At colleges and universities across the country, including at Wesleyan, students are marching, protesting, and staging sit-ins in an effort to get presidents and administrators to acknowledge the racism that exists on their campuses.
In the past week, Timothy Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri, and Mary Spellman, the Dean of Students at Claremont McKenna College, have resigned from their positions, while R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus, announced that he would step down to a less prominent role at the end of the year. Elsewhere, university presidents have emailed their students, stating their opposition to institutionalized racism and their support of student activists at the University of Missouri, Yale University, and their own campuses.
“Observing overt acts of racism, and listening to callous racist rhetoric in the public sphere, harms all, but it really disrupts the lives of those already made most vulnerable by unjust systems of discrimination and inequality,” University President Michael Roth wrote in an email to Wesleyan students.
That university presidents are responding to racism on their own campuses is a welcome and belated change. Both President Peter Salovey of Yale University and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway recently issued statements calling for more inclusion and support for students of color at their university. These came, however, only after each failed to respond to allegations that the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon turned away black women from a party.
Roth’s statement, meanwhile, came almost two months after students petitioned The Wesleyan Argus in response to an op-ed that staff writer Bryan Stascavage ’18 wrote about the Black Lives Matter Movement. Roth—along with provost Joyce Jacobsen and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias—responded to requests that the publication be defunded with a piece defending free speech. “Black Lives Matter, and So Does Free Speech,” they argued. The statement was necessary—it is hard for me to see the efforts to defund the paper as anything but an attack on free speech—but some students reasonably wished that someone in the administration would have addressed what they viewed as their primary concerns: the lack of diversity and lack of representation of students of color in The Argus.
What has been most heartening in this past week, however, is not the response of administrators but the tactics of student activists at this university. Whereas, earlier this year, they attacked Stascavage’s op-ed and The Argus, activists have now, for the most part, focused their attacks on the administration.
When a group of students of color came to The Argus offices on September 17, their demands were clear: the publication should apologize for having published an op-ed that hurt so many people. In an editorial, The Argus apologized for having hurt members of the Wesleyan community, and for having done a poor job editing and fact-checking the piece, but that was deemed insufficient: a petition calling for a temporary defunding and boycott of the publication until it met certain standards of diversity and inclusion was announced to members of The Argus the following Sunday.
Students, administrators, some members of The Argus (including myself), and writers from the outside press quickly called this a free speech issue. Some of the petitioners rejected that argument, saying that it was not a free speech issue. Some petitioners argued, in my discussions with them, that they didn’t have problems with the fact that the piece had been written but believed it should not have been published. Others have argued that focus on free speech diverted the discussion away from issues of racial diversity in The Argus.
They may have been right when they said the article should not have been published as it was written, but when they called for the defunding of The Argus—and when the Wesleyan Student Assembly voted on a resolution that, pending a later vote, would alter the funding structure and likely reduce the overall funding of The Argus—their points were rendered moot. College publications, as Steven Greenhouse, a former New York Times reporter, wrote in a letter to the editor, make mistakes. College newspapers exist so that writers like me have a chance to fail in their reporting before people read their articles.
It is fair to say that The Argus should have taken more care than it did before publishing Stascavage’s piece. The Argus staff should take special care when editing a piece that covers sensitive topics. But when funding is put into jeopardy over these mistakes, we are being told that we shouldn’t take risks or wade into controversies. The repercussions are too harsh if and when we fail. It’s better to not talk about race, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, we’re told, than it is to discuss these issues but risk writing about them—or editing them—poorly.
In the past couple of days, student activists at this university have aimed their criticism at President Roth and at institutional racism on college campuses. A poster at the Digital Design Studio told Roth, “You have failed us.” Students stood together at Usdan on Thursday in solidarity with the protests at the University of Missouri and Yale.
“This is not just a Missouri issue; this is not just a Yale issue,” Hailey Broughton-Jones ’18 was quoted in an Argus article as saying during that event. “This problem exists everywhere. This problem exists at Wesleyan.”
The shift towards talking about Roth and institutional racism at Wesleyan has changed what we’ve talked about with regard to student protests. The narrative of these events has appropriately become centered on racism, instead of free speech.
This shift reflects the changing narrative throughout the country of protests at college campuses. After protesters at the University of Missouri ousted their president, major publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post covered the protests as an issue of racism. No such articles, to my knowledge, were written about Wesleyan.
To be sure, journalists continue to complain about free speech violations in what New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb calls “the free speech diversion.” As soon as students violate some issue of free speech, Cobb argues, the press focuses on that issue, and not on the racism students are fighting against. But the national dialogue has changed. When protesters at the University of Missouri briefly barred members of the press, including student photographer Tim Tai, from taking pictures at a public location, members of the press predictably derided it. But a Washington Post article, among others, also explained why the protesters might have been resistant to the media’s presence.
Even if discussions of free speech are, as Cobb argues, mere diversions from more substantive issues like racism, they are predictable and avoidable diversions. Cobb is eager to criticize journalists for turning every issue into a free speech issue and refusing to do the same with issues of racism, and he is right for doing so, but he fails to acknowledge how many of these narrative wounds are self-inflicted. Whether or not the media should have focused on the protesters who pushed Tai out of a space he had the legal right to be in, the protesters should not have pushed Tai back. Nor should students at Wesleyan threaten The Argus’s funding, even though the media should have done more to acknowledge the underlying problems of institutional racism at Wesleyan.
Recent events at Wesleyan, Missouri, and other college campuses, moreover, prove that free speech diversions can be diverted back into issues of racism. Now that student activists are emphasizing their experiences of racism on campus, instead of focusing on defunding The Argus over an op-ed it published, we are talking about racism, and not about free speech. It’s about time.
Lee is a member of the Class of 2016.