With Campus Racism, How Can College Presidents Get It Right? | KERA News

With Campus Racism, How Can College Presidents Get It Right?

Nov 11, 2015
Originally published on November 15, 2015 7:37 pm

Tim Wolfe is not the first college administrator to come under fire for responding poorly to campus racism. And Wolfe, until this week the head of the University of Missouri System, isn't likely to be the last.

College presidents who have themselves been in crisis have learned there's a right way — and a wrong way — to respond.

Case in point: Wolfe's response to concerns over racism was quickly held up as an example of what not to do. Ultimately it led to his departure.

"It's not clear if the University of Missouri responded either quickly or empathetically enough," says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents around 1,800 university presidents.

Hartle says you can't prevent racism. "There's no law that says you can't be an idiot," says Hartle.

The important thing is how the administration responds.

"Any college president, when confronted by a crisis, needs to respond quickly, empathetically and to get it right," he says.

So how do you do that?

Mary Sue Coleman, the former president of the University of Michigan, faced her own crisis in 2013: Black students raised concerns that they did not feel welcome or safe on campus. The movement took flight as #BBUM, or Being Black at the University of Michigan, with students posting testimonials on Twitter and YouTube.

"It was very painful for us to watch but immediately we responded," says Coleman, who added that she and other administrators met with students and put together a "task force" on the issue.

Coleman retired a year later. She stayed long enough to put changes in place, and now she's had time to reflect on the movement and how she handled it. The most important thing, she says, was to respond with empathy.

"We worked on the issues students raised, because it was important for us to listen to what they were experiencing," she says.

But that's not how Robert Greenfield, a senior engineering major and member of the school's black student union, remembers it.

Greenfield says the university waited months before addressing their concerns. Black students had described being subjected to racist insults and targeted by campus police and white fraternities. He described people at parties in blackface, carrying watermelons and wearing dreads.

Although Greenfield says he wishes the response had been faster, he acknowledges that the university has met most of the demands. And he says black students didn't expect the university to eliminate campus racism overnight: "When you talk to the administration, it's more about politics than anything else."

In meetings with school officials, for example, students demanded a long-term plan to raise black student enrollment to 10 percent. It's at about 4 percent this year.

They also wanted the school to help students who are struggling financially, and to provide better transportation to affordable housing.

Despite the progress, Greenfield says that officials could still be doing more to help black students feel welcome.

Coleman agrees.

"In my experience, students understand that you can't fix everything. That's not what they expect, but they expect people to listen," she says. "It's hard work that never ends."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The resignation of Tim Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri System, has raised questions about how to handle a crisis. Black students at the university accused him of being indifferent to their demands that he do something about racism on campus. But the question is, what could he have done? How should he have responded? NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports college presidents have faced these questions before, and they've learned there is a right way and a wrong way.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: First, the wrong way to respond - case in point the University of Missouri's handling of black students' demands that administrators address their concerns about being disrespected and mistreated.

TERRY HARTLE: It's not clear that the University of Missouri responded either quickly or empathetically enough. That was a controversy that had been brewing for a period of time.

SANCHEZ: On the other hand, says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, it's impossible for a university president to prevent a racially-charged incident that can trigger a much bigger crisis.

HARTLE: You know, there's no law in the United States that says you can't be an idiot.

SANCHEZ: It's the school's response that matters.

HARTLE: Any college or university president, when confronted by a crisis, needs to respond quickly, empathetically and to get it right.

SANCHEZ: The University of Michigan, for example - its former president Mary Sue Coleman responded to black students' complaints back in 2013 that they did not feel welcome or safe on campus. Coleman, now retired, says first students went on Twitter and vented about being black at Michigan.

MARY SUE COLEMAN: Then they went on YouTube with sort of testimonies about what it was like to be black. It was overwhelmingly painful for us to watch, but immediately, we responded.

SANCHEZ: It was all about empathy, says Coleman.

COLEMAN: If students are hurting, you need to listen, and you need to understand. You need to try as hard as you can to put yourself in their place.

SANCHEZ: Still, Robert Greenfield, a member of the Black Student Union at the University of Michigan, says administrators waited three months before they responded with a plan.

ROBERT GREENFIELD: When you're talking to administration, it's more of a game of politics rather than anything else.

SANCHEZ: Students wanted results. Greenfield says black students were being subjected to racist insults on campus. Black students were targeted by campus police and by white fraternities.

GREENFIELD: You know, people would bring in watermelons to the party and, you know, get in blackface and dressing in dreads and, you know, stuff like that. And they put this on Facebook which, of course, is brilliant. That made things a lot, lot worse.

SANCHEZ: Greenfield says black students didn't expect the university to stop any of this overnight. In meetings with administrators, for example, students demanded a long-term plan to raise black student enrollment to 10 percent. It's about 4 percent these days. Students also wanted the school to help students at risk of dropping out because they were struggling financially. They wanted better transportation for students who could not afford to live on or near campus. Greenfield says the university has since met most of the students' demands, but it could be doing a lot more to help black students feel welcome.

COLEMAN: I agree with him, absolutely.

SANCHEZ: Again, former president Mary Sue Coleman.

COLEMAN: In my experience, students understand that you can't fix everything. That's not what they expect, but they expect for people to listen, to understand.

SANCHEZ: With racially-charged incidents bubbling up nationwide, the big lesson for university presidents is to at least have a plan of action ready to respond quickly. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.