Protest response seeks to avoid PR disaster
In a show of solidarity for black students at the University of Missouri — and an acknowledgement of the shared experience of students of color at USC — hundreds of students gathered in Hahn Plaza Thursday, eventually protesting at Provost Michael Quick’s door and inciting an impromptu meeting with Quick and Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry. The surprise forum, which indicates an unprecedented and important move that students are finally being heard, created tangible impacts that cannot be understated. Promises for bi-weekly meetings, open forums, office hours, shortened Title IX response times and formal assignments of different administrators to address parts of the diversity resolution passed by the Undergraduate Student Government earlier this week are all essential steps to engaging students in a productive dialogue about improving the campus climate.
But still, the actions of the University administration in response to the protest — and protests across the country — indicate more that they are scared of additional negative publicity about USC’s campus climate, and quite frankly, for their own jobs following the resignations of top officials at other colleges across the country. In fact, earlier on Thursday, the Dean of Students at Claremont McKenna College resigned after students protested that the administration had failed to adequately address issues of racial discrimination. And according to student organizer Denys Reyes, that drastic step was taken because of mountains of negative publicity.
“The institution has only now started to respond to our efforts because it’s a PR crisis,” Reyes told KPCC.
Thus, in light of the resignations both at Claremont McKenna College and at the University of Missouri earlier in the week, it’s hard to believe that the University choosing now to finally respond to student advocacy is an issue of remaining accountable to students as opposed to avoiding a publicity disaster.
The administration’s mixed intentions manifests in its continuation of muddled promises to students advocating for diversity. At the meeting Thursday, Quick and Carry were insistent on repeating that they are “committed” to diversity, that they are “committed” to having these conversations and that they are “committed” to making students feel safe on campus. But if the administration is truly — truly — committed, it shouldn’t have to tell students that. It should have proven to students that it has an action plan to address the issues students have brought to the forefront of advocacy. And though administrators took responsibility for their lack of transparency about possible developments, they continue to be unclear whether the promises that they have made are concrete or will result in tangible change.
Maybe administrators are responding to students now because they’re afraid of the consequences that have unfolded at other universities that ignored calls for reform. But, if their efforts result in concrete changes for students on campus, maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not the administration is sincere.
It’s easy for students of color to feel exhausted, invisible and unheard by a University administration largely dominated by old, white men who don’t seem to know or care about the minority experience at USC — though, to be fair, that dynamic may be changing soon. But the national publicity of resignations of top positions at universities nationwide, combined with the show of support from students across the country, indicate that the nation is undeniably on the cusp of a historic movement about how race is being treated in higher education.
So it’s a good time to be a diversity advocate at the University. To the hundreds of students who skipped class to rally for solidarity, spent countless hours drafting and arguing for the difficult passage of the USG diversity resolution and continued to advocate for fostering a climate of real acceptance: Your work does not go unnoticed, and it is not over. And advocates must seize the political momentum now to hold administrators accountable.
Student leaders have done more than their fair share of figuring out what the administration should do to make students feel welcome. And though it is commendable that the administration is concretely allocating time to meet and discuss with students about diversity issues, it is now the time — no, it is far past the time — for them to be a pioneer of navigating the complex and difficult task of making higher education welcome for everyone.