SAN FRANCISCO ― As an undergraduate in the 1960s, Dr. Roland B. Smith Jr. was an unabashed activist fighting to secure more resources for what was then Bowie State College, where he majored in sociology and anthropology. He didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line, either.
Smith and more than 200 of his peers marched into the Maryland State House in Annapolis on April 4, 1968, seeking additional funding for the historically Black Bowie State to update its curriculum and renovate aging dorms and facilities that were inferior to those at traditionally White institutions. Gov. Spiro Agnew refused to meet with students and ordered them jailed.
So nowadays, whenever students at Rice University initiate sit-ins, rallies and die-ins calling for change, Smith, the associate provost, is often there lending support and counsel.
“Those things stick with you,” Smith said of his coming-of-age activism, which included a stint as Bowie State’s student body president. “I’ve got an incredible sense of déjà vu. College administrators who have experience as outsiders should have empathy for this generation of young people.”
Smith’s comments came last week during the annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE). During interviews with Diverse, numerous attendees agreed that it’s imperative for faculty and staff of color to find ways to stand in solidarity with today’s underrepresented and disadvantaged students, who are navigating college at a time of ongoing racial tensions, escalating tuition and national political rhetoric that is often anti-minority, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.
Smith, for instance, recalled his pride in 2014 when students at Rice joined faculty and alumni for a campuswide town hall discussion on race relations in the aftermath of an unarmed Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, being fatally shot by a White policeman. The Rice forum encouraged speakers, including students, to explore racial discrimination and the justice system. The wide-ranging topics were the experiences of people of color being watched in stores because employees expected they would steal merchandise to White people jaywalking within view of police officers but not worrying about being stopped.
Rhosetta Rhodes, Whitworth University’s vice president of student life, echoed Smith’s sentiments. “We shouldn’t compartmentalize. We need to be seen with students making change.”
Tenured faculty arguably have more leeway to take a stand without fear of retribution from the administration. However, staff and non-tenured faculty ought to consult the mission statements at their respective institutions to see whether social justice and activism are addressed, which could help protect their jobs, said Edwin Darrell, director of the Center for Intercultural Relations at San Diego State University.
Darrell is particularly concerned about the well-being of historically marginalized youth.
“We’re not doing students justice if we don’t support their identities,” he said.
If any of the NCORE attendees were undecided or skeptical, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta issued a clarion call to action during her keynote speech, declaring “profound ignorance” in this country.
“Where is all this ignorance coming from?” Huerta asked rhetorically. “Our society is filled with the cancers of racism, sexism and homophobia. People are being killed because they’re Black or because they’re transgender. We have a school-to-prison pipeline because too many young men of color are being expelled from school. We have to dismantle the systems of oppression.
“The people in this room are going to do it,” she said, referring to the NCORE participants, who punctuated her remarks frequently with applause. “Teachers have been the light. If anything, you have got to enhance your power. You can bring sanity, clarity and erase the ignorance in this country. You are the only ones who can do it.”
As an example of how educators can make a difference, Huerta said, “We need ethnic studies in pre-kindergarten. Not kindergarten but pre-kindergarten. Racism isn’t something that children are born with. If children of color don’t learn their histories, they’re always going to feel inferior. The White children are going to continue to feel privileged, that they’re going to do it all.”
Before and after Huerta’s speech, NCORE participants shared with Diverse multiple ideas of how faculty and staff can have impact.
At the University of Notre Dame, Iris Outlaw, director of multicultural student programs and services, plans to remind students to vote in the presidential election, including signing up for mail-in ballots.
Ahyana King, Washington College’s director of intercultural affairs, noted that “a university community relies on engagement by everyone. The health of the entire community is at stake. We as staff, as faculty, can be activist in so many ways. It could be as simple as telling a student, ‘Hey, we don’t use that kind of language in class.’ Or it could be taking a minute or two to open the email in our in-boxes to learn about proposed policy changes for paternity leave and responding with a computer click.”
Educators did not necessarily view today’s activism as any revolution, but instead as “another cycle,” as Vernon Wall phrased it.
A 25-year veteran of higher education student affairs, Wall waved his hands, feigning shock as he declared, “Racism does exist on college campuses.”
The director of business development for LeaderShape, Inc., Wall credited the speed of social media with fueling the current cycle of student activism. “It’s interesting to see things bubble, how things happen so fast. We’re finding out things as soon as they happen. Historically, higher education has not been nimble. We’re so used to appointing a task force, studying issues, making recommendations. Students are saying, ‘Forget that.’”
This is where faculty and staff fit in, said Monica Green, director of Indiana University Bloomington’s Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center.
“Today’s college students are not the first people to struggle,” Green said. “It’s our responsibility to let them know this isn’t the first revolution on campus. We have had battles so that women could be admitted to college. We have had civil rights. Faculty and staff have always helped students digest current events and their impact on life.”
Half a century ago, Smith was among Bowie State students who protested on campus and boycotted class to make their point. The students — making up more than one-third of the total enrollment — piled into buses to head to Annapolis.
While in police custody, Smith and his peers learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
Fast forward. As part of Bowie State University’s sesquicentennial celebration, a faculty member wrote a play capturing the long-ago events titled “Fourth of April.” The play was performed on campus last fall, featuring a small cast of students portraying the events of that fateful day, interspersed with present-day video interviews of alumni reminiscing.
“The play was so accurate, it was eerie,” said Smith, who was among the alumni who were consulted about what had happened during the course of the play being written. “The students said they had a better appreciation of the university by learning what we did back then.”