If the University of Missouri was the spark, then the fire didn’t take long to spread.
Since the resignation of its president and chancellor Nov. 9, protesters have organized at more than 100 colleges and universities nationwide. Social media sites have lit up with voices of dissent, and what began as a grievance has evolved into a movement.
Possible emboldened by more than a year of protests around police brutality and the nation’s growing support of Black Lives Matter, students are taking to social media to question the institutions then 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.
Their actions seem to have hit the mark.
Last week, 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 out CMC mold.”
Tuesday night, 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.
Students at USC have similarly proposed a campus-wide action plan, which includes the appointment of a top administrator to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
Nationwide, complaints of racism and microaggression are feeding Facebook pages and websites at Harvard, Brown, Columbia and Willamette universities, as well as at Oberlin, Dartmouth and Swarthmore colleges. Protesters at Ithaca College staged a walkout to demand the president’s resignation, and 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 United States are raised and where many voices are heard.”
Over the decades, student protest 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 protest that are different.
“What is unique about these issues is how social media has changed the way protests that 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.”
Howard also believes that the effectiveness of the actions at the University of Missouri has encouraged students on other campuses to raise their voices.
“A president stepping down is a huge step,” he said. “Students elsewhere have to wonder, ‘Wow, if that can happen there, why can’t we bring out our issues to the forefront as well?”
Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, agrees. The resignation of two top Missouri administrators, Harper said, showed students and athletes around the country that they have power they may not have realized before.
Echoes of the 1960s in today’s actions are clear, said Robert Cohen, a history professor at New York University and author of “Freedom’s Orator,” a biography of Mario Savio, who led the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in the 1960s.
Today’s protests, like those in the ’60s, are memorable because they have been effective in pushing for change and sparking dialogue as well as polarization. -Robert Cohen, a New York University history professor.
“The tactical dynamism of these nonviolent protests and the public criticism of them are in important ways reminiscent of the 1960s,” Cohen said. “Today’s protests, like those in the ’60s, are memorable because they have been effective in pushing for change and sparking dialogue as well as polarization.”
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 protest resonates with the recent incidents of intolerance and racial inequity on the streets of America.
There is a reason for this, Howard said. Campuses are microcosms of society, he said, and are often comparable in terms of representation and opportunity. “So there is a similar fight for more representation, acceptance and inclusion.”
On campuses and off, Harper, of the University of Pennsylvania center, finds a rising sense of impatience among African Americans about social change. “As a Black person, I think Black people are just fed up. It’s time out for ignoring these issues,” he said.