The Next Step for Today’s Student Activists

5 minute read

To a world that has followed this fall’s Ivy League protests from a distance, it may seem that the latest wave of concern about race on campus is beginning to wind down. The hashtags have stopped trending, chalk slogans have faded and the protest banners have been put away. But the long history of black student activism shows that, while the next step isn’t as media friendly as the most dramatic public displays of protest at Harvard, Yale and Princeton have been, the story is far from over.

Now, the necessary administrative work of implementing African American student demands begins. Activists today are proposing that the journey to genuine racial advancement requires confronting the uncomfortable truths of black life at college—but they’re not the first to have done so. The actions of their historical counterparts suggest that the next step they must take, if they hope to be successful in the long run, is to commit fully to the process of creating new university policies.

Perhaps the most illuminating historical parallels can be found at Harvard in 1968 and 1990.

The racial inequality of each historical era often cloaks itself in the benign-seeming cultural practices and beliefs of the time. During the 1950s and 1960s, that meant the first wave of black student activists at white colleges combated the accepted idea of tokenism in the student body, professorship and administrative ranks. Student protests led to the creation of small-scale recruitment programs that were starting to increase the minority population at colleges, but the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968 led to demands for more immediate change.

At Harvard, the administration responded by naming Professor Henry Rosovsky the chair of the Faculty Committee on African and African-American Studies. The formation of the Ad Hoc Committee of Black Students reflected an attempt to produce good-faith talks between students and faulty. The work of this committee, in combination with student protesters, led to the successful faculty vote to create a black studies department at Harvard in 1969. But Rosovsky, who went on to be dean of the college for a decade, was later forthright in admitting that the committee’s work had not been entirely successful.

Two decades later, from 1990–1991, Rosovsky returned to his position as acting Dean of Harvard, part of his goal was to help revive the then-languishing department. At that time, in the unique position of having been part of the department’s origin, he was a key figure in Henry Louis Gates’ hire by the university.

Rosovsky’s model formally involved students at the start of reform discussions among faculty and administrators. And, though it started with a demand for immediate change, its process stretched on for decades. Activists today have faced a variety of reactions, which range from disapproval to unqualified support—but, based on Rosovsky’s example, many of them have encouragement where it will count in the long run, if they can keep that longer timeline in mind.

Current administrators have demonstrated goodwill and sympathy towards student demands at Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, as well as at many other colleges around the country where students have called for change. Jonathan Holloway, the first Yale College African American dean, candidly expressed a commitment to do better. The image of him patiently listening for three hours to the wide range of student concerns during a November protest is a powerful one. Eddie Gluade is the Princeton African American studies chair who was been a vocal supporter of students on campus and in social media. Following a similar decision at Princeton last month, the dean of Harvard College, Rakesh Khurana, just announced that the faculty voted to remove the title of master from the head of its residential communities.

The activists’ requests don’t stop at changing the master title, opposing racist Halloween costumes and possibly removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from a school. They want to refashion the overall racial culture at their schools, down to the large and small incidents of racial aggression they see in their day-to-day lives. In order to usher in a new culture, many students are calling for reforms similar to those proposed by Princeton activists who want to institute faculty multicultural training and a diversity course for all students.

But the nature of university reform is slow and bureaucratic, and students, faculty and administrators play equally vital roles. The real work of any movement is done both outside, in protest, and inside university buildings during an ongoing series of meetings.

Student reformers thus face high institutional barriers. The university amendment process contains little or no student input, and the activists are proposing substantive changes that will require the revision of core curricula, student handbooks and faculty constitutions. They will need support from faculty and administrators.

It will take the forceful presence and long-sightedness of all university constituencies to enact the current movement’s sweeping agenda. The black student activists will need to begin a sustained campaign of lobbying faculty and administrators, to win a consensus that reaches beyond a few key figures. It is not a particularly dramatic plan of action, but it is absolutely necessary for their reforms to be successfully implemented.

The Long View

Historians explain how the past informs the present

Afrah Richmond is an assistant professor at the University of Bridgeport School of Education. Her current book project is a history of Harvard black student activism from 1950-2015.

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