The White House on Sunday announced the death of George Cooper, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In his career, Cooper was on the faculty of several historically black colleges, and was president of one, South Carolina State University. He was named to the post in 2013, amid concerns that the White House had moved too slowly to fill the position after John Silvanus Wilson Jr. departed to become president of Morehouse College. "George’s passing is a great loss for my administration, the HBCU and higher education communities, and for everyone that knew him," said the statement from President Obama.
Clemson University's board on Friday issued its second statement this year on Benjamin Tillman (right), a racist 19th-century politician for whom a prominent campus building is named. Students and faculty members have been pushing for years to change the name of Tillman Hall. In February, the board rejected the idea, saying, "Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen. Stone by stone they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones. And so it is with Clemson. Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so."
Friday's statement -- in the form of a board resolution -- did not make any promises about the building name. But it used much stronger language to describe Tillman. "Benjamin Tillman played a key role in the founding and early success of Clemson," the resolution said. "Benjamin Tillman was also known to be by his own admission an ardent racist and led a campaign of terror against African-Americans in South Carolina that included intimidation and violence of which he boasted about publicly; and for some members of our university family Benjamin Tillman’s legacy included not only contributions to Clemson University but also oppression, terror and hate."
The board also announced that it would create a task force "charged with creating a comprehensive plan to include, but not limited to, any recommendations regarding curating our historic buildings and memorials, developing better ways to acknowledge and teach the history of Clemson University, and exploring appropriate recognition of historical figures."
Media pundits agree: college students are politically correct, infantile whiners who can’t tolerate discomfort regarding their values or sense of identity. Versions of this narrative have become common in recent months as student activism has increased around issues of sexual assault, race-based discrimination and hate speech.
Descriptions of exaggerated behavior are trendy: Judith Shulevitz’s article for The New York Times in which she expresses concern about student hypersensitivity has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times since it was published in March. One anecdote from Shulevitz’s article, describing students’ creation of a “safe space” for sexual assault survivors that featured a video of puppies, has been recycled by thousands of other media outlets.
At Princeton University, we saw an uptick in student activism during the past academic year, including demonstrations and social media campaigns. I’ll admit that, like every college administrator, I’ve encountered a few student activists who are strident or immature. Some students reflexively oppose everything proposed by “the establishment,” and some don’t understand the concept of freedom of expression. These activists undermine their own causes by making themselves ripe for caricature.
But we should resist this dismissive depiction of college students, which uses the most egregious examples to mischaracterize the full range of activism. It’s seductive to buy in to this distortion because it allows colleges and universities, as well as the general public, to play down the causes for concern.
We can’t allow trivializing stories about the beliefs and behavior of a few students to distract us from the responsibility to prevent unfair and discriminatory experiences for those with minority identities.
Explicitly bigoted events still happen with painful regularity on campuses. This year, Bucknell University expelled three students for racist comments made on a radio program, and the Westchester County district attorney’s office is investigating images of swastikas and nooses spray painted in dormitories at the State University of New York’s Purchase campus. The University of Oklahoma closed a fraternity chapter after video footage surfaced of a racist chant by the chapter’s members.
When incidents are so extreme, colleges and universities typically respond with reprobation and swift disciplinary action. But many of the barriers to an inclusive campus climate are more nuanced and difficult to address. When students challenge their institutions about these issues, they are expressing real concerns about real experiences.
When Harvard undergraduates launched the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign in 2014, they used self-portraits to express the subtle ways in which they were made to feel isolated or stereotyped. “You don’t sound black … you sound smart,” one student recalled being told. The campaign has since spread to more than thirty universities on four continents.
Two new studies confirm that these interactions -- ranging from the small slights often labeled “microaggressions” to outright harassment -- are common and have lasting effects. One study (Caplan and Ford, 2014) describes the ways in which racism and sexism on four campuses undermined students’ academic performance and ability to take advantage of extracurricular offerings. A second project that surveyed students of color at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Harwood, Choi, Orozco, Huntt and Mendenhall, 2015) found similar outcomes.
