data for social change

The University Response to Civil Rights Protests

by Jack Murer

Following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent national protests, the response by individuals and institutions made the pervasive racial hierarchy in the United States plainly apparent. The display of inhumane brutality shown in Mr. Floyd’s murder, combined with detailed video documentation and the despairing regularity of similar events forced yet another national reckoning with race, and inspired institutions of all kinds to express solidarity with the Black community, offer institutional reforms, and address a nation whose history is fundamentally intertwined in a history of white supremacy. One such institution was that of American higher education. 

In hopes of charting trends of the overall response by universities, the Institute for Development Impact (I4DI)  collected the responses from various departments within the top 50 universities in the United States, as classified  by US News. The various responses were then catalogued alongside responses by other institutions in I4DI’s Data for Social Change database.

Initial Findings

When examining responses to the murder of George Floyd, a few trends stand out. More than anything, what is most striking are the similarities and consistency of response across the top 50, instead of differences between universities. Within any given university, the level of response between departments and disciplines varied wildly, but similar trends in that variation can be seen when comparing universities to one another. Secondly, we see that schools with a history of heavy focus on racial justice responded this summer more heavily than those with a comparatively smaller institutional focus on racial justice. That is to say, schools with renowned faculty in the field of racial justice or with strong pre-established programs to further racial equity responded more assertively than those without a similarly established infrastructure to address racial inequalities.

Most actions are solidarity statements or condemnations.

In a review of the data, we see that the overwhelming majority of action was taken either in the form of statements of solidarity or condemnation made by leadership figures. These were communicated as public press releases, posts on university websites, or internally circulated letters which were later made publicly available. The officials or departments who either did or did not issue statements followed similar trends across universities, with either the President or some other high ranking official releasing a statement condemning George Floyd’s murder, and occasionally asserting a renewed commitment to racial justice. Beyond high ranking leadership, subsequent statements were most commonly made by admissions offices, medical faculty, and departments of anthropology. Of the 103 university actions accounted for at time of writing by the I4DI Data for Social Change database, statements and expressions of solidarity accounted for 82. Additionally, while not shown in the Data for Social Change database, a vast majority of university libraries released or compiled a list of anti-racism readings and resources in the wake of this summer’s tragedies and activism. 

Other actions included organizational changes and resource contributions.

The remaining 21 actions recorded by I4DI primarily dealt with the announcement of structured plans for organizational reform across various university departments, often attached to expressions of solidarity. Of the action plans recorded, nine have since resulted in either formal reports on organizational reform or execution of reform. Other extraneous actions include the allocation of funds for anti-racist research and scholarships for Black students, as well as the renaming of buildings and programs whose namesake is rooted in anti-Black racism. While this was occasionally a result of heightened awareness caused by the murder of George Floyd, the removal of racist names and labels at this moment in time was also incidental in some cases, with pre-existing discussions instead being pushed along or catalyzed by this summer’s tragedies. As was mentioned before, any notable outliers or standout actions fell within previous national trends. Exemplary work and initiatives taken up by the Boston University Center on Anti-Racism stand apart from actions taken by other universities, but are proportionally expectant with the context that that center’s principal faculty is Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, the author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to be an Anti-Racist, implying an institutional precedent for work in the realm of anti-racism. While this trend held steady across most universities, Lehigh University does represent an outlier as the Lehigh Board of Trustees responded to demands to dismantle institutionalized racism at the university with a comprehensive list of actions they would take to reform campus police, admissions, and other campus institutions claimed to perpetuate anti-Black racism.

But is it enough?

George Floyd’s murder brought discussions concerning the violent, systemic oppression of Black Americans back to the forefront of public consciousness, presenting yet another opportunity for universities to make systemic changes to create more equitable outcomes for all students. However, the vast majority have not stepped up to such an imperative, and pressure ought to continue to be applied as student groups have since May 2020. Continuation of collective action that forces universities to allocate substantially more resources to lift up Black students (i.e. scholarships, grants for Black-led research, hiring faculty to assist in making higher education more attainable for oppressed communities), across all departments and disciplines, must take place to dismantle systems of oppression that resulted in the murder of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and innumerable other Black Americans. 

While action and reform of any kind is beneficial, and should be celebrated, an analysis of response by American universities requires that we compare the totality of each institution’s response to their available resources. Implicit in such an analysis is a question if university administrations and associated institutions addressed all pertinent factors in their actions when compared to their societal role. If universities are to be understood as solely academic institutions, a means of imparting education onto a population, then the response of condemning these tragedies and providing educational resources on anti-racism could be seen as satisfactory. However, if we take into consideration the social and political role of universities beyond just education, we can see how the response given could be seen as falling short.

At least within the top 50 universities, there was not a sizably significant response by any university to rectify systemic injustices in higher education. The most substantial action taken was still comparatively restrained when taken in the context of the vast scope these universities occupy. While the database does not contain action from every university, in researching the top 50, we never came across any accounts of action that sought to substantially lift up Black students. Of our 147 catalogued actions by higher education institutions, resource contribution of any kind accounted for only 19. In other words, only 13% of catalogued actions sought to provide any form of material aid to make higher education more attainable. As for institutional reforms to departments like campus police or admissions offices, their efficacy on making the experience of Black students more equitable is yet to be seen. However, if the results of institutional reform in the past indicate anything, they show that reforming a predominantly white institution without implementing actions that would make its student body more representative of the wider population does not meaningfully uproot systems which lead to racial inequity today. These actions show that the bare minimum for substantive action is to be expected, and that instances of action beyond that are few and far between, even when faced with a national conversation on racial injustice. 

Universities in the United States represent a massive accumulation of resources and institutions, influencing everything from healthcare to law enforcement in a given community. With this in mind, the statements are thus insufficient to tackle the longstanding role universities have had in creating and upholding systems of white supremacy which led to George Floyd’s murder. As an increasingly necessary means by which individuals prepare themselves to enter into the workforce and better their material conditions, universities ought to operate in ways that are equitable for students of all races. The lack of substantial action we have seen represents an unwillingness to create an educational environment that works to undo centuries of racial injustice in this country. The statements issued by university administrations which are not followed up by subsequent action represent a deflection of responsibility and offer hollow promises of change without targeting the roots of systemic racism in American higher education.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *