Rick Bowmer, AP Images
By Aisha S. Ahmad
College campuses are — and historically have been — a space where world-changing social mobilization and protest take place. But as academic programs moved online in response to Covid-19, this critical space for assembly and activism has vanished. Campus closures also now coincide with widespread protests against devastating and institutionalized anti-Black violence.
There is simply no way that colleges and universities can — or should — remain quiet or neutral during this critical juncture in history. The question is: How can campuses remain a space for world-changing transformation, even under pandemic conditions?
For Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and students of color, assembling in person is often the only way to voice urgent equity concerns to institutions of power. Campus-based activism is vital to those groups. Yet in-person assembly and protest in the midst of a pandemic add an infection risk to already marginalized students. If an institution fails to hear their equity concerns now, those students will be forced to physically assemble on the campus in ways that further expose them and their families to disease.
The horrifying killing of George Floyd — and so many other Black victims of police and state violence — has already forced Black people to protest in the streets under dangerous conditions. But in academe, we have a better and safer way to give space and voice to our students. At this critical juncture, senior administrators can either be part of the solution or part of the problem.
How, then, can institutions deal with the threat to assembly presented by Covid-19, and demonstrate a real commitment to equity and diversity? How can senior leaders move beyond tweeting statements of solidarity, and instead start ensuring that Black, Indigenous, and other students of color are actually protected on campuses?
Give them a seat at the table. Students protest because they have no access to power, and must assemble in large numbers for their voices to be heard. To fix that problem head-on, senior administrators can proactively and regularly arrange to meet with leaders of equity-seeking student groups — and urgently with Black and Indigenous students — and make a clear commitment to hear and respond to critical and longstanding concerns.
The meetings should be frequent and fixed — every two weeks, indefinitely. Senior administrators should not do the talking. Rather, they should listen, take notes, and confirm what they have heard to ensure there is no miscommunication or misunderstanding. After listening, the leadership can engage in solution-oriented dialogue, put forward proposals for concrete action, and then report on progress at the next meeting.
Senior administrators must meet with student leaders. Specifically, top administrators who have discretionary budgetary and decision-making power should meet students. Don’t delegate this work to equity committees or any other antiracism units that tend to be siloed and disempowered. Diversity and equity officers may serve in moderator or support roles, but these meetings must be between student groups and senior leadership. For this to work, the top administration must commit to direct dialogue and concrete action, and be open to tough challenges on funding, hiring decisions, access to services, and police presence on the campus.
However brilliant our students may be, this is a tremendous burden of responsibility on young leaders. They will need support from faculty mentors, and the administration must organize and support such mentoring relationships. Importantly, this mentorship work is often disproportionately carried out by faculty of color; it should be merited as service to the institution and weighted appropriately when it comes to tenure, promotion, salary, and professional advancement.
Make student health and safety the priority. This work is exceptionally difficult to conduct remotely, and without direct access to community support. Students need to be able to assemble — not only for critical social support, but also to organize their ideas in preparation for their meetings with senior leadership.
As colleges and universities navigate the challenges of reopening this fall, it is imperative to give student leaders of equity-seeking groups — most urgently, Black and Indigenous students — access to safe, high-quality classrooms and boardrooms where they can meet in person, as needed, and in line with public-health guidelines. And when in-person meetings aren’t possible, make sure these groups have full access to digital video platforms.
Finally, for too long, Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and students of color have disproportionately carried the costly burden of transformative justice in higher education. Regardless of budgetary pressures, at this critical moment colleges and universities must earmark money for mental-health services to support students from these marginalized groups, as well as those with pre-existing health conditions exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. The demand for these services will only increase in the fall, and the most affected students must have guaranteed access.
These steps — not a diversity statement on a website — constitute the bare minimum required to demonstrate a commitment to equity on a college campus.
Aisha S. Ahmad is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto and chair of Canada’s Board of Women in International Security.