and politically dangerous.
Setting aside the parodies and the critiques, there is a sound reason to support a broader, more comprehensive notion of safety, something that might be pushed to the very boundaries of our campuses: the world is sometimes breathtakingly, violently, terrifyingly precarious for precisely the sorts of students whom we are now actively recruiting.
Colleges and universities are, pop culture tells us repeatedly, supposed to be walled off. No wonder, then, that students see higher education institutions as both a staging ground for their protests and as a possible idyll. No wonder, too, that they keenly sense the distance between what was promised in glossy brochures -- a removed experience, a free space for serious conversation -- and what was delivered in the strange environs of a new town or city far from home -- more of the same social and political pressures, more of the same violence, whether discursive or physical. Indeed, what they read in the words of those who champion “free speech” -- which almost always seems to mean the freedom to speak of things consistently defined as backward or troubling -- is that many would like a very different “safe space,” in which one can say racist or sexist things without consequence.
The insistent request for administrators and faculty members to “do something”-- to rename a building, to remove a mural, to replace a mascot, to disarm the campus police, to disinvite a speaker -- is a plea to create the conditions where this promised distance was once again possible, to clear cut a firebreak between the dystopian “real world” and the contemplative, even monkish world of study. But it is also to acknowledge a real world in which these icons have led violent charges, to recognize a physical world in which there are disenfranchised people of color for whom these things are reminders of real pain. To paraphrase one university president, students need safe spaces in order to acquire the dangerous knowledge they need.
The safety we want -- that campus-wide, reflective, self-aware distance from the grit of the everyday -- is going to be hard to manufacture. As anyone with a smartphone knows, new digital technologies and a proliferation of social media outlets have allowed the enduring, everyday violence of racism to be broadcast, to be felt by so many all at once, in ways that are powerful. Those same technologies have also fostered new social connections, creating the movements and communities that mount these critiques. Social media lets us see absence, too.
The development, in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement, of antiseptic, color-blind institutional racism means, as well, that while we see racism online -- and in person -- we see far less justice than we once did. Vigilante shooters go unpunished. Mass incarceration is further entrenched. Military technologies, distributed to the police, get ever more sophisticated and punitive. In mounting their protests, students are driven by a sober-minded concern about the conditions of everyday life because they have been living in the midst of everything, touched personally or emotionally by violence or poverty or loss or disenfranchisement. These days, it seems, one simply cannot escape the blaring headlines and vivid color photos that program algorithms put in your feed.
Maybe the extraordinary penetration of digital media into our campuses requires us to work harder at being more mindful in other ways, in other forms of engagement. Maybe it puts more of a burden on us to be kind, to be gentle, to be supportive. Maybe it should force us to understand, more broadly, the lived experiences of our students before they arrive. Maybe, finally, it should mean that when we, as members of a community, invoke our right to “free speech,” we don’t do so in defense of obnoxious, cruel and broken-down ideas. At the very least, we should proactively work to create such spaces before things go awry.
“Safe space” seems like a pretty rarified concept, of course. And, to some, it reads as an expression of privilege. I admit that absolute safety is an impossible construct, because learning requires risk. But not all risks are equal, and there is a difference between a campus shuttle to get around a city and a campus commitment to the broadest possible notion of safety. My colleagues and friends teaching in Texas are strategizing, right this second, about how to teach with a gun in the classroom or how to discuss a “grade” with a student who might be packing. Mothers and fathers sending their daughters off to college are rightly concerned about rape and sexual violence. Parents of color are worried that their children might get profiled, arrested, roughed up or much, much worse. I am concerned, as a faculty member, as a parent, and as a human being about teaching a class on race and racism knowing that every single student in the room has seen Eric Garner, Alton Sterling and too many others die in vivid Technicolor. Concerned, too, that at any moment a news alert might pop up on our phones about the next disaster.
Faculty members and administrators thus have a calling to act. Without delay. To remove that racist mural and relocate it to a museum. To rename that building and historicize the old name. (If you have to raise the money to do it, there are examples where that has worked). To practice discernment in scheduling talks or speakers, so that we don’t bring that bigot, thug or provocateur to the campus just to win a news cycle or to get your think tank in the paper. To prioritize ideas and visitors who are actively, constructively engaged in solving (and not making) social problems. To recommit to the historic, ancient role of the university as a site of knowledge production and to do what must be done to build, in the age of social media, a campus that feels removed and distant, yet also grounded and aware.
