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.
Racism exists in American society. This fact may be an inconvenient truth for some, but for millions of Americans it is an ever-present, inescapable aspect of their reality. And while racism -- or its persistent threat -- characterizes the lived experiences of so many, there are still those who will dismiss civil discourse on the topic of race until tragedy strikes, thrusting these societal ills into the spotlight.
And once again that has happened -- this time in my beloved hometown, Charleston, S.C. The news coming out of Charleston has left me crestfallen. As I watch this chapter in America’s racial history unfold, I am saddened beyond comprehension. Saddened by the loss of lives -- people and families whose lives are intertwined with my own. Saddened by the cruelty that was unleashed on the innocent. And saddened by the pockets of our society unable to see the existence of racism until a hate crime surfaces.
As president of an organization committed to increasing college access and success, reflecting on racism in the broader society has made me acutely aware of the manifestations of racism on college and university campuses. While racial diversity in higher education has improved, instances of overt racism still exist and hurt students of color directly but also affect everyone on campus, white students included.
Two of the individuals killed in the Charleston shooting were members of the higher education community. DePayne Middleton Doctor was an admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University, and Cynthia Hurd was a librarian at the College of Charleston, my alma mater. Because of this racist act, a cloud of sadness and grief now hangs over both of these institutions. Other overt acts, such as the incidents at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Mississippi, also elicit a collective disdain that transcends the color line. Yet, despite general disapproval of such acts, rarely do they propel sustained collective action to address race and racism.
In addition to these overt acts, insults and ignorance leave many minority students feeling unwelcome on their own campuses. For example, Asian-American and Pacific Islander students, viewed as a monolithic group, constantly must confront the model minority myth. Also, all across the nation, campus buildings and symbols, such as Amherst College’s mascot, honor individuals whose historical legacy is disconnected from the current campus’s mission and student body. And far too few colleges are providing education and training on how to be an inclusive campus.
However, the more systemic instances of racism that permeate higher education are rarely acknowledged. Our failure, for example, to really talk about race manifests in a growing trend among higher education professionals and advocates, like myself, to use the more mainstream term of “equity.” While race is often implicit in these conversations, “equity” is quickly becoming a catchall phrase that could easily, once again, marginalize the issue of race.
Equity does prompt attention to a range of marginalized populations based on markers such as socioeconomic status, gender, etc. -- important lenses for addressing discrimination -- but discrete attention to race is often lost in the process. I also recognize that the term equity is more palatable; after all, initiating a conversation by talking about race is often a nonstarter. But just because we are uncomfortable with the word, or more specifically, uncomfortable with our country’s racial past and its lingering effects, does not mean that the blemish is not there. To the contrary, our discomfort allows these wounds to deepen.
In higher education, when we do talk about race, we highlight growing college enrollments fueled by communities of color, which now represent 42 percent of the student body. But too often we fail to ask the hard questions about whether colleges are serving and educating students of color well. Failure to do so -- and then blaming poor outcomes on the student’s native language, academic preparation or family circumstances -- further demonstrates how accustomed we have become with racial judgments. Even well-intentioned people -- free of racist or malicious intent -- unconsciously reinforce these notions.
Too often, politicians, policy makers and higher education leaders couch calls for an improved higher education system solely in economic terms. Yes, for our economy to succeed, we will need to better educate our increasingly diverse society. And yes, a college education pays off in tangible economic benefits. However, by allowing this economic narrative to dominate, we have subjugated the crucial social justice and civil rights justifications for racial diversity and equity. In doing so, we have once again minimized the historical injustices and everyday lived experiences of people of color in America.
I recognize that higher education alone cannot undo or address all of the issues of racism and hatred that stem from our country’s racial legacy. But we can do our part. And doing so begins with recognizing that our words and approach are reinforcing -- not remedying -- the problem. Honest, race-centric conversations are hard, but nowhere near as hard as facing decades of oppression, discrimination and unequal access to educational opportunity. College faculty and administrators should foster inclusive learning environments on their campuses, where historical and current-day issues of race and racism can be discussed and interrogated civilly and provocatively.
We should tackle these issues for the sake of our economy, but we must tackle them for the sake of our national values. Ending racism is about civil rights. It is about social justice. Higher education leaders must embrace these racial realities to catalyze real change and hold true on the promise of equality and opportunity that we have made to all Americans.
Michelle Asha Cooper is president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), an independent nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world.