Racism and Today’s College Campus
Last week, the Vice Provost for Diversity and Climate at the University of Wisconsin‑Madison, Patrick Sims, recorded a video  expressing his outrage over a letter received by a student under her dorm room door allegedly by another student. He read the note left on the door at the beginning of his 8-minute video response (warning — strong language follows): “You fuck with Bucky. You fuck with us. Fuck you nigger bitch.” It was a video that would lead to 8K views and an Inside Higher Education article in just 4 days. It is unlikely that a video response would be created as a response to such an event, let alone including the message that it drove forward. In his response, Sims shares the ownership of the institution. Sims says, “this is not the UW that I agreed to teach at. This is not the forward-thinking institution that I thought it was.” This sends a strong message to the student(s) who wrote the letter– Why would you do this to us? ‘We’ are not this. He places the context back on the student, “You wouldn’t want this to happen to your family.” He then calls on the rest of the campus community to take positive action. “Say something. Speak up. Don’t sit by silently and let this define us.”
Racial issues are not new to college campuses or America. Recent events are only the next round out of many. As Sims says, “I swear you would think we were living in 1916, as opposed to 2016.” Sadly, as a collective people, we haven’t learned. We have not yet embedded it into our DNA to NOT hate. Even though Sims pleads, “We are better than this. We have more to give…”, recent events make me wonder whether we are better than this. In the larger context of what is going on in America- that there are enough people to support candidates who believe in segregation and promote hate, I am not so sure we are. This is not the only time in recent history where a body of Americans have chosen to dial back progress in order to exercise power. Another recent article in Inside Higher Ed reports, “Introduced, debated and passed last week — by the North Carolina House and Senate — and signed by the governor in under 12 hours. Such was sudden and speedy birth of North Carolina’s Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which will force public colleges and universities (as well as other public venues and government buildings) to require their restrooms be used only by people whose biological sex at birth matches the sign on the door.”  Uncomfortable bathroom encounters have already begun, as mothers with young female children walk in to find burly men exiting stalls. How have we come so far, only to dial it back? We need more leaders like Sims to give me hope and to reassure me that we are better than this. This is not a passive call, either. Sims demands that students take positive action with him. “We need to stick together. We need to work together. You need to be part of the solution… whether you want to or not. … No struggle, no progress has ever been made without the voice of students involved.” The questions are whether students today feel compelled to be a part of this change or not and whether they feel strongly enough to uphold the progress that has been made. Has it not been said enough the progress comes at a price? Has it been said too much that all the hard work has been done? There has been recent criticism that today’s society caters too much to the individual. Education is a prime example. In some ways, recognizing that not everyone is the same (or learns the same) is a step in the right direction. In other ways, it is questionable whether our approach has stripped out a dedication to citizenship, togetherness, and collective responsibility.
College campuses are generally bizarrely silent about the hateful events occurring in America today and the impact they are having on today’s campuses. Perhaps faculty writing and research is examining these events, but it’s not like academic journals are that accessible to the public. With cold and unemotional public responses, higher education hopes, like its inevitable demise due to disruption, that these issues will just go away. After all, higher education has survived wars, the Great Depression, and a more recent financial collapse (barely). It is not that there aren’t conversations happening. As Sims says, “you don’t know the conversations we are having behind closed doors.” That is the point of this post. Higher education is not serving as a leader that it once did. That leadership must be seen and heard on campus, in the community, and online. It is not just large universities, it is every single higher education institution. It is not just one or two faculty members, it is every single member of the campus community. Sims further addresses this point, “anything that we put up overnight in one day, can be taken away and in one day. You don’t want that. You want to leave a legacy, that will be long lasting and sustainable.”
It is a thing to ponder if higher education is simply staying true to tradition. As the founder of the first secular institution, Thomas Jefferson imagined a space where individuals would go to be enlightened and “youths of genius from among the classes of the poor” (Notes on Virginia, 1782) would be selected to be educated. A man always in conflict with himself, Jefferson advocated for equality, yet owned slaves to operate his enormous estate. He believed that campuses should educate the citizenry, but he didn’t necessarily say that institutions, themselves, should be political agents for change. In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson says, “educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty” (1787). So, he believed the output of higher education (graduates) would go on to fight for peace and order, but it is questionable whether Jefferson would have agreed that campuses need to serve as political leaders within the great society and that they should start by setting an example on their own campus. Perhaps this is the problem.
In the many YouTube comments, someone said that Vice Provost Sims’ response suggests a motto for our time: Love is power. It goes without saying that love is a better power. The only gain that comes from oppressive power is deep, dark pain that festers until it has consumed your body and mind into something unrecognizable. The gains that come from loving power are endlessly fruitful, uplifting, and empowering. Leadership theorists often discuss the differences between a good leader and a bad leader. Perhaps you side with those who believe that bad leaders aren’t really leaders at all. Or perhaps you know that the differences in these two types of leaders are the ways in which they lead, how they treat others along their leadership journey, and the reasons for why they lead. Being a good leader involves these things, just as much as how you treat yourself personally. If you give yourself permission to oppress others, you are only oppressing yourself. You are not giving yourself the capacity to love, to support, and to help. You are not giving yourself the opportunity to make the great gains found in loving power. The same, perhaps, can be said for higher education waiting around for current events to pass. Higher education is not simply doing nothing. It has made a decision to do nothing, take up the opportunity it has been afforded to wait around, and allow injustice to happen. Time will tell whether higher education chooses to benefit from loving power, or wait around to let oppressive power consume it.
- Enough is Enough, Patrick Sims: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMBQUzwnCL0
- Restroom unrest, Josh Logue: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/03/28/north-carolina-bathroom-law-could-change-practices-public-colleges-and-universities