Sustainable Change Takes Time to Develop
To some observers, the student protests that swept the country over the past year — spurred by events at the University of Missouri in Columbia that led to the ousting of the campus’s chancellor and the system president — may seem like a passing phase. But beyond the protests and oft sensational news coverage, real conversations have been occurring and incremental changes are being made to create more inclusive campus communities, setting the stage for continued improvement in areas that students, faculty, and staff say still need work.
[Above: Ithaca College students protest against racism on campus.]
At Skidmore College and the University of Iowa, for example, administrators expanded mental health counseling services to meet students’ demands. In response to a student petition, Pomona College updated its tenure criteria to include a focus on diversity. And at San Francisco State University, hunger strikers succeeded in getting the administration to increase the budget of the university’s stand-alone College of Ethnic Studies. Additionally, scores of institutions have hired chief diversity officers (CDOs) and established dedicated diversity offices.
Christopher Broadhurst, an assistant professor of higher education administration at the University of New Orleans who studies 21st century student activism, says there’s a reason demonstrations have led to sweeping change across the country.
“The thing is, activism works,” he says.
He cites the campus demonstrations of the 1980s, when students protested in favor of universities divesting from companies with ties to South Africa, whose government at the time sanctioned apartheid. He says that of the universities that eventually divested, nearly 60 percent had experienced student protests, compared with just 3 percent of institutions where no demonstrations were held.
“Inequalities may not be as prevalent or present on the radars [of the dominant party] as they are for marginalized groups,” Broadhurst says. “How many instances can you think of where people in power gave up their power for the greater good? If marginalized individuals don’t express their issues, change probably won’t occur.”
But Broadhurst acknowledges that long-lasting, sustainable change takes time.
“People think civil rights were achieved with Brown v. Board of Education, but it took another decade for change to really start to happen,” he says. “When the federal government tied funding to desegregation, that helped move things along. Change is not going to happen right away.”
Broadhurst is optimistic that the recent spate of new CDO hires and newly established diversity offices are more than just quick fixes.
“Once a new office comes around, it’s going to be around for good,” he says. “It’s a small but necessary step [to hire a CDO]. What kind of message does it send when a campus doesn’t have someone dedicated to change? A CDO can’t do everything by [him or herself], but this is someone who can build coalitions of students and faculty, who can talk to people about diversity, and who can spearhead and schedule meetings between stakeholders.”
Unheard but Not Unnoticed
At the University of Oklahoma (OU) — where Penny Pasque is the Brian E. and Sandra O’Brien Presidential Professor and program area coordinator of adult and higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies — students organized the activist group Unheard months before a video of OU fraternity members singing a racist chant surfaced in March 2015.
Pasque says the African American students in Unheard had previously demonstrated in January by attending class and walking around campus with duct tape over their mouths. This silent protest symbolized their feelings of being ignored and denied adequate institutional support on campus.
“Students don’t always feel that they’re being listened to or heard when it comes to microaggressions,” Pasque says. “They feel that administrators only listen when there’s a problem; adversity opens a dialogue. [Their demonstration] was an issue of silence, but it was very visible and impactful.”
Unheard’s January protests led to talks between its members and OU President David Boren, at which time students discussed their list of seven grievances. Following the meeting, Boren outlined a plan to recruit more diverse faculty and students and enlisted the help of engineering faculty to discuss ways of translating the department’s Multicultural Engineering Program to other departments and colleges.
Further, a silent sit-in in the office of the dean of the OU Price College of Business — held by Unheard in February 2015 — led to the hiring of a director of diversity and inclusion and the creation of a corresponding diversity office within the college.
Pasque, who has done research on activism, says people never stop being involved in activism and advocacy, but rather their work continues over the course of their careers. Considering that the current college-going generation was found to be the most committed to activism and political and civic engagement (by the University of California, Los Angeles’ annual CIRP Freshman Survey), the likelihood that protests will continue — and continue to grow — is high. Pasque herself has demonstrated but says that her involvement has looked different over time as she has taken on different roles — from graduate student to tenured professor.
“There’s a different type of voice when you’re a student than when you’re a faculty member or administrator; it does usually help when you have the voice of the faculty to back up your cause,” Pasque says. “But student voices help too when you are an untenured faculty member who may be afraid to speak up about something for fear of risking tenure. It helps to be engaged together and to show solidarity and support.”
Broadhurst agrees that faculty support can send an even more powerful message to administrators.
“One thing that’s great is having faculty and staff engaged in activism because they experience racial and gender inequity, and inequity based on socioeconomic background, too,” he says. “It helps to form a united front, and it’s been shown that student movements are stronger with faculty and staff involvement. … Schools want their students to be democratically engaged, and who is more civically engaged than activists?”
A year after first issuing its list of grievances, Unheard at OU published a report card detailing its impression of how well its concerns have been addressed. No single response received higher than a C grade.
In a letter published in the OU Daily, Vice Chancellor for the University Community Jabar Shumate said that great strides have been made toward creating a more inclusive campus through the university’s response to Unheard; he also outlined the work being done to continue those efforts.
Shumate’s sentiment, although directed at OU, can easily be applied to colleges and universities across the country.
“While we have a great deal of work ahead, the past year has allowed us to work together to create the infrastructure for real change,” he wrote. “I am proud to say that we are a stronger family because we have confronted our challenges and decided to grow from our past.”
If Pasque’s research is any indication, student activists will continue to push for change wherever and whenever it is needed.●
Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.