Students

At American U., a Week of Racial Turmoil Ends With Accord on Students’ Demands

May 05, 2017

Chronicle photo by Sarah Brown
Students at American U. shut down traffic in a campus thoroughfare on Friday to protest what they perceived as a sluggish response by administrators to a racist incident earlier in the week.

It’s been a difficult week here at American University for students of color, who have been taking finals and simultaneously organizing protests and risking arrest as racial tensions have swelled. One of them, Taylor Dumpson — the first black woman to be elected as American’s student body president — has faced online threats from a prominent white supremacist.

Andrew Anglin, founder of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, wrote a post on social media encouraging his followers to “troll” Ms. Dumpson. American campus police were dispatched late Thursday to protect the student leader. 

Students’ anger reached a peak on Friday, when dozens of them shut down a traffic tunnel in the middle of the campus, saying they wouldn’t leave until American officials agreed to meet their three demands.

Ms. Dumpson officially assumed the role of president on Monday. The same day, several bananas in the shape of nooses were found here. Some had the letters "AKA" written on them — a reference to Alpha Kappa Alpha, a traditionally black sorority to which Ms. Dumpson belongs.

University officials organized a town hall on Tuesday in response to the incident. Dozens of students walked out of the event after about 45 minutes and marched to the financial-aid office, where they filled out forms to withdraw from the university in protest — though they didn’t sign them. Several students said they were frustrated with what they considered to be a sluggish response from administrators to the discovery of the nooses.

A handful of student organizations issued a separate, longer list of demands to administrators after that protest.

Cornelius M. (Neil) Kerwin, the university’s president, spoke on Thursday at a news conference with Ms. Dumpson, saying the noose incident was a "cowardly and despicable act" that had "created for this campus a period of great difficulty and great distress," according to WAMU-FM, American’s radio station. He didn’t take questions.

Ms. Dumpson also appeared with members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill and held a town hall that drew hundreds of attendees to discuss how the university could better respond to hate-motivated incidents.

Mr. Kerwin, who is stepping down at the end of this month, also said this week that the university would consider changes to its policies on bias-related incidents. Camille Lepre, a university spokeswoman, told The Chronicle that "we’ve landed in a place where we know that everything we’ve done is still not working, and we need new tools — and maybe there’s an opportunity embedded in all of this to take a more lead role."

Ms. Dumpson told Washington’s NBC affiliate on Wednesday that she was pleased with officials’ response to the incident. But some students of color were not, and they decided to plan another demonstration.

On Friday afternoon, about a hundred students and local community organizers marched from the Katzen Arts Center to a tunnel near the basketball stadium that serves as a major thoroughfare on the campus. Many wore tape over their mouths bearing the phrase #ItsInTheAir, in reference to racism on the campus. Signs saying "Not here to fill your quota" and "If you’re not angry you’re not paying attention" dotted the crowd.

In front were about 20 students wearing red bandanas who were willing to risk arrest. They sat down in the road and blocked cars from driving through the tunnel and from exiting the attached parking garage. (Ms. Dumpson didn’t attend the protest.)

After about an hour, as activists called for university administrators to show up, Scott A. Bass, the provost, appeared. He stood silently for a few minutes and watched the protest, then he took their megaphone and addressed the crowd, saying that administrators were "terribly pained" about what had happened.

"We are deeply committed to a multicultural, a diverse campus, and it’s not just on brochures — there’s nothing more important to my administration than seeing a multicultural campus," he said.

The atmosphere was tense, and activists raised their voices several times as Mr. Bass talked, but it didn’t take long for him to agree to meet all three of their demands. Students who need help with requests for extensions on final exams should contact the vice provost for undergraduate education, he said.

He stressed that agreeing to the demands was "just a minimum" and noted that he had scheduled a meeting with several student activists.

"This is a deeper issue — it’s not just one incident," he added. The provost drew cheers from the demonstrators after he spoke.

Mr. Bass’s words satisfied organizers of Friday’s occupation, at least for now. While the threats targeting Ms. Dumpson inspired their actions this week, they said they were protesting broader race-related concerns on the campus.

"It was more just to represent the communities that aren’t getting a seat at the table," said Ma’at Sargeant, a sophomore and president of the Black Student Alliance. Some students wanted to attend a news conference American officials held on Wednesday but were kept out of the room, Ms. Sargeant said. She added that officials often have private meetings with student leaders but don’t usually engage with the broader community of students of color.

"As black students who pay $65,000 a year to be here, we deserve to be heard and spoken to by administration," she said. But she was pleased with Mr. Bass’s commitment to their demands and to supporting students of color. "We just needed to hear it," she said. "That was our main point — that we had never heard that from him."

Romayit Cherinet, a junior, said she was worn out after a long week. She isn’t planning to request extensions on any exams, though she said she would take an incomplete in one of her courses because of all the time she had invested in activism this semester.

Still, it was important for students to make their voices heard this week, Ms. Cherinet said. "It is the Trump era, we have to remember that — he normalized this," she said. "And it’s our job to say that it’s wrong."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.