In October of 2015, nearly one year ago, a graduate student at the University of Missouri started a hunger strike in response to what he felt was a lack of appropriate responses by the administration to a series of racist incidents on campus. His demonstration grew to include mass student demonstrations, a faculty walkout, and the university’s football team declaring they wouldn’t play in an upcoming game.
While this wasn’t the first student demonstration related to racially biased incidents on college campuses, it gained a large amount of national news coverage at the time and garnered attention on campuses around the country. Similar protests occurred in quick succession at many colleges, and although not all student demonstrations dealt explicitly with race relations, by December there were over 50 colleges with student groups protesting, staging demonstrations, and issuing lists of demands to their campus administration to better address issues of racism at their institution.
Unfortunately, according to Tony Vellela, a historian of student activism and author of New Voices: Student Activism in the ‘80s and ‘90s (South End Press, 1988), most colleges see activism as “something to keep in check,” and have subsequently created disciplinary policies to discourage students from participating in any future demonstrations.
But what if more campus administrators and faculty took a different view? What if these events were seen not as a crisis to be resolved as quickly as possible, but a learning opportunity for students who have the ambition and desire to make a real difference in the places where they live, work, and study?
After all, the students who are protesting on campus today will be the potential leaders of political events and conversations in the future. The way they experience activism and engagement while they are students will shape how they participate in changing their communities after they graduate.
I was fortunate to witness an example of faculty seizing an opportunity for learning in the midst of protest this past April. For one week, nine students staged a sit-in of Duke University’s Allen Building, the main administrative building on the university’s West Campus. The group sought to bring attention to what they saw as unfair wages and biased treatment of campus workers. The administration did not force the students to leave, but neither would they allow the occupying students to re-enter if they chose to leave. As a result, over the course of the week, many more students began camping out on the grass outside the building as a show of solidarity and support.
While visiting with colleagues near the Allen Building one afternoon, I noticed a professor talking with a group of non-protesting students. After a few minutes, these students began filtering through the tented area interviewing their protesting peers. When I introduced myself to the faculty member, Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, she told me she was teaching a class on activism and storytelling and felt that it was more appropriate to take the class out to capture the experiences and attitudes of protesters in the middle of an active demonstration as opposed to teaching about past protest movements in a classroom. (Ahern-Dodson will have an article in the November issue of Change magazine about this same experience.) Additionally, I learned that the day before, other faculty had hosted a “teach-in” event where they gathered with students outside of the Allen Building to talk about the history and context of student activism on campus.
What some administrators may have viewed as an unfortunate media event by a group of idealistic students was to these professors an occasion for students to learn in unique and memorable ways. We would all be wise to view student activism not as a threat, but as a learning opportunity.
If the ultimate goal of the college experience is for students to learn, then everything, include protests and demonstrations, is a part of that endeavor.
To fail to view it as such is a disservice not just to the students, but to the communities in which they’ll live, work, and lead when they graduate.
Shea is a development officer for the Divinity School of Duke University. He is an ordained United Methodist minister and a current doctoral student in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, studying higher education management. He previously served as a minister at Duke University Chapel and as the Director of Admissions for Duke Divinity School.
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