Last month The Chronicle convened a virtual event to talk with several student activists, at different kinds of colleges and with different political leanings, about their goals and concerns for the coming year.
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Last month The Chronicle convened a virtual event to talk with several student activists, at different kinds of colleges and with different political leanings, about their goals and concerns for the coming year. Dallas Hobbs, a senior at Washington State University, is a lineman on the football team and part of a group of athletes fighting for better safety measures and for players to have a seat at the decision-making table in college athletics. Naomi Mathew, a junior at Truman State University, in Missouri, has been active in libertarian politics. Jada Sayles, a junior at Dillard University, in Louisiana, has been active in protests against police brutality in her hometown of Madison, Wis. Melissa Robles, a senior at California State University at Northridge, worked on the successful campaign to mandate an ethnic-studies course requirement across the California State system. And Akhil Rajasekar, a senior at Princeton University, restarted a group called the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, originally founded in 2015, that is devoted to promoting the free exchange of ideas. The event was hosted by Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, in Texas, and Sarah Brown, a senior reporter at The Chronicle.
Michael J. Sorrell: Dallas, as a former college athlete, I want to ask you: What was the breaking point?
Dallas Hobbs: Covid. Our movement was a collective group of athletes voicing their concerns about what was happening at the university. Testing protocols were not mandated. Some schools were testing every week. Others had only tested once. We’re all around each other, and we’re all trying to work toward the goal of playing this season. Some schools are doing it right, but others aren’t doing it right at all. We wanted unified health and safety standards.
That’s why we put out our demand list. The biggest one, which a lot of people aren’t pleased about, is the 50/50 revenue split.
Sorrell: Have you felt any backlash from coaches or the administration?
Hobbs: At first, there was a lot of backlash. There’s still backlash from fans and a couple of other areas in sports. But there’s 10 times the support. It really shows that we athletes have a huge platform and can speak up on whatever we want. We’re the ones playing, bringing in the revenue.
We athletes have a huge platform and can speak up on whatever we want. We’re the ones playing, bringing in the revenue.
Sarah Brown: When you’re getting on a Zoom call with some of the big names in college football, what are you hearing from other players?
Hobbs: We want to play, but we want health and safety measures put in place. That was the biggest issue — they [colleges] didn’t have a plan at all [to keep players safe amid the pandemic].
Brown: What does success look like for you?
Hobbs: The biggest success would come if we could set up a players association. If we can do that, a lot of the other demands we’re asking for can be met. There’s no seat at the table right now. No athletes can truly voice their opinion. When these higher powers are trying to decide what our future is, there’s no communication with the athletes.
Brown: Naomi, as you’re pushing for change, what does success look like?
Naomi Mathew: What’s important is that schools don’t violate student rights while implementing precautions. The Constitution was written during a smallpox pandemic. Even if we have to wear masks and stay six feet apart, we shouldn’t be stopped from assembling peacefully in outdoor places on campuses.
For students off campus right now, the fact that we can’t all be on campus can be a great opportunity, especially because it’s an election year. Right now I’m able to work for Young Americans for Liberty. We are hiring students to get out, knock doors to get pro-liberty candidates elected.
Sorrell: About peacefully assembling in the midst of a pandemic, when assembling could result in students’ becoming ill — how would you handle that?
Mathew: A few months ago, when there were thousands of people protesting, it was their constitutional right to do so. People did wear masks and stay six feet apart when possible. Just because there’s a chance of someone getting sick isn’t a legitimate reason to completely ban people from assembling at all, especially when there are ways to mitigate those risks.
Sorrell: Jada, you have led those peaceful demonstrations, right? You’ve been there on the front lines. Now that you’re back at Dillard, living in New Orleans, how do you continue to stay involved with the activism in your hometown of Madison?