On another front, student activists have pushed college administrators to respond more aggressively to sexual harassment and violence on campuses. Cases like the recent rape trial at Vanderbilt University get the most attention, but evidence continues to accumulate that the risks in general, particularly for young women, are inexcusably high.
In June, both a University of Michigan internal survey and a broad-based Washington Post poll reported that one in five women say that they were sexually assaulted in college.
These negative personal encounters are being exacerbated by anonymous social media platforms like Yik Yak. These apps, which work within a restricted radius close to campus, have become a well-documented vehicle for anonymous abuse, including racist, homophobic and sexist statements as well as threats of mass violence.
Examples like these remind us that issues of campus climate and safety are not just the fantasies of thin-skinned students. On the contrary, coping with these experiences requires resilience.
I won’t claim that students on my campus always knew how to organize effectively, or that their indignation was always well expressed. Contrary to the media portrayals, however, they were consistently constructive. Stimulated by the episodes of police brutality nationally, our students worked with faculty members and administrators to apply the problem-solving skills they were learning in the classroom and make recommendations to enhance the campus climate locally. Both the undergraduate and graduate student governments sponsored forums and referenda that provided useful feedback.
Let’s not allow cherry-picked examples and silly stereotypes to distract us from the responsibility of colleges and universities to guarantee equitable experiences. Nor should we underestimate the meaningful role that student activists can play.
This year is the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, when students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University decided that they would no longer tolerate segregated lunch counters. As the sit-ins spread to multiple cities, anxious college leaders disavowed the protests and tried to persuade the students to halt.
We can be grateful that the Greensboro students ignored their elders. Our students will ignore us, too, if we waste the opportunity to work with them to create the fair, inclusive environment that they deserve.
Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.
Student and faculty leaders at Ohio University are calling for Steven Schoonover, one of the institution's major donors, to leave the foundation board because of an email message that recently surfaced, The Columbus Dispatch reported. In the email, Schoonover said that officials should “play the race card” against critics of a controversial plan to buy a new mansion for the president. (The current president is African-American.) “So if you are worried about the petition by the faculty just play the race card and call them racists and make them defend themselves!” he wrote.
Joe McLaughlin, former chair of the Faculty Senate and associate professor of English, said, “It’s something that has no place in an academic community or any kind of community. This guy should have absolutely nothing to do with anything at Ohio University.”
Last month, the journal Science received heavy criticism over an advice piece widely called sexist for encouraging a female scientist not to take seriously an adviser's pattern of looking at her chest, not her face, when they talked. The journal ended up pulling the column.
Now Science is being criticized for running another piece that some find sexist. This piece is mostly about getting noticed to advance one's career, and the importance of hard work. The portion of the piece drawing criticism says: "I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife -- also a Ph.D. scientist -- worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities."
Editors at the careers section of Science did not respond to email requests for comment. The author of the piece, Eleftherios P. Diamandis, head of clinical biochemistry at a hospital of the University of Toronto, said via email that he had seen the criticisms. "It is a free world; all opinions respected," he wrote. He added, "If I stayed home, would my wife be sexist?"
Twelve Native American women who are scholars of Native American studies have issued an open letter on Andrea Smith, a professor at the University of California at Riverside who is widely viewed as having falsely claimed for years to be Cherokee. (She is not current responding to questions about the matter). The letter, published in Indian Country Today, says that the discussions about Smith have caused a range of reactions, and that many worry about damage the field.
"Our concerns are about the profound need for transparency and responsibility in light of the traumatic histories of colonization, slavery and genocide that shape the present," says the letter. "Andrea Smith has a decades-long history of self-contradictory stories of identity and affiliation testified to by numerous scholars and activists, including her admission to four separate parties that she has no claim to Cherokee ancestry at all. She purportedly promised to no longer identify as Cherokee, and yet in her subsequent appearances and publications she continues to assert herself as a nonspecific 'Native woman' or a 'woman of color' scholar to antiracist activist communities in ways that we believe have destructive intellectual and political consequences. Presenting herself as generically indigenous, and allowing others to represent her as Cherokee, Andrea Smith allows herself to stand in as the representative of collectivities to which she has demonstrated no accountability, and undermines the integrity and vibrancy of Cherokee cultural and political survival."
