A town hall meeting at UNC-Chapel Hill to discuss racial issues on campus was disrupted last week by students who, instead of engaging in a dialogue, presented demands of administrators.
Among those demands were the removal of Silent Sam, the Confederate monument in a prominent campus spot; the firing of new UNC system president-designate Margaret Spellings, a former education secretary under President George W. Bush; the abolition of tuition and fees; the hiring of more minority faculty members; and a general improvement in racial inclusion on campus.
Campus administrators have always understood the passion in young people and the need to hear them. But protests at the University of Missouri that resulted in the president’s resignation and protests on other campuses, including the University of South Carolina, are a challenge for university chiefs with academic backgrounds who are not used to dealing with aggressive demonstrations.
All they can do is encourage dialogue but demand that students listen as well as protest. In Missouri, the defining moment of the protest was the football team’s threat not to play unless the president resigned. Will Chapel Hill’s minority athletes, particularly in men’s basketball and football, join protests with similar threats?
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The truth is that racial tensions have been present on campuses nationwide. Minority students have gained admission on campuses, but some complain there’s little support for them once they’re there. And on Southern campuses, there remain symbols of the not-so-good old days such as, yes, the Silent Sam statue.
Ivy League schools are feeling understandable pressures as well, with Yale and Princeton seeing protests. The most interesting response may be at Brown in Rhode Island, where the university has announced a $100 million plan to boost diversity, including a dramatic increase in the number of minority faculty members. There was a suspected assault on the campus earlier this month of a student visiting for a Latino Ivy League conference. That has spurred awareness and concern and now action.
Students are supposed to be passionate about those issues in which they believe. Sometimes, their protests make a constructive difference – the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Vietnam-era protests being good examples. The challenge for those who teach and lead them is to ensure that discussion, not just demands, define any confrontation.
That said, with the symbols of university history tied to the Confederacy remaining focal points, it’s understandable that students – and there are white and black students involved in these protests – would spur efforts to remove those symbols or de-emphasize them. That demand is reasonable. So should be the discussion about how to respond to this and other, more extreme demands.