Jada Sayles: Before I left, I did an I Scream for Social Justice. This was to keep the movement going. I wanted people to know that Black lives still matter. I was on a radio station a week or two ago talking about the movement. I’m part of a group on Facebook, and within that community there are Zoom calls I’m on — a panel similar to this but with administrators. I’m virtually advocating. The priority of my peers right now is to connect with administrators. Switching to online, there will be difficulties that Black students will face in a predominantly white institution.
Brown: Melissa, the ethnic-studies course requirement you advocated for just got signed into law. What else has success looked like for you?
Melissa Robles: The immense amount of work to have it pass — people were crying. We were filled with emotion.
So success can be a win across the board, but it’s also important that, for student activists, success can come in little tokens: having a conversation with someone and being able to learn from them. I do a lot of grass-roots organizing. A lot of the time it’s not so much about the big thing — it’s what are the little steps we can take to ensure everyone is getting a piece of the pie.
Sorrell: Melissa, if I’m a Cal State student and I start school next fall, what does the bill mean to me?
Robles: The bill legally mandates three units of ethnic studies that students have to take. It was created by Shirley Weber, [a California legislator who used to teach] at San Diego State University. In these ethnic-studies classes we’re learning about our own lived experiences, but also about tolerance, communication skills, looking at things from different perspectives, etc. These are all important things for any human being to have: to learn to communicate with students from different lived experiences and to create a space in which dialogue can exist between students, especially students who wouldn’t normally come into contact with each other.
Sorrell: Akhil, how would you respond to what Melissa’s group has accomplished?
Akhil Rajasekar: We were fine with the curriculum requirements that Princeton already has. The problem we foresaw was that a race-and-identity requirement would lean toward particular views. We don’t oppose more courses from more perspectives.
But it shouldn’t be used as a shelter for a few views and not all. There’s nothing wrong with distribution requirements, but you can’t say only these views count and others don’t. That would be the problem.
Robles: I understand where Akhil is coming from.
In your typical U.S. history class, you’re not getting the full view of what happened. You don’t hear the side of the conquered, only the conqueror.
I don’t think we’re pushing a certain standpoint or a certain view. I think what ethnic studies is trying to do is to diversify the narrative. In your typical U.S. history class, you’re not getting the full view of what happened. You don’t hear the side of the conquered, only the conqueror. I think that’s where ethnic studies comes in.
Sorrell: Akhil, if we said that Princeton needed to have a requirement — let’s say on present-day racial relations in America. For you, which points of view would need to be expressed to meet the requirements of your organization?
Rajasekar: There’s a difference between courses and distribution requirements. I’m happy with the university introducing whatever courses it wants to. I’m a capitalist, and I appreciate courses on communism. It shows me that people don’t all think like me. When it comes to requiring courses on communism for a Princeton degree, that’s a different thing altogether. I think the offering of courses is valuable, but if you’re requiring them for a degree, there needs to be diversity in there.
If you have courses in economic traditions of the world, and you use that to cover capitalism, socialism, etc., that’s fine. But if you have to take a course on one particular tradition in order to graduate, that’s a problem.
A professor’s course shouldn’t be the professor’s argument. A course on capitalism or communism should be the same. I’m looking for the professor to put the two arguments together and have a discussion. You have to wrestle with the other side. The best courses I’ve taken make me grapple with materials that I have an immediate repulsion to, but they’re ideas.
Robles: You said something that made me think directly of ethnic studies. You talked about getting the full picture, getting both sides of things. You were using classes on economic theory as an example. We have classes in politics or economics that fall within ethnic studies — they are shifting that narrative and showing the other side.
Sayles: I wasn’t taught real Black history in high school. I decided to go to an HBCU. I took an African-studies course in college taught by both a white woman and a Black woman. Those two perspectives were great. It made me more knowledgeable, better able to understand African American culture.
Mathew: I’m not a fan of course requirements in general, regardless of what they are. Personally, I like hearing different perspectives and learning about different cultures. I agree that the way history is taught in college leaves out a lot of things that need to be said. But I’ve seen professors who do try to use classes to teach students not how to think, but what to think.
Brown: Let’s talk about campus building names and statues. Akhil, you opposed the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s public-affairs school.