It is not our job to make intellectual noise -- a raucous debate, a clashing set of ideas, a hurtful back-and-forth -- just because we can. It is our job, as stewards of the very idea of the university, to think hard, at some distance, about big problems and to provide material solutions. After all, every unread essay or delayed book has consequences, every missing word defers a social change, and every abbreviated paper or poorly-written research project stalls those solutions. The crucial thing is to get ahead of the curve: to read the campus as it presently exists, to think in explicitly utopian terms about what it might look like, and to move towards this new ideal well in advance of some dramatic event or hurtful misdeed.
Matthew Pratt Guterl is chair of American studies and professor of Africana studies, American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University.
The University of Vermont has called off a scheduled December game by its women's basketball team against that of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, citing North Carolina's law requiring public institutions to bar transgender people from using bathrooms that reflect their gender identity, The Burlington Free Press reported. A statement from the University of Vermont said, "We strive very hard to create an inclusive climate for our students and staff in which they all can feel safe, respected and valued. It would be hard to fulfill these obligations while competing in a state with this law, which is contrary to our values as an athletic department and university."
I’ve been asked for years why I start many of my higher education talks with equity. Today, the word is trending, even among those who advised me against using it. While that is progress, we have to be careful not to confuse talk with change.
Historically, we in higher education have been really good at producing reports on inequality and explaining these inequalities away, but really bad at making equity a priority. And we haven’t made changes in the classroom that are necessary to really make a difference.
The fact that unequal outcomes are such an enduring characteristic of higher education -- especially for Latino, black, Native American and underserved Asian-American students -- is evidence of our poor record of both talking about andproducing equity.
In California, for example, we tend to view numbers that show fewer black and Latino students admitted to public flagship universities like the University of California campuses in Los Angeles and Berkeley, and fewer blacks and Latinos earning a degree, as unfortunate but inevitable. Between 2007 and 2015, the higher education attainment gap between whites and Latinos actually grew by 2.2 percentage points, from a 22.1 percentage point gap to a 24.3 percentage point gap. The gap for blacks grew by 0.3 percentage points.
Closing that gap is not going to be easy. Most of these students are poor and the first in their families to attend college. They were deprived of opportunities to be ready for college. But when they don’t do well, they are blamed for being underprepared, for not seeking help and for not taking advantage of faculty office hours. Despite having been failed by segregated and underresourced schools, such students are seen as the authors of their unequal outcomes.
Some states seem to get the scope of the challenge and are beginning to show the nation how to move from talking about equity to making it a priority. For instance, California’s last three state budgets have included significant financial support for community colleges to help diminish the equity gaps in student success. Those funds are part of a plan to close equity gaps in five indicators of student success: access, basic skills, course completion, degree attainment and transfer. The budget for this equity work has increased from $70 million in 2014-15 to $155 million this year -- and the same funding level has been proposed for 2016-17. Community colleges are using these funds in a variety of ways that increase support to students of color. For example, East Los Angeles Community College is using a portion of the money to create the Latina Completion and Transfer Academy Program. San Diego Mesa College is sponsoring professional development for all faculty members on training and teaching college men of color.
Colorado’s higher education master plan offers another example. Goal No. 3 of the plan is “Enhance access to, and through, postsecondary education to ensure that the system reflects the changing demographics of the state while reducing attainment gaps among students from underserved communities.”
But here’s the truth: just as plants in an untended garden will fail to take root and then wither and die, so, too, will these policies.
I don’t say this to be cynical. Nor do I think higher education leaders and practitioners are willfully ineffective or don’t want to do the right thing. But these polices will fail unless we engage faculty members and administrators in changing themselves and their own institutions. They must ask why their practices or teaching methods work better for white students than for students of color.
To me, this is the untold story of “first-generation equity practitioners” teaching in higher education. For example, I view the 62 percent of California community college faculty who are white as first-generation equity practitioners who need to learn how to be equity minded. Nationally, 79 percent of full-time faculty members are white, while 6 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are Asian/Pacific Islanders.
Higher education faculty members everywhere must recognize and concede that their practices are failing to create success for too many students. They need to see that their implicit biases about race and ethnicity often prevent them from viewing students who are not like themselves as college material.
And it can be done. With the right training and support, faculty members engaged in this work take actions to identify and reverse patterns of failure -- their students’ and their own. We are seeing progress firsthand in our own work, which focuses on remediating colleges so they are able to educate Latinos and blacks as well as they educate white and more economically privileged students.
