I still remember the pang of disappointment I felt during college when our school president dismissed questions about our segregated Greek system. It was 2011, and I was the editor of the University of Alabama’s student newspaper, the Crimson White. We had just published a feature about white sororities at the school that regularly excluded black women. The president responded via email to several questions about black exclusion with this: “As independent social organizations, it is appropriate that all our sororities and fraternities–traditionally African American, traditionally white and multicultural–determine their membership.”
His statement was a deft dodge likely crafted by his PR reps and wholly unsatisfying to students struggling with racial issues. We expected this from giant corporations, but when did talking to the leader of a place of higher learning become the same thing as sparring with an evasive CEO?
I felt frustrated as a journalist but also hurt as a 20-year-old black man still shaping his views about the world. I had come to Alabama as a high-achieving student and been met for the first time in my life with very real systemic barriers. Blacks, it seemed, weren’t supposed to join the richest, whitest fraternities and sororities, and they weren’t supposed to hold the highest ranks in student government. But if the president cared about these issues, he didn’t go to great lengths to show it.
The school’s response to other racial incidents that year was delivered via email blasts with the same stock language whether it was a situation in which a fraternity member called a black student “n-gger” or one in which someone chalked a person hanging from a noose on the side of a building. Tensions boiled over, and hundreds of students staged a large demonstration pushing back against the idea that these were “isolated incidents.”
My story of four years ago feels painfully similar to the narrative at the University of Missouri in 2015 in which a string of racist incidents culminated in an explosive student protest. But there, threats to the school’s bottom line–a strike by mostly black players on the football team could have cost the school a $1 million forfeiture fee on Nov. 14–led both the president and the chancellor to step down Nov. 9.
At the core of these conflicts is a disconnect between how students and administrators view the role of president. To students, the president is the moral center of a university, a person who should be accessible and responsive. Jonathan Butler, the graduate student whose hunger strike was at the center of the Missouri protests, called out school-system president Tim Wolfe for not meeting that expectation: “It’s time for someone who can help the university be financially stable but also make sure that we are an amazing experience for students of all identities,” he told the Washington Post.
Of course, Wolfe’s job, and the job of most university presidents, did not primarily revolve around interacting with students. As the leader of Missouri’s four campuses, he was responsible for finding “opportunities for efficiencies” and “investing in human capital.” Before entering higher education, he was an executive at IBM.
But students are not shareholders. They’re young adults, recruited with the promise of a rich campus life and the chance to challenge conventional wisdom. So it’s crushing when administrators respond to accusations of racism with emails and distant promises of diversity initiatives. No one wants to see their personal pain reduced to a PR quagmire.
And now, because of what happened at Missouri, students across the country are aware of their economic power, and they’re likely to use it again. (Mizzou faced not only the million-dollar fine but also potential lost donations.) Being the president of a university just got a lot harder–but leaders ready to step up to the challenge can make being a college student just a bit easier.
This appears in the November 23, 2015 issue of TIME.
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