Rajasekar: I want to clarify that that was not a group initiative. That was just me.
My position on Wilson was that the university should have kept the compromise it reached in 2015. Students opposed Wilson’s name on campus. There was opposition because Wilson was a racist.
What Princeton was wrestling with was everything he had done for Princeton [as its onetime president]. He established the research arm of Princeton. That’s a legacy. My position on that is you honor the good the person has done. In 2015 the university had professors look into this and come up with a recommendation to keep his name. There was a monument put up, where one side had all the good he did and the other showed the bad he did.
That was the compromise in 2015. Then the university changed its mind overnight, which was unfortunate.
Sorrell: At what point do your sins outweigh the good? At what point does history look at you and say, We have weighed you and we deem you to have failed?
Rajasekar: It’s on a case-by-case basis. You look at a person’s accomplishments. Take someone like Washington and Jefferson — they’re in a different league than someone like Stonewall Jackson. It’s a difficult question to answer.
Sorrell: It also comes down to the people making that determination.
Rajasekar: By instinct I reel away from judging the past by the standards of the present. We agree that racism is wrong, but that’s what we came to in the present.
Sorrell: There was an understanding about that in the past as well.
Rajasekar: Yes, but not the consensus of today. We wrestle with our own moral issues today. People are strongly divided on issues of immigration and abortion. Those are the moral issues of today. We can judge the past, but we have to be careful how we do it. People 500 years from now may do the same thing to us.
Sorrell: They will.
Mathew: I don’t really have an opinion on renaming buildings and tearing down statues. I think it’s a distraction. I don’t like Wilson because the Federal Reserve was implemented under him. At the end of the day, people are still being thrown in jail because of possessing minor amounts of marijuana. Instead of focusing our energy on these virtue-signaling changes of names, I think we should be taking action on making practical changes that will actually help people. Like holding police officers accountable. Or like making it so that the police can’t burst into your home in the middle of the night and shoot you.
Brown: Melissa, I know you are specifically advocating for a building-name change on your campus.
Robles: Yes, we are. I don’t want to take credit, but there are a group of students who are advocating changing the library’s name. It’s named for [Delmar T.] Oviatt, [a former campus administrator] who called a state of emergency on Black and brown students who were protesting in the 1960s. This resulted in numerous beatings of students. Some students to this day have criminal records because of that.
When it comes to changing building names and statues, I think Naomi makes a great point. We need to be focusing our efforts on world change. But there are also those little steps we can take, to hear people and understand what they’re saying. I think the Wilson monument that Akhil was talking about was a good compromise.
We want the name change for our library. It may be mundane for some. But for Black and brown and Indigenous people, and myself from California, there are these priests that worked in missions. Where I came from, that’s where we were enslaved. That’s where our Indigenous folks were stripped of who we were. It’s a hit to the gut when we walk past these buildings. It’s a beautiful church that hides all the brutality that came with it.
Sayles: My experience is actually the opposite. I attend a historically Black college. Most of our buildings are named after Black people. One of our most prominent buildings is named for someone who helped build Black schools. I salute those of you who are fighting for that.
Brown: What is a good university response to student activism? How can colleges support student activists?
Rajasekar: Allow them. Allow broad student activity without regard for viewpoints or what they’re petitioning. All sides, all traditions, whether formal coursework or research or activism. Once universities start getting in the game of preferring one kind of activism over another, you get into difficult situations. I think academic communities have to be free to engage in ideas. The best thing a university can do is treat everyone equally.
Robles: As far as faculty and staff, the best response is to listen and support students. Treating every standpoint with the fairness it deserves. Not calling the campus police on student protesters. Every time they’ve been called, things get out of hand.
Sayles: At Dillard, my president is always on it with everything we are involved in. He’s always emailing us. If you need to talk about anything, all you have to do is set up a Zoom meeting. If you need support, he is there.
When trying to support your students, listen to them. Sometimes you need to be quiet and listen.