Faculty leaders at Clemson University have renewed a push to rename a campus building that honors Benjamin Tillman (right), a notoriously racist politician in South Carolina who was known for promoting and joining in violence against black people. Faculty members and students have been pushing for a change for some time, but the board has rejected the idea. Now, in the wake of the Charleston murders, nine past presidents of the Faculty Senate have issued an open letter calling for the board to reconsider.
"While renaming Tillman Hall will, in isolation, fail to secure a sustainable and more inclusive future for the university, it is far more than symbolic. It is an affirmation that honoring those whose station and legacy were achieved in significant measure via the vilest actions of intolerance has no place at Clemson University now or in the future -- even as the history, university-related role and scholarly study of those same individuals must have an indelible role in our educational mission. It is an affirmation that community matters; that ignorance can be replaced with enlightenment; that the administration and our board have a special responsibility as stewards of our institutional culture; and that we can hold, recognize, adapt to and share changing values."
David Wilkins, chair of the Clemson board, told The Greenville News last week that the board has no plans to rename the building.
Baylor University has dropped a reference to "homosexual acts" from a list in its sexual misconduct policy of barred activities, The Waco Tribune reported. The shift does not mean that gay people have acceptance at Baylor. Lori Fogelman, a spokeswoman, said that the university would continue to apply the policy in a way consistent with Baptist beliefs that define acceptable "sexual expression" as being between a married man and woman. Fogelman told the Tribune that "these changes were made because we didn’t believe the language reflected the university’s caring community."
Although I’ve lived and worked in the South for almost 20 years, I was not born a Southerner. I grew up in Delaware. While I learned about the Civil War in history class, I didn’t realize how powerfully symbolic the Confederacy is to many in the South. It wasn’t until I became dean of students at Georgia Institute of Technology and was on a retreat with a group of students and faculty members one night in the north Georgia mountains that it hit home. On our first evening in the woods, adjacent to our retreat site, men and women were staging a Civil War re-enactment. I saw Confederate soldiers and antebellum ladies moving earnestly about the area, taking great pains to faithfully recreate the carnage and romanticism of that time.
I was surprised and intrigued, as were many on the retreat, and we discussed how seeing such a spectacle made us all feel. In the spirit of candor and trust -- two traits that I hoped to sustain in our student leaders -- I admitted my discomfort with some aspects of the Southern culture, especially the glorifying of antebellum and Confederate culture and all of its attendant emotions. For me, this re-enactment epitomized one of the most horrific periods in U.S. history and also reinforced some of my own negative perceptions of the South. It was a risky admission for a new dean at a university in Atlanta. But my camping companions appreciated the candor and my opening volley in the discussion set the framework for ongoing dialogue, on a wide range of challenging issues, throughout my tenure at Tech. I was relieved and enlivened by the experience. It was an important lesson in leadership and trust and it served as a guidepost for me for years to come.
More than a decade later, I continued my southern sojourn to become vice president of student affairs at Clemson University. My experience there was appreciably different and it taught me that each university, each town, each state and each region has its own identity. I knew before I arrived that the Confederate flag flew on the grounds of the State House in Columbia. While I loathed the display, I thought I could -- in my own small way -- use this symbolism as a teaching opportunity and engage students and the Clemson community in open dialogue on topics like region, race and collegiality.
I did not come to Clemson to change the world. But as I do with every professional challenge, I came to change it a bit for the better by educating the future leaders of our world. After all, isn’t that why we’re all here? Isn’t that our ultimate purpose in life, to leave this place a just a bit better than before we arrived?
Early in my role at Clemson, I experienced something sadly unexpected -- students made up in blackface for an off-campus party and the inevitable pictures that emerged on Facebook -- the social mirror of world culture. I was appalled and discouraged. But I had a job to do and a mission to accomplish. Working with student leaders, faculty and staff members, I helped initiate a dialogue on race and encouraged students to stretch themselves by having these discussions across racial lines.
