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An Exploration of the “Rightness’ of Today’s College Student Protests

The Role of University Administration in Student Dissent

Racial tensions at the University of Missouri that started back in October have sparked a series of demonstrations against discrimination and intolerance on college campuses throughout the United States.

Since the resignation of Mizzou’s president and chancellor November 9, protesters have organized at more than 100 colleges and universities nationwide. Social media sites have lighted up with voices of dissent, and what began as a grievance has evolved into a movement.

Inspired by the marches in Ferguson, Mo., and Black Lives Matter, students are taking to social media to question the institutions they once approached for answers. Calling for racial and social reforms on their campuses, they are borrowing tactics of the past — hunger strikes, sit-ins and lists of demands — and have found a collective voice to address their frustrations, hurt and rage.

About two weeks ago, the dean of students at Claremont McKenna College left the university after students protested her comments to a Latina student with the offer to work for those who "don't fit our CMC mold."

These comments by the dean of students demonstrate insensitivity and go beyond the normal protest triggers, which are unequal treatment of minority students on campus, marginalization of minorities. The comments reflect a basic lack of respect for who the student protesters are, where they have come from, how hard they have worked and how long it has taken them to get to where they are today. The CMC dean’s remarks are incredibly stupid. To say a group of students “don’t fit the CMC mold” is the same as saying they are not like us and/or don’t have the qualifications we have to be admitted to the prestigious CMC.

The sad part for me is I taught at CMC for six years back in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is a remarkable campus with respect for the depth of academic thought and leadership. Perhaps what has happened at CMC is it has become an insular institution devoid of real life experiences. However, let me add that it may be an overreach to condemn an entire institution for the insensitive comments of one person. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has been going on in all too many colleges campuses recently.

There are other examples of the unrest on college campuses. About 300 students angry over what they regard as racial insensitivity on the Occidental University campus protested racial policies. Jonathan Veitch, the president of Occidental College, said he and other administrators were open to considering a list of 14 reforms, including the creation of a black studies major and more diversity training, that student protesters had drawn up. I am amazed that any college in the U.S., no less in California, which is a beacon for racial tolerance, still doesn’t have a black studies major at Occidental. In 2014-2015, 42% of non-international Occidental students reported that they were minorities or multiracial, according to school statistics.

Nationwide, complaints of racism and micro-aggression are feeding Facebook pages and websites at Harvard, Brown, Columbia and Willamette universities, as well as at Oberlin, Dartmouth and Swarthmore colleges. Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, announced a number of steps, including the appointment of a deputy dean of diversity, to work toward "a better, more diverse, and more inclusive Yale."

For decades, students have helped drive social change in America, if not the world. Campuses, said University of California President Janet Napolitano, have "historically been places where social issues in the U.S. are raised and where many voices are heard."

Over the decades, student protests have shifted attitudes in the country on civil rights and the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation and apartheid, and some of today's actions are borrowing from tactics of the past. Although some of the strategies may seem familiar, it is the speed and the urgency of today's protests that are different.

"What is unique about these issues is how social media has changed the way protests take place on college campuses," said Tyrone Howard, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA. "A protest goes viral in no time flat. With Instagram and Twitter, you're in an immediate news cycle. This was not how it was 20 or 30 years ago."

Although the targets of these protests are the blatant and subtle forms of racism and inequity that affect the students' lives, the message of the protests resonates with the recent incidents of intolerance and racial inequity on the streets of America.

So, what is the root cause of the unrest? Is it just immature students acting out? Is it a bunch of spoiled kids protesting things they feel entitled to receive and not getting it? At first glance many will say this is, indeed, the cause. It’s easy to dismiss student protests but it misses the underlying conditions in society that have motivated so many campus protests.

Latino and African American students are often under the belief if they leave their community and go to colleges, that it will be better. They believe it will be an upgrade over the challenges that they saw in underserved and understaffed schools. But if the colleges and universities are the same as those schools, then there is disappointment and frustration.

Dean Howard at UCLA has said, “when these students leave their community to go to a university, they often feel conflicted. So when injustice comes up, they are quick to respond because it is what they saw in their community. On some level, it is their chance to let their parents and peers know that they have not forgotten the struggle in the community."

To think racial insensitivity does not exist on college campuses today is to be blinded to the obvious. Many in our society still judge minorities on the basis of the judger’s values; their goals; what they are trying to achieve in life and why. We have to realize people are different. Students are looking for different things in their college education. Minorities want to be heard and understood.

There is nothing inherently wrong with students protesting perceived unequal treatment or a university leadership that is insensitive to their demands. We have free speech in America after all and what better place to live it out than a college campus? Demanding action be taken by the administration is not what is offensive. What is offensive is when students impinge on the rights of other students to get the kind of education they expect at their universities. So, student protesters have to be sensitive to these students’ needs just as they expect university administrators to be respectful of their needs.

In 1852 John Cardinal Henry Newman wrote his classic text, The Idea of a University. He eloquently stated the purpose in a way that should not be forgotten in the fog of today’s student protests. “If one must assign a practical end to a College education, I say it is to train good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world.”

In this context, we could say that universities are laboratories to try new things; to think new thoughts; to challenge the status quo; and to seek to change the world for the better. From an ethical perspective, it is to impart the tools to live a principled, significant and meaningful life and thereby to ultimately and collectively improve our society. Today’s students should internalize these ideals as they seek to be heard and understood.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 24, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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