James Gray, the chair of the math department at the Community College of Aurora in Colorado, for instance, changed practices after looking at math data by course and instructor, disaggregated by race and ethnicity. It was clear that some faculty members were successful and others were not. With guided support to help him observe instructor-student interaction, he saw how faculty members talked to and greeted students, whom they paid attention to and whom they ignored, and whether feedback to students was supportive or alienating.
Through peer-to-peer conversations, math instructors became collectively conscious that their behaviors, particularly toward students of color, conveyed indifference, lack of caring and even fear. On seeing the contradictions between their behaviors and their professional values as educators, all but one faculty member made changes to be more responsive to students of color. Instead of being color-blind they became more color conscious; rather than waiting for students of color to seek help they developed help-giving practices.
Those small changes helped faculty members forge validating relationships with students of color. For example, using our Equity Scorecard’s Syllabus Review protocol, faculty members became aware that their syllabi, rather than supporting students’ success, taxed their self-worth by screaming rules and telling them all the ways in which they could fail the class. The review of syllabi was a catalyst for deeper discussions about teaching and reflection on how instructors’ language and everyday behaviors influence classroom racial climates.
Gray, in his role as department chair, now looks at mathematics course-level data, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and by instructor, discussing results with faculty individually to come up with strategies to resolve disparities of up to 35 percentage points. Instructors have adopted equity goals and they know how many more students by race and ethnicity need to succeed to close the gaps. After the implementation of the Equity Scorecard that we at the Center for Urban Education use to track progress, the college algebra pass rates for blacks improved from 66 percent in 2014 to 77 percent in 2015 and from 66 percent to 83 percent among Hispanics.
He also realized that in 10 years as department chair, he had never hired an African-American to teach a college-level math course. He even realized his recruiting strategies put candidates of color at a disadvantage. He now asks job candidates how they would explain their course syllabus on day one of class in order to see if that candidate’s approach is conducive to an equity-focused classroom.
The Community College of Aurora is part of a growing effort to translate high-level policy goals into campus- and faculty-level goals that can be implemented and measured by race and ethnicity to improve retention and graduation results. The improvements achieved at Aurora suggest that structural changes such as course redesign or acceleration are necessary but insufficient. The success of such efforts depends greatly on the motivation of faculty to take action. The Aurora story makes clear that math faculty who engage in a structured race-conscious examination of data that is close to their instructional practices can develop agency for change.
The combination of underprepared students and underprepared faculty members is the perfect storm. When campuses change the way they serve students of color, however, a fundamental shift in thinking and approach occurs that moves us beyond talk and closer to real equity.
Estela Mara Bensimon is a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California Rossier School Of Education. Her Twitter handle is @ebensimon.
An alarm is sounding: campuses have become asylums controlled by the inmates, professors are afraid of their students and everyone faces punishment for crimes of thought and speech. Yet other observers rebut such terrifying tales with their own stories, which suggest the landscape of higher education is multifaceted, with an array of institutional contexts and voices. As alluring as it can be to view campus protests merely as confrontations between hypersensitive students and fearful campus employees, that perspective elides crucial historical understandings that can help us to navigate these challenges in the months ahead and forge alliances in the work of justice in higher education.
Yet those examples represent just a fraction of American campuses and thus present a selective -- and perhaps intentionally exaggerated -- picture of what is in actuality a diverse landscape of institutions, people and concerns. Students at San Jose State, for example, recently organized in response to a racial harassment incident involving student roommates and racist remarks about Latinas made by a university philanthropy board member. However, those incidents garnered little attention compared to the ones we cited above.
The protesters at SJSU, like the campus’s larger student population, included a high percentage of commuters, transferees, first-generation college students, members of the working class and immigrants. Many work to pay for school and living expenses, and a startling number struggle with unstable housing and food insecurity. In addition, SJSU students routinely face delaying graduation due to rising fees and limited course offerings -- both outcomes of severe state funding cuts. Thus, far from being coddled youngsters who expect the world to bend to their feelings, these students juggle course work, extracurricular activities, employment and family responsibilities, and yet find the wherewithal to speak up against the injustices around them.
At Oberlin, where the snowflake archetype may resonate more deeply, it still benefits no one to paint an entire student body with so broad a brush or apply such dehumanizing stereotypes to individuals. Students here embody varying levels of wealth and privilege. And while for some acquiring an elite education is a means to maintain a socioeconomic position, for others, arriving on the campus is a disorienting introduction to social and economic mores and ways of interacting with others that they are totally unfamiliar with and did not necessarily seek out. Castigating “fragile snowflakes” may offer psychic relief in stressful times, but it gives outsize visibility to certain students and styles of engagement while rendering myriad others invisible.