It was not an easy task for any of us. Some expressed hurt feelings, others sheepishly acknowledged their own cultural ignorance. But ultimately, we came to a place of understanding and forgiveness. I was deeply proud of what they experienced and achieved.
Yet that pride diminished over time. I learned that the important conversations of race, privilege, gender neutrality and social justice were not to occur in an open forum. While some small conversations were promoted during new student orientation and a new chief diversity officer was hired, the courage of those students who addressed the blackface issue had passed and complacency re-emerged. It is easy to say that no overt demonstrations of unrest equal happy students and a supportive climate for everyone. But we know better in our hearts, if not in our university’s brand.
In short, while some colleges and universities take bold steps to air those issues and engage students in addressing them, many others prefer to avoid the painful discussions that accompany them. Unfortunately, unless diverse perspectives are openly expressed, a truly inclusive learning environment cannot exist.
Which brings us back to the Confederate flag, an emotional touch point in the South. On one side are people like my own staff members at Clemson who asked me to move the location of our annual retreat because it would have required them to drive through an area heavily laden with Confederate flags. I did so. But theirs were not the loudest voices on campus and I found few who lent a sympathetic ear to my concerns about the symbolic importance of flying a flag of slavery and secession over the very heart of our state government in Columbia. The conversation that I had hoped to promote was simply not happening. It was as if the only real change that many wanted to see would be for me to change my perspective.
I felt hopeless … until now.
Tragedy rarely produces hope, and it gives me great anguish to think that the terror inflicted on those poor souls that horrible Wednesday evening at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is what gave me, and many others, the freedom to speak openly about race, class, heritage and commonality.
Some argue with understandable logic that now is not the time. We should remain quiet and allow the families of the slaughtered nine to bury their loved ones and grieve for their deeply personal losses. But in my mind, it would be unconscionable to not have this discussion now, out of deference and honor to those who lost their lives, as they shared their faith and their love with the coward who killed them.
I am an outsider to South Carolina and have felt the disapproval of many who feel that my ideas and perspective are not appropriate here. But to me, and many in education, that disapproval flies in the face of reason, learning, knowledge and mutual respect. I also believe that it does not dignify the memory of these nine martyrs. Now is the time for all us in South Carolina -- and around the world -- to model the love of those men and women, and be open to a change.
The floodgates have opened and people at the highest levels from across the political spectrum are acknowledging the divisive pain of this symbol and demanding that it be relegated to the museums of history and not glorified by the discussions of the present. I join with my academic colleagues here in calling for its removal.
We are not alone in urging change. At the same time I was moving to Georgia, former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat had the courage to ban Confederate flags and related Confederate symbols from Ole Miss football games. He received death threats and opprobrium from the powerful and the powerless. But he persisted, and two decades later, the University of Mississippi is a different, more inclusive academic institution as a result of his leadership.
I also hope that our actions go beyond flagpoles and license plates to the real dialogue and hard work necessary to abridge our racial gap. None of us are blameless. But now is a unique time for South Carolina to state unequivocally that all our lives and all our voices matter and South Carolina is an integral part of the United States of America. It is your land; it is our land.
I applaud and encourage Governor Nikki Haley to not only continue her leadership on the flag but to begin taking the next steps. I urge her to appoint a task force to conduct a comprehensive audit of the state to identify other areas in which South Carolina can become more progressive, especially with regards to race, privilege, educational access and economic opportunity. That task force should include people from higher education and from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. The goal is not to sanitize our history, but to understand it, learn from it and build upon it.
Actions such as these will further our collective desire to make this world a little bit better because of what we did when we could. It’s a teaching moment. The Charleston nine sacrificed their lives in the name of love. The Charleston nine died because of hate that has gone unchallenged for too long. It’s the least we can do to take small, incremental steps to help improve the quality of all our lives.
Gail DiSabatino is a higher education consultant and a presidential fellow at Black Hills State University.