01 February 2014

Fine, I'll Teach Students Not to Be Jackasses. Now Can We Admit More Black Students?

The big news at Heartland U. this week was that, gosh, racists still walk among us.

Despite subzero temperatures and even worse windchill predictions, classes were NOT cancelled on Monday, and the university stayed open.  The chancellor announced this non-cancelling of classes via e-mail.  The chancellor isn't a man, and she isn't white, and when students took to Twitter to complain about going to class, they chose to emphasize those two points.

The Twitter backlash was swift and extensive.  Michael Simeone has charted the twitter response on the relevant hashtags and concludes:
We’ll never know exactly how many tweets were deleted out of shame, but analysis of this tend shows a swift and harmonic response that obliterated anti-Wise sentiment and replaced it with a new conversation about white privilege. Yes, U of I students filled out a petition that got 7,000 signatures, but that does not equal 7,000 racists. Clicking a bubble that tries to get one out of class is very different from taking to social media to spread hate. The real A missing piece of the story is the response and unity of response to #FuckPhyllis.
In the world beyond Twitter, a different kind of response was taking place.
The brouhaha was publicized on Buzzfeed, Inside Higher Ed, and Slate, and a string of emails from various university figures to the campus community urged us all to help combat the negative publicity work towards greater respect and inclusivity.  A couple (but not all) went so far as to use the words "racism" and "sexism."

Even the chair of the Board of Trustees and the university president weighed in via e-mail:
Some might argue that the broad support that poured in after those hateful remarks were posted shows that online communication is self-policing and therefore no more needs to be said.

But as an institution of higher education, we have the opportunity -- and the obligation -- to use this unfortunate series of events as a “teachable” moment. No one is entitled to go to the University of Illinois. Every student should think of it as a privilege. The reason students are admitted is because we think they have the potential to contribute to our efforts to mold citizens for our state and our country. We live in a multicultural democracy, and our first objective is not simply to produce great engineers, thoughtful philosophers, or great artists, but rather citizens for our country. We have failed in that effort if we produce students who think that the strongest form of argument is a personal attack.
A teachable moment, indeed.

More needs to be said, but not all of it needs to be said to students.  Many students experience daily the difficulty their classmates have in talking to and about people different from themselves.  Many students wrestle (with varying degrees of success and self-awareness) with the challenge that a multicultural campus presents to their prior experience and their tools for relating to people.  Many faculty are already immersed, daily, in course material where race and gender are relevant concerns and focussed on the challenge of creating classroom environments that addresses those concerns and encourages participation from all students.

Is there more to be done by faculty and students?  Always and all the time.  More about that in a future blog post.

In the meantime, how about if, instead of promoting castigation and self-flagellation, university leaders addressed the barriers to inclusivity at the institution in question, over which individual students and faculty have no control?
  • Ten years ago, the university enrolled 29 students from the People's Republic of China in the freshman class.  Five years ago the number was up to 110.  In the fall of 2013, the university enrolled 1140.   
It would be easier to talk with productive civility about race on a campus where
  • the demographics of the student body reflected the demographics of the world they live in, 
  • sudden and substantial changes to the student population (like, say, an influx of students from a single non-white, non-English-speaking foreign country) came with meaningful campus-wide initiatives to promote the best practices for integrating those students into campus life and addressing their learning needs, and 
  • the administration took an active role not only in excising a racist institutional icon but also in educating the alumni and local community about the reasons for doing so (rather than hiding behind NCAA edicts).  


  1. Several of these students come from the Chicago suburbs, where much of the poorer minority populations are distanced from the predominantly upper-class caucasian populations.

    I went to a poor high school where one could hear five different languages spoken in the hallways on the way to one class. It was in this high school that I learned about other cultures and respected them. There was little in the actual academic curriculum that supported the learning and acceptance of other cultures.

    So, I really wonder about what's being learned at less diverse high schools, where exposure to other cultures is less frequent, and so many kids struggle to assimilate, because being different is somehow felt as wrong. The current diminishing academic focus on the humanities, the thoughts and ideas and challenges other cultures present, and the ethical importance of challenging one's beliefs and ideas, will likely continue to foster such behaviors when it comes to personal decisions, public actions, and voting.

    Unless each individual student decides to take an active role in exercising open-mindedness, acceptance, respect, and encouraging their peers to do the same. Many do, which is great. Maybe it just takes more time for some to grow up than others.

  2. Great post (and comment) and YES UIUC must admit more students of color.

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  4. I recently met a scholar at Miami U talking about racist tweets there--her article is still under review, but it addresses similar dynamics at a smaller campus with similar demographics. Lisa Blankenship--I'll try to remember to let you know once the article appears.