On Nov. 16, students at Roger Williams University organized what they referred to as “BlackOut” (pictured below) – a noontime demonstration in support of the students at the University of Missouri whose protests against the indifference of some senior administrators at the university to claims of racism on the campus led to the resignation of the system president and the campus chancellor.
RWU student leaders spoke and presented a proposed list of action steps they wanted to see taken by our campus and then invited me to speak. The prevailing mood at the demonstration was collaborative and civil – no “demands” were made, and no one’s resignation was sought. I was very proud of our students, and I told them that we would form a representative task force to develop a plan, with timelines and metrics, to address their entirely reasonable concerns. Then we returned to our offices and classrooms to resume the work of giving and receiving a university education. The local newspaper wrote a positive editorial about the event (“RWU students’ intelligent requests,” Bristol Phoenix, Nov. 19, 2015).
Given the altogether positive tone of the RWU event, I was more than a little taken aback when I opened my local newspaper two days later, and saw an op-ed with the ominous title, “The Death of America’s Universities” (Providence Journal, Nov. 18, 2015). Odd. I could see from the windows of my home that the Roger Williams campus, even early in the morning, seemed quite active. University employees were driving into the parking lots, as usual, steam was emanating from the roof vents, students were walking on the quad. All seemed entirely normal.
But before leaving for work, I decided to take time to analyze the claim made by the author of the op-ed – a gentleman named T. Robinson Ahlstrom, who identified himself as the “chairman of The George Washington Scholar Endowment” – that American universities had died.
Mr. Ahlstrom’s declaration of the demise of America’s universities was based on the events at the University of Missouri and actions that subsequently followed at other colleges and universities across the nation. Because, early in my career, I had served 11 years as a member of the faculty at the University of Missouri, I had closely followed the story, but it had never occurred to me that someone would equate the resignations of two administrators there with the death of America’s universities.
Mr. Ahlstrom sees the events at the University of Missouri as:
“the convulsive writhing of a patient who has been in rapid decline since the 1960s, when a motley assortment of Marxists, feminists, revenge racists, brats and anarchists embedded themselves deeply in our government, media and institutions of higher learning.”
In case readers missed his point, Mr. Ahlstrom doubles down, comparing the recent history of American higher education to “Hitler’s Germany” and referring to faculty as “ideological storm troopers.” Tenured professors “pitch pipe bombs of contempt onto everything ancient, lovely, sacred and sane.” “[T]he loss of the university will mean the loss of the West.”
Of course what is conveniently swept aside by his rant is the notion of any legitimacy to the concerns that students at the University of Missouri (and now many other universities) raised in the first place: the idea that too many universities remain bastions of privilege for the children of those who have been successful in our society, at the expense of being welcoming to those who have been marginalized by society – that is, people of color; low-income, first-generation college students; those who are not heterosexual; those who are not Judeo-Christian. It is easy to appreciate and understand the dissatisfaction and concern students from marginalized groups feel when they arrive at universities that seem designed to serve only the needs of students from white families who are in the economic mainstream.
We all recognize that the transition from high school to college is, for many students, a daunting challenge. Colleges and universities that truly care about their students have long been concerned about creating support systems for entering freshmen to help ease this transition. But these support systems were designed to serve the students who are from those segments of society that have, for generations, attended college, and too often have not been accommodating to those who are seeking access as the first members of their families to go to college. These students ask: “Where are the faculty who look like me? To whom do I turn for advice and support regarding my issues? Why am I always made to feel as if I don’t belong here? Why am I called upon in class to speak to ‘the black experience’ or ‘what it’s like to be Latino’”?
And perhaps most important of all: “Why are we still having to ask these questions, 60 years after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and more than 50 years after the Stonewall riots and the beginning of the LGBTQ movement?” Higher education has always been seen as the doorway to economic opportunity. Why, then, are underrepresented groups still underrepresented? And why would anyone feel that America’s universities face death if students dare to ask these questions?
It is our collective shame that the college graduation rates of students from the lowest economic quintile remain seven times lower than the rates of students from the top quintile – a figure that hasn’t changed in 40 years. Because students of color are disproportionately represented in the lowest economic quintile, whether one measures it by race or by income, there is a very significant “achievement gap” between those on the margins of society and those in the mainstream.
But let’s not confuse the legitimate concerns of students and families that continue to find themselves denied equity of access and support at America’s colleges with political correctness, or with the recent controversy about “trigger warnings” (wherein students demand to be “warned” when a potentially disturbing topic is about to be raised in class).
What students from traditionally underrepresented groups are protesting is not the absence of trigger warnings, or a failure by higher education institutions to be politically correct. Rather, their complaints range from instances of thoughtless insensitivity to blatant racism, sexism and overt discrimination, all of which are too often tolerated or ignored by administrators of our nation’s college campuses. It is the lack of commitment by many colleges and universities to address fairness and equity issues that we should be decrying, not the temerity of students who complain about what they continue to face almost half a century after the death of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A final point: trying to develop a campus culture that is free from bias is obviously the right thing to do; elemental fairness would say that students from underrepresented groups should not have to face the additional burden of a hostile educational environment. But it’s easy to miss another very important point: white, middle-class students are not being prepared for the increasingly multicultural world they will enter after graduation if colleges and universities do not work much harder than most have done to date to create a more inclusive campus, one that celebrates, not merely tolerates, diversity.
America’s universities aren’t dead. But if they remain complacent and indifferent to the concerns that students are now raising on campuses across the country, they are in real danger of losing any claim of being society’s moral and ethical leaders.
I can’t guarantee that Roger Williams University will be successful in creating a welcoming and supportive environment for every student – but, working together, the members of our campus family are certainly going to try.