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College campuses have become fertile ground for the movement, a network of provocative activists who are clamoring for an overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system and other social changes aimed at bettering the lives of African Americans.
The movement’s most visible victory on campus came last week, when the president of the University of Missouri System resigned after a group called Concerned Student 1950 launched a chain of protests. But other groups with similar priorities are agitating at campuses from North Carolina to Oregon — and forcing significant changes.
At Columbia University in New York, a Black Lives Matter-aligned group called Students Against Mass Incarceration prompted the university this summer to drop its investments in private prisons.
At Kalamazoo College in Michigan, demonstrations this spring led officials to agree to open an intercultural center where minority students can find support.
At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, anger over a September 2014 column viewed as unfairly critical of the Black Lives Matter movement led the student government to cut off funding for the campus newspaper.
And at Georgetown University in the District, student demonstrations led the administration last week to rechristen two buildings that had been named for college presidents who sold slaves.
The shift to academia has expanded the movement’s focus beyond raw anger over young men dying at the hands of police. Campus activists tend to have more nuanced and even symbolic concerns: Groups at nearly two dozen colleges have demanded a more diverse faculty, more ethnic-studies classes, improved mental health services for students of color and policies for dealing with incidents the activists find offensive.
Academic institutions have struggled at times to respond to these demands, particularly when they come into conflict with the free-speech rights of others. Meanwhile, the protests have sparked tension between activists and other groups — such as college journalists — who traditionally have been sympathetic.
Social movements have long found a home at institutions of higher learning, which have historically encouraged the free exchange of ideas among students who have the energy and freedom to pursue new passions. Student groups played a critical role in the civil rights movement and antiwar protests of the 1960s, the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s, and protests over the war in Iraq during the past decade.
Many students in the movement say they were driven to act by the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 and Michael Brown in Ferguson last year — two young, unarmed black men whose shooting deaths outraged the nation and crystallized perceptions of racial discrimination in the United States. In interviews, student activists said the deaths of Martin and Brown made clear how far the country has to go to achieve racial justice.
Many also were infuriated by their universities’ responses to Brown’s killing, which sparked massive demonstrations in Ferguson and elsewhere.
“We just wanted a public acknowledgment of what was going on, because the grief and trauma were real,” said Rian Brown, a senior religion studies major at Kalamazoo College who is now involved with her school’s chapter of #BlackLivesMatter, the national organization whose name became a moniker for the broader movement.
Rian Brown and other students went to Ferguson to demonstrate in the months after Michael Brown’s death, and Rian Brown was arrested. When she returned to school, she said, she found herself distracted and depressed. Her grades plummeted, and she lost her scholarship. Now, she says, she raises money online to pay her tuition.
The issue is personal for many of these students: They have witnessed the election of America’s first black president, but they arrive at college to find an environment surprisingly unwelcoming to minorities, said Peniel E. Joseph, a professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
“They’ve been bombarded with a lot of lies and contradictions. But one of the biggest lies was post-racialism, that because of Obama’s election they are going to experience an equality of opportunity,” Joseph said. Then “they come to college and find there are no black professors, the curriculum is not diverse . . . and they become victims of racial oppression.”
While social media is a critical tool for these activists, many students are also looking back to borrow tactics from activists of the 1960s. They have dug deep into their universities’ histories, discovering the unacknowledged role slave labor played in building their colleges and the historically black communities that were wiped out to make room for new dormitories.
At Georgetown, for instance, students demanded the renaming of Mulledy and McSherry halls after discovering the buildings were named for school presidents who orchestrated the sale of slaves to help pay off a campus debt. At Missouri, students named their group in honor of the first black student, who attended the university in 1950.
At the University of Cincinnati, Alexander Shelton began organizing immediately after Michael Brown’s death, founding a group called UC Students Against Injustice. Over time, Shelton said, he and others accumulated a long list of grievances: the dwindling proportion of black students and professors on campus, the number of racially charged incidents that they said went unchallenged by the administration, the barrage of crime alerts that unhelpfully identified the suspect simply as a “black male.”
Then, earlier this year, a white officer with the university police department shot and killed Samuel DuBose, a black local resident, during a traffic stop. The incident — which led to murder charges against the officer — gave rise to the Irate 8, a group named for the percentage of black students in the University of Cincinnati student body last year.
The Irate 8 group has issued a list of demands to the university, aimed at improving diversity and seeking changes at the police department. The university’s chief diversity officer, Bleuzette Marshall, said she has met repeatedly with the group to hear its concerns and to convey the message that changes are afoot. For example, the percentage of students who are black climbed to 10.4 percent during the current school year, a small but significant improvement, she said.
“Our circumstance is different than Missouri,” Marshall said. “The reason theirs escalated the way that it did was a lack of [administration] response. That’s not the case here. . . . My hope is that we would not experience a Missouri in Cincinnati.”
But Shelton said the Irate 8 is “getting weary of the niceties.” In protest of “systemic racism” at the university, Shelton, an international-affairs, French and political-science triple major, has abstained from classes for three semesters.
“After the uprising in Mizzou,” he said, “we are now starting to see the collective power that we have.”