Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images

How Black Lives Matter saved higher education

Universities mattered again in 2015

December 31, 2015 2:00AM ET

When Tim Wolfe, president of the University of Missouri, resigned on Nov. 9, following wide-scale student protests (including a hunger strike by graduate student Jonathan Butler) over his failure to respond sufficiently to racist incidents on campus, many academics across the country were shocked. In a world where politicians and CEOs are regularly forced out of their jobs for scandals and lackluster performances, college presidents rarely capitulate; they seldom surrender to calls for resignation and typically enjoy tenures of 8.5 years on average (though many last much longer, including Bard President Leon Botstein, who has been serving since 1975). In fact, Wolfe’s resignation was likely due to the fact that he is not really of the academic world; he came to Missouri from the tech business, starting his career at IBM and eventually becoming president of Novell, a software company based in Utah. Had Wolfe followed the traditional path of college president and been thoroughly immersed in American academia, he would have known that ignoring student protests and even hunger strikes is his right in today’s cynical university culture.

It is part of a college president’s job to absorb the discontent of students, faculty, and staff. As defenders of academic freedom, they must let students project their deepest darkest fears of what’s often referred to as the “neoliberal academic industrial complex,” a term for the increasingly cozy and troubling connection between universities and the corporate world, onto them. Anyone who has ever gone to college has surely known of a student group at one point or another calling for the resignation of the college president, but we all knew it was in vain. As an undergraduate at Columbia University, I was asked to sign countless petitions calling for the resignation of our president, Lee Bollinger, mostly over concerns over his use of eminent domain to expand the campus into Harlem. I read those petitions as most students did — dramatic gestures intended to incite policy change, not regime change.

But that ambivalence all changed in 2015: Wolfe’s resignation was followed by college deans and administrators across the country stepping down over allegations of racial insensitivity. Wolfe’s resignation was swiftly followed by news that the chancellor of the University of Missouri was stepping down as well amid the controversy. In California, the dean of students at Claremont McKenna, Mary Spellman, resigned after an email she sent to a Latina student saying she would try to better serve minority students who “don’t fit our CMC mold” surfaced. Erika Christakis, the associate master of Silliman College at Yale University who criticized an email encouraging Yale students to be mindful of potentially offensive Halloween costumes, also stepped down from her teaching role at the university following protests.

Students at Mizzou didn’t even see it coming. Like many of their peers at colleges across the U.S., they’d spent much of the last several years pessimistic about the utility of student activism, starting to accept that their calls for reform were likely to be ignored. In fact, student activists at Missouri had been trying for years with little success to rally even their fellow students to protest racial incidents on campus. In 2008, student activists unsuccessfully sought the support of campus sports teams to protest a state ballot initiative that would have put an end to affirmative action in Missouri. In 2010, cotton balls were strewn across the lawn of the Gaines-Oldham Black Culture Center, an unmistakable reference to slavery. In 2011, someone spray painted the n-word on a campus statue. Protests took place, but they failed to catch on en masse, and they certainly did not have the support of the university’s popular student athletes. 

I too began to despair, wondering if the socially conscious students I was surrounded by in college and dreamed of teaching as I worked toward my Ph.D. simply did not exist any more? Had the university become too conservative, prioritizing college-ranking lists over teaching real critical engagement? Had students, understandably concerned about the rise of college tuition and mounting debt, become wary of rocking an already leaky boat?

Student protesters are using the tools we teach in college classrooms to engage critically with the world around them.

And what did the retreat of the university from taking on social issues, as it did in the 1960s in the midst of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, mean for the role of the university in American society itself? Had the dream of the liberal arts education, to turn students into informed citizens capable of participating fully in a democratic society, finally lost out to the cynical view that the degree is merely an overpriced piece of paper, a one-way ticket to a cubicle and a 401(k)?

Just when the answer to all these questions looked as if it would be in the affirmative, a massive sea change occurred. What made this year different? Black Lives Matter.

Jonathan Butler, the Mizzou graduate student who went on a hunger strike to bring about Wolfe’s resignation, has said that the former college president’s demise started with “MU for Mike Brown,” a Black Lives Matter-affiliated student group formed in solidarity with the uprisings in nearby Ferguson over the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. At Boston College, student organizer Sriya Bhattacharyya has also cited the importance of BLM: “At the core of all these [campus] movements is the unifying belief that black lives matter.” At BC, Bhattacharyya’s group sang an anti-racist Christmas Carol, “Walkin’ Through a White Man’s Wonderland” outside of a luncheon for the college’s board of trustees. (You can listen to it here.) At Harvard and Princeton, the title of college “master” has been abolished for its evocation of slavery.

The renaming of campus buildings has been a matter of intense debate. At Princeton, Black Lives Matter student protesters staged a sit-in outside the office of university president Christopher Eisgruber, calling for buildings named after Woodrow Wilson to be renamed due to the former Princeton and U.S. president’s racist political stances and policies. Other Princeton students do not think Wilson’s name should be removed, believing it is important not to forget Princeton’s legacy and complicity in slavery and racism. I recently finished my Ph.D. from Princeton and taught courses on Russian and East European literature while I was there as a graduate student. What struck me most of all about both sides of the Wilson controversy was that students were discussing ideas such as cultural memory, the politics of public space and historical trauma; their arguments were nuanced, contextualized, and historicized, a far cry from the caricatures of student protesters painted too frequently in media outlets such as The Atlantic, Slate and New York Magazine as failing to use intellectual debate to frame their grievances. These were all ideas my students discussed in class, though in terms of contemporary Russia’s Soviet legacy and the place of the Holocaust in East and Central European cultural memory.

What I saw in the 2015 student protesters is that they are using the tools we teach in college classrooms to engage critically with the world around them. Fueled by the intersection of history and politics at the core of the Black Lives Matter movement, they are making the university and college campuses politically relevant in a way that they have not been since the 1960s. At a time when the value of a college education, particularly a humanities education, is under attack, the Black Lives Matter campus protesters of 2015 have shown, through their own display of historically informed and intersectional politics, that universities matter.

Jennifer Wilson is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literature from Princeton University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter