College presidents can't solve all of society's problems, but they do have a responsibility to join student activists in efforts to address systemic racial bias.
That was one common sentiment that emerged when The Huffington Post asked three presidents of private liberal arts colleges -- Pomona College's David Oxtoby, Muhlenberg College's John Williams Jr. and Davidson College's Carol Quillen -- what they have learned from recent student activism around race.
These presidents' campuses have seen students protest as part of the Black Lives Matter movement -- students at all three schools held demonstrations in 2014 over the failure to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, both unarmed black men.
None of these demonstrations rivaled the widely covered protests at the University of Missouri or Yale University, but the college leaders are keenly paying attention nonetheless.
“What I'm talking about is creating a culture where people who come to Muhlenberg with racist attitudes don't feel comfortable -- they feel uncomfortable.”
Shortly after the Mizzou protests in November 2015, anti-black comments were posted on Muhlenberg's Yik Yak message board. In response, Williams' administration organized a town hall about diversity, equality and marginalization on the school's Allentown, Pennsylvania, campus. More than 900 students -- about 40 percent of the student body -- attended the event.
Williams said he made the call to hold the town hall within just a few hours of the Yik Yak postings.
"I have the app right on my phone, I monitor Yik Yak at our college," he noted.
Williams wanted to use the town hall to show that the school doesn't tolerate offensive speech against blacks any more than it tolerates slurs against, say, Jewish people.
"That's what the black students and students of color are looking for," he said. "They're [not] looking for this to be a place that nobody ever does anything or says anything racist, but when somebody does, their friends or everyone else around them says, 'Hey dude, that's not what we're about. That's not who we are,' as opposed to silently putting your head down and being a silent bystander."
The Muhlenberg president acknowledged that student activism against racism can sometimes be counterproductive, but said that's because students are young and still learning how to air their grievances. Rather, he finds it encouraging that students are engaged on these issues and unwilling to tolerate racism patiently.
"If you're a racist at heart, I can't throw a switch and change your heart, but what I can do is create a culture and creating a culture takes time," Williams said. "Students are often very impatient because they've got a time window of four years, and if you don't change it during the time that they're there, it's like the tree that fell in the forest ... I understand that. But what I'm talking about is creating a culture where people who come to Muhlenberg with racist attitudes don't feel comfortable -- they feel uncomfortable."
“They're saying, 'You make claims about what you believe in and we would like you to live in a way that reflects your values, that's what you ask us to do.' That's fair enough.”
Quillen, president of Davidson in North Carolina, said she's learned that student protesters don't expect colleges to fix all social ills.
"I don't think they're saying 'Fix my problem,' or 'My feelings are hurt, you need to tell the person to say sorry,'" she said. "I think they're saying, 'You make claims about what you believe in and we would like you to live in a way that reflects your values, that's what you ask us to do.' That's fair enough."
"When the students are looking to the institution," she added, "some of what they're doing is saying, 'Do your job.' And your job isn't telling that other student to shut up; your job is to give [them] what [they] need to go from this experience of marginalization and pain to a political position. That's what education does, and insofar as we're not doing that for them, we need to do that better. We need to help them make that journey from, 'I don't feel like I belong here' to 'OK, I don't feel like I belong here, I know I deserve to be here, what about this institution is making me feel that way? And what do we need to change that?'"
“Being engaged in the issues of the day is what we want our students to be doing and I want to be a model in that.”
Pomona's Oxtoby doesn't feel like it's unfair to expect college presidents to comment when a racist incident takes place on campus.
"I wouldn't say 'dragged in' [to comment], I would say 'invited in,'" Oxtoby said. "I want to be part of that conversation. I would much rather be part of it than have everything happening and things going back and forth, and I'm just standing on the side ... Being engaged in the issues of the day is what we want our students to be doing and I want to be a model in that."
Pomona is part of the Claremont Colleges consortium in California, which consists of five distinct institutions that essentially share a physical campus and work closely together. At Claremont McKenna College, another school in the consortium, students protesters successfully pushed a dean to resign, in part because she suggested to a Latina student that minority students "don't fit our CMC mold." Other students counter-protested, disagreeing that the dean should have to resign.
But Oxtoby pointed out that it was more than a single remark that made students upset.
"There are lots of things going on in the world around them and it may sound like they're focusing on this one little thing," he said. "Well, the reason they're focusing on this little thing is that they can't do anything about Donald Trump. Donald Trump is going to do what he does ... and the students will have no effect on that. And the students are saying 'How can I have an effect?' So the national situation is affecting what happens, and people don't always make those connections."
Pomona College students presented their president with a list of demands in November, asking for more resources for minority and LGBTQ groups and for mental health care, as well as for increased diversity among faculty and staff. Oxtoby views these lists of demands as a "cry for help" that college leaders should take seriously.
"I hear people say, 'Students are really selfish these days." Well, maybe there's a little bit of that," he said. "But I see students really caring about each other. If one of them is hurting, if they have something that's happened to them, you feel it, you're aware of it, and you join them."
Tyler Kingkade covers higher education and is based in New York. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.
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