By and large, the students we encounter at our respective institutions are resilient and hardworking; as young adults, they can also be self-doubting and anxious. The special snowflake archetype not only flattens the ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity of the college student population but also dismisses and silences students’ legitimate concerns, while shifting any blame onto them (albeit sometimes their parents). It is easier to bemoan the shortcomings of a generation of students than it is to critically examine systemic inequities and blind spots in higher education that might be producing the problems those students highlight.
A Disconnection From History
Although higher education’s present challenges seem unprecedented and intractable, it helps to situate them historically. One thread in the “what’s wrong with colleges today” conversation brings attention to the sources deemed responsible for indoctrinating activist students. These include feminist and minority professors, who wield strange concepts like intersectionality and microaggressions and whose presence stirs nostalgia for an ivory tower that was once objective and unburdened by identity politics.
As tenured minority women faculty members in ethnic studies, who are also first-generation college graduates, we are struck by such notions’ disconnection from history. Our paths were paved by developments including affirmative action, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, Pell Grants, the feminist and civil rights movements, and the San Francisco student strike of 1968 -- turning points that expanded the boundaries of belonging and legitimacy in America writ large and the academy writ small. In the latter, the assumed supremacy of Western thought and white male authority also came under intensified contestation, with (we believe) salutary effects. In ethnic studies, for instance, scholars examined “America” through previously unconsidered or explicitly excluded voices, while applying frameworks like racism and empire next to or in place of American exceptionalism. In turn, new opportunities and niches permitted a wider scope of participation in higher education and the life of the mind.
Seeing continuities between past and present, we note that student demands still invoke principles like inclusion and diversity. Their concerns go beyond race and gender, however, and encompass many more identity groups -- all in constant flux. As our understandings of how power works evolve, so do our expectations for reform.
It is not enough, for instance, to simply enroll more students from underrepresented groups. Calls are made to also adopt anti-oppression practices that touch every facet of interaction and axis of inequality. Some of those practices (say, using the nongender binary “Latinx” or introducing oneself with “preferred gender pronouns”) might seem silly in their novelty, impracticability or sense of proportion. But we should also recall some of the outlandish demands of earlier generations: radicalized youths in the 1960s rejecting “Oriental” for “Asian-American” or feminists fighting patriarchy with terms like “herstory.”
Not all of those gestures stuck, and we ought to debate efficacious and collaborative versus misguided and alienating strategies for effecting broad change. But this Pandora’s box was opened long before the current generation of college students. It behooves us then to seek them out in their discontent -- even when wrapped in petulance and youthful arrogance -- if it springs from a yearning for inclusion, dignity and fairness.
Mindful of a generational divide separating us from our students, their protests and expressions of alienation resonate with us. We were once in their shoes, seeking “safe spaces”-- to use today’s parlance -- in academe, uncertain but hopeful that we might eventually find them. Now as tenured faculty, we find ourselves navigating a crossroads, or duality of identity, with embattled colleagues and administrators on the one hand, and concerned students of color on the other.
Indeed, another important although largely overlooked discussion in higher education concerns faculty of color -- women of color, in particular -- shouldering a disproportionate share of emotional labor only to encounter an “ivory ceiling” that demoralizes the spirit and impedes advancement. It can be discouraging when our efforts to bring greater diversity and equity to the academy go unrecognized or are even deemed antagonistic. How we navigate our jobs as professors is guided by our histories, our professional responsibilities and ethics, and an abiding belief in the power of education. Usually that makes for a rewarding and exhilarating mix, and our present challenges call for more, not less, engagement. To opt for the latter will only leave us further adrift.
Wringing our hands over college students’ behavior and the state of higher education might appear unseemly against the backdrop of national tragedies: the nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the Dallas sniper attack. While the ivory tower seems removed from the real world, we see as our mission in it the production and dissemination of ideas to better understand and address the problems of our world today. In our work and teaching, issues of bigotry, inequality, injustice and racism are especially salient. Seen this way, campus tensions and the conversations about them are not a sideshow, but part of the broader social and political landscape and, indeed, efforts to create a better world.
As we prepare to resume classes, we hope that all campus players -- students, faculty, staff members, administrators -- proceed with care and purpose about when to debate versus when to go to war, how to recognize allies, and the various ways that working for justice can manifest. We hope that more voices are considered and invited to the table.
And to our students, we have been long at work on many of the things you seek. Let’s find ways to work together.
Magdalena L. Barrera is an associate professor of Mexican American studies at San Jose State University. Shelley S. Lee is an associate professor of comparative American studies and history at Oberlin College.