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Racial discrimination protests spread at colleges nationwide

Protesters at Ithaca College chanted "Tom Rochon, no confidence," referring to the school's president, on Wednesday.Brett Carlsen/The New York Times

The passion that ousted the heads of the University of Missouri after protests over racial discrimination on campus is spreading to other colleges across the country, turning traditional fall semesters into a period of intense focus on racial misunderstanding and whether activism stifles free speech.

Hundreds of students demonstrated at Ithaca College in upstate New York on Wednesday, demanding the resignation of the college president, Tom Rochon, for what they said was his lackluster response to complaints of racial insensitivity on campus, including an episode in which two white male alumni on a panel called a black alumna a "savage," after she said she had a "savage hunger" to succeed.


At Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, about 100 students demonstrated in solidarity with their counterparts in Ithaca and Missouri, while at the University of Kansas, the administration called a town hall meeting to give students and faculty a chance "to be heard" before any concerns about race on campus could grow.

At Claremont McKenna College in California, the junior class president resigned Tuesday after a furor over a Facebook photograph that showed her posing with two women who were wearing sombreros, ponchos and mustaches for Halloween. A campus demonstration followed on Wednesday.

And at Yale, the campus is still in turmoil about an overheard "white girls only" remark at an off-campus fraternity party, and debating over whether students had a right to wear transgressive Halloween costumes.

In interviews, students say they have been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that grew out of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by the police in Ferguson, Missouri. They say the victory of protesting students and football players at the University of Missouri has spurred them to demand that their universities provide a safe space for students of color.

In New Haven, Connecticut, Aaron Z. Lewis, a 21-year-old senior at Yale, used to spend his days studying cognitive science and thinking about what he will do after graduation. Now he is devoting his time to protesting and writing about racial injustice, particularly for black women, on campus and elsewhere.


Lewis and other students said the racism they had experienced or observed was often subtle rather than blatant, but no less disturbing and no less deserving of attention.

"I don't think it matters what my own personal experiences are with this," Lewis said. "What matters is that we all need to have empathy for the experiences that people of color have even if we don't have those experiences for ourselves."

He added, "It really is hard to believe because we want to believe that we're a postracial society, but it's just not true."

At Smith, the protesting students gathered at noon in a tight circle, with umbrellas and parkas to shield them from the afternoon's spitting rain. Some had left classes 10 or 15 minutes early.

"Systematic oppression affects us all," said Tyahra Angus, a senior, speaking through a megaphone to the group, a mix of minority and white students.

The environs were a far cry from the University of Missouri. Smith's undergraduate student body is all women and the institution itself is situated in a progressive college town. It is not in the midst of major upheaval.

But the students who gathered on Wednesday spoke of "microaggressions" — tone-deaf slights directed toward minority students — and continuing difficulties of being a student of color on a contemporary college campus, and encouraged their peers to raise awareness of them.


"It's the microaggressions in classrooms," Raven Fowlkes-Witten, a junior who organized Wednesday's demonstration, said in an interview. "It's students not feeling represented. It's few faculty members of color,"

As Fowlkes-Witten addressed the group, she stood under an umbrella held by Donna Lisker, the dean of the college.

"I don't think I ever want to fall into a false sense of security that things can't happen here," Lisker said in an interview after the demonstration, adding, "Being continually reflective about what you're doing, and listening — that's why I went today."

At Ithaca, one of the issues is the on-campus panel on Oct. 8, in which Tatiana Sy, a 2009 graduate, said she had a "savage hunger" to do everything in college. Another panelist, J. Christopher Burch, the chief executive of Burch Creative Capital who is also an alumnus, responded, "I love what the savage here said," according to YouTube clips of the event. The moderator, Bob Kur, a former NBC News correspondent, joined in, pointing to Burch, saying, "You are driven," and pointing to Sy and saying, "You're the savage." The men are both white, and Sy describes herself as Afro-Cuban.

When Sy objected, Burch said, "It's a compliment." Burch later apologized.

Sy, the special events director for the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, said in an interview on Wednesday that she had been uncomfortable because Burch had continued to refer to her as "the savage" even after she reminded him what her name was. "You could sense that there was an energy in the room that everyone was uncomfortable with," she said.


Nalani Haueter, 19, a sophomore and sociology major at Ithaca from San Luis Obispo, California, said Wednesday that she has been shocked by the numbers of people participating in protests and meetings. "Throughout the last couple of months," she said, "it's grown into a large percentage of this campus being active and paying attention."

In a statement Wednesday, Tom Grape, the chairman of the Ithaca College board, said the trustees took the issues seriously and would work with Rochon to address them. Rochon, who attended Wednesday's protests, has promised changes, including the hiring of a diversity officer and the creation of a review board for complaints about the campus police.

In a campus email, the president of Claremont McKenna College, Hiram E. Chodosh, said, "I stand by our students," and announced steps including a new leadership position on diversity and help for new students, especially first-generation college students, in adjusting to campus life. Chodosh said in an interview that one role of higher education was "to provide a very special home for our students as a bridge from their families to the truly adult and independent world."

Roger Lopez, 19, a sophomore studying political science at Yale who grew up in New York City, said some students had been so upset and consumed by recent events that they had asked for extensions on major papers or exams.


Students had even started questioning whether it was appropriate to call the leaders of the university's residential colleges "masters," because they thought the term had connotations of slavery.