After weeks of student protest about racial inequality on campus, Yale President Peter Salovey announced on November 17 that the university would be making significant changes to address “longstanding inequities.” The announcement came just five days after a group of Yale students delivered a list of demands to Salovey, and it marked a significant victory for the students, and for racial justice. At the same time, however, the Yale controversy offers a vital lesson both in the power of free speech and in the dangers of seeking its curtailment in the name of equality.
The Yale dispute deserves attention all the more because it is part of a growing national student movement. A website that has been set up to collect student group demands to end “systemic and structural racism on campus” includes more than seventy colleges across the country, from Puget Sound to Eastern Michigan to Georgia Southern to Claremont McKenna (www.thedemands.org). The list grows almost daily.
The demands vary in their particulars, but most seek some mixture of more faculty of color, greater resources for cultural centers focused on minority groups, expanded curricular offerings dedicated to issues of race and ethnicity, training in identifying racial bias, and increased aid for low-income students. Universities have responded in a variety of ways. Most notably, Brown University announced on November 20 a $100 million initiative aimed at increasing racial inclusivity on campus. (Some Brown students of color have dismissed even that as insufficient, and have sought still more reforms.)
Some of the students’ demands, however, also seek to limit speech, by the college itself and by fellow students. Students at the University of Missouri sought and obtained the resignation of their college president and chancellor for what they considered insufficient responses to racist speech on or near the campus, including epithets directed at black students and faculty. At Princeton, students of color have contended that, because of Woodrow Wilson’s racist views, the school should remove his name from a residential college and from the university’s school of public policy. That request remains under consideration but in recent weeks Princeton and Harvard both abolished the title of “master” for residential college heads, a change that Yale students have also urged.
At Amherst, students demanded, among other things, that the president condemn the posting of a sign reading “All Lives Matter,” deemed offensive to the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement; that the school’s unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff, played by a student in disguise, be abandoned because its namesake allegedly advocated spreading smallpox among Native Americans; and that the school’s honor code be revised to reflect “zero-tolerance” of “racially insensitive”…
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