With student activist demands come need for change

| Senior Forum Editor

Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s biography on the Washington University website touts the University’s doubling of undergraduate applications in his 20-year tenure, the construction of 30 new buildings and the creation of almost 190 endowed professorships for faculty. A school and chancellor don’t accomplish such objectives without some brilliant marketing.

It’s a cornerstone of Wash. U.’s brilliance—academic programs, performing arts and standout Division III sports aside. It’s also a potentially formidable obstacle to achieving meaningful progress after the killing of Michael Brown in August and subsequent police shootings of four more black men in St. Louis (Kajieme Powell, Vonderrit Myers, Antonio Martin and Ladarius Williams: know their names and stories).

In some ways, University officials have demonstrated a laudable desire to seriously examine our own complicity in the institutional racism of St. Louis. When I say “our,” I mean all of us who study or work at Wash. U., not just the administrators who take most of the heat (though of course there are varying degrees of influence and use of that influence among the people who claim some connection to this school).

On Thursday and Friday, administrators facilitated “Race and Ethnicity: A Day of Discovery and Dialogue,” a series of panels about race and ethnicity across our undergraduate and graduate schools. The discussions included voices of faculty, students and administrators and brought forward problems and possible solutions to pervasive struggles that exist in our community—and any community in America that is not totally homogenous.

Panel highlights were curated on the WashU Voices website, which the University launched in the aftermath of the first Ferguson protests. With the hashtag #WashUVoices, followers of the live-streamed panels could tweet updates, quotes and reactions, providing a permanent Internet footprint of the expectations set that day.

And therein lies the most vital point: when we look back on #WashUVoices months or years from now, will we be satisfied with what we learned and what University leaders did about it?

Or will it simply become another well-executed exercise in branding—showing to prospective students, questioning media outlets and skeptical St. Louis community members just how doggone socially conscious we are, how many marvelous professors and students we have (because most of the people who spoke were indubitably impressive), but without making substantive commitments to more challenging and controversial reforms?

I’m not ready to judge yet, but a moment during the Race and Ethnicity panel hinted at the tension between possible outcomes.

Late in the Friday session, members of Washington University Students in Solidarity read the list of demands that they presented to the chancellor, Provost Holden Thorp and Associate Vice Chancellor for Students Rob Wild two weeks ago. The audience politely acknowledged the student activists, Thorp complimented them on “one of the best set of demands of this type that I’ve been asked to respond to” and then the panel carried forward.

Representatives from the Students in Solidarity group are meeting with administrators on Monday for a follow-up on the demands they presented. The demands include the creation of three-credit courses on diversity and St. Louis history, bumps in anti-bias training and justice, responsible investment and land development by the University, endorsement of a St. Louis civilian review board for police and improvement in minority representation among students and faculty.

The demands are reasonable and, quite frankly, long overdue. Whether the administration can be expected to accept them is a different story. The board of trustees and our donors don’t appear as noticeably on #WashUVoices, but they are the Wash. U. voices that guide policy.

Meeting the demands will require an adjustment to the strategies in which the University has partaken, is partaking and still plans to partake.

Administrators want to improve socioeconomic diversity, but Residential Life is still squeezing students into higher-priced housing. The student activists are calling for more responsible development while the University pours millions of dollars into a project that gentrifies the Delmar Loop.

The Brown School of Social Work is getting a spectacular new building—and deservingly so for the excellent contributions the students make to St. Louis. Plenty of the graduate students run programs or work in administrative local roles at St. Louis public schools, but the University hardly admits any applicants from those schools. And no, the excuse that high-achieving, lower-income students attend schools with better name recognition like Harvard or Stanford doesn’t work for them when we are Washington University in St. Louis.

The conversations started by the Race and Ethnicity event and other panels have been valuable and are absolutely worth continuing. But the critical conversation is administrators meeting with students and telling them what happens now.