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OPINION

Universities shouldn’t rely on Black student activists for equity solutions

Relying on a particular demographic of students to deliver solutions that fall squarely under the job descriptions of university administration isn’t listening and learning, it’s lazy.

March for Black Student Demands on April 7 at the University of Richmond.
March for Black Student Demands on April 7 at the University of Richmond.Jesse Amankwaah

This summer marks the completion of a full school year since universities across the country made sweeping commitments to diversify their faculties, expand their curriculums, and improve the experiences of their non-white students. Still, many students and alumni were justifiably skeptical, given the long history of student activism for racial justice — often led by Black students — meeting substantial administrative resistance. In light of this ongoing struggle, true progress should be measured not just by what was achieved over the last year, but also how and by whom.

In February 2020, the Harvard Equity Coalition sent an open letter to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s administration demanding a mandatory course on race and inequality, among other reforms. In a response that student leaders dubbed “lackluster,” the dean, Douglas W. Elmendorf, stated that he was not yet “convinced” of the need for such a course. Immediately following George Floyd’s murder, just six months later, Elmendorf announced a “new, required, immersive course on race and public policy” in a statement that did not mention the Equity Coalition (which would later be credited in the course description).

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Cassandra Duchan Saucedo, a Harvard master of public policy and Stanford master of business administration candidate who coordinated the Equity Coalition’s efforts, was frustrated by the abrupt reversal in June and rushed timeline for developing the class by August. “They didn’t consult with any of the student organizers who thought of the idea. They did their own thing,” she said of the course, which was ultimately offered as a brief two-week module. The Equity Coalition continues to lobby for a standard semester-long format.

This chain of events epitomizes the all-too-common dynamic between campus activists and administrations. “Once the work is done, the administration usually reframes the legacy of the organizing as collaborative, but the process is like pulling teeth. Nobody really wants to engage,” said Jesse Amankwaah, who spent his senior year at the University of Richmond organizing in a Black student coalition.

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Overcoming administrative resistance takes a toll. Amankwaah spent about six hours a week formally organizing, but he and his co-organizers — all five of whom were Black women — were frequently approached by fellow students about their work in person, over e-mail, and even via Zoom chat during class. “The lines are blurred between being a student and an activist. There are hours you could count, but the pressure is constant,” said Amankwaah.

This reality highlights one of the central faults with relying on students to do such sensitive work. Racial justice activism in particular often comes at distinct personal and social costs that no student should have to bear.

Undergraduate members of the Black Justice League at Princeton University were subjects of social media attacks and a bomb and firearm threat in 2015 when they staged a 32-hour sit-in protest. The group’s demands included renaming the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and instituting academic requirements on the history and culture of marginalized groups.

Five years later, in the summer of 2020, Wilson’s name was removed and an academic requirement for a course in culture and difference was created. Over 350 faculty members signed an open letter that included a call for the university president to apologize to and credit the Black Justice League for their early leadership on these reforms. In response, another faculty member publicly called the Black Justice League a “terrorist organization,” directing renewed vitriol toward the organizers, all of whom graduated before their efforts came to fruition.

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The reliance on student activists for equity work is not only harmful to those students; it also devalues the expertise and investment that racial justice efforts require. The institutional transformation necessary to make universities more equal — recruiting and hiring, curriculum design, mental health resourcing — is not an extracurricular activity. Relying on a particular demographic of students to deliver solutions that fall squarely under the job descriptions of university administration isn’t listening and learning, it’s lazy.

“If the university wants something researched, they hire a professional to research it. If they’re building something they care about, they hire a consultant for it. . . . Even though I’m proud of the work that we do, I’m not an expert. I’m just taking on a role that nobody else is. We’re still waiting to see — do they hire professionals to do this work?” said Amankwaah of his efforts at Richmond.

Since the ’60s, Black students have led the critical work of making universities more equal learning environments. Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, refers to the period from 1965 to 1972 as the “Black Campus Movement,” in which Black student activists staged strikes, dropped out in protest, and took over buildings to reform and diversify higher education. Through movements at over 1,000 universities in 49 states, these students formed the first Black student unions, secured scholarships and enrollment increases for Black students, and established Black and African American studies departments. While it may be tempting to revel in how far we’ve come since these milestones, the path to reform over the last school year makes clear that we still have a long way to go.

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Universities claiming commitments to antiracism cannot continue to exploit the labor of their Black students while simultaneously underserving them. At the core of the need for reform is the fact that Black students across the country are suffering painfully consistent injustices of racial harassment, marginalization, and erasure, particularly at the predominantly white institutions that the vast majority attend. Black students cannot be asked to solve these cultural and institutional ills while surviving and succeeding in spite of them.

“It’s clear to us that [the administration] thinks that this work is our job, and that their job is to focus on ‘more important’ things like fund-raising, but I think we can all agree that [equity] is a critical part of education,” said Cassandra Duchan Saucedo of her experience. “We’ve had to learn how to push back and say, ‘We’re telling you what we want, but it’s your job to figure out how to actually do that.’ ”

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Morgan Brewton-Johnson is an intern with Globe Opinion. She is also a master of public policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and master of business administration candidate at the Harvard Business School. Follow her on Twitter @morgan_bjohnson.