The Coming Campus Protests
College leaders will be judged by their actions — not their words
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Yale President Peter Salovey called on his community to “remember that we are connected in more ways than we are divided. And that where we are divided, we must work, now, in the interest of unity and justice.” Harvard’s Lawrence Bacow urged students to “find the strength and determination to act on your beliefs — to repair and perfect this imperfect world.” Bacow drew upon scripture to remind his community of their “special responsibilities” — “As Luke teaches us, from those to whom much is given, much is expected.” And Ohio University’s executive vice president and provost, Elizabeth Sayrs, assured everyone that “we stand in solidarity with our students, colleagues, and community members of color, especially African American community members, with our fellow citizens, and with our international students and colleagues.”
These statements are examples of what Sara Ahmed describes as the reduction of diversity to “image work” — they make an institution appear welcoming and diverse. The repetition of the word “diversity” becomes a kind of ritual, as Ahmed explains in her book On Being Included (Duke University Press, 2012): “Statements like ‘we are diverse’ or ‘we embrace diversity’ might simply be what organizations say because that is what organizations are saying.”
We can see diversity as “image work” in Salovey’s invocation of the words of the civil-rights and women’s-rights activist Pauli Murray, who, Salovey notes, is a Yale Law School graduate, and thus part of its long tradition of incorporating and supporting “diverse” individuals. But Salovey’s invocation of Murray was poorly timed. It was only after 13 senior faculty members withdrew from Yale’s Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program last year, citing Yale’s “inconsistent support,” that Yale made permanent five faculty positions which had previously been offered to the program on an ad hoc basis. In that context, Salovey’s statement that Floyd’s death “shocks our shared conscience and indicts our shared failure” reflects the institutional whiteness that only shock — like that of direct action by 13 senior faculty members, or the murder of a Black man — can disrupt.
While PR-minded administrators preach that Black lives matter in campus communiqués, their colleagues may be busily strategizing how best to cut Black studies.
These statements also shield their home institutions from the need to make structural changes that would, in effect, change the image of the institution. Despite Bacow’s professed faith “in the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws — for everyone, not just for those who look like me,” the Harvard president fails to say how he will ensure that his own police department will share that faith. Indeed, Harvard’s campus police, as uncovered by The Harvard Crimson earlier this year, is plagued with similar issues as police departments across the country. Given reports of excessive force used by HUPD’s officers and HUPD’s collaboration with Boston police, including at a recent demonstration in protest of the murder of George Floyd, it is hard to know what Bacow’s faith in the 14th Amendment means in practice.
Bacow believes “in the power of knowledge and ideas to change the world, of science and medicine to defeat disease, of the arts and humanities to illuminate the human condition,” and yet Harvard indefinitely suspended its search for senior ethnic-studies faculty in response to the Covid-19 crisis. “I can’t even begin to describe how disheartening it is to have seen this effort begin to bear its first fruits, only to have meaningful progress put on an indefinite timeline,” Claudine Gay, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, told The Crimson. (Gay had been set to hire three to four senior faculty in Asian American, Latinx, and Muslim studies, and campus visits were already underway.)
As many of these programs are staffed and supported by contingent or non-tenure-track faculty, the looming threat of contract nonrenewals during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis has a chilling effect on the ability for these programs to engage in direct action. This chilling effect, and the risk of the loss of the faculty that make these programs possible, is also an existential threat to any university’s professed commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Indeed, these toothless statements by university administrators show just how unprepared our institutions are for the return of Black students and staff and faculty members in the fall. Everything happening in our streets is going to be in our classrooms, in our committee rooms, our departments. We won’t accept “listening sessions,” “open forums,” meetings with the president, or the other mechanisms that are deployed to disempower us. We will see through empty promises of diversity and see the funding cuts for what they are.
We will expect and demand meaningful change. And activist students and faculty and staff members will be bolstered by their recent experiences. They will take action to ensure that our institutions live up to their statements. This may mean faculty issuing statements of support for their Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. It may involve ending campus collaboration with police departments.
The coming campus protests will not simply be confined to campus police “reform,” or “bad apples” in our academic communities. Instead, it will be systemic and comprehensive. After they are done with institutional racism as represented by the police, including campus police, who do you think they’ll come for next?