On Precarity, Power, and Purpose in Higher Education
Posted: 20 Oct 2016 Last revised: 27 Oct 2016
Date Written: October 18, 2016
Some critics see student activists as abandoning robust debate and free expression in favor of maintaining self-esteem or even comfort. But this view overlooks our collective failure to root out white supremacy and systemic racism on our campuses, in all their complex institutional manifestations, and unfairly reduces student positions to assertions of grievance. We ought to engage in a more comprehensive analysis of structural racism in higher education. As legal academics who study race and the law, we are well aware of the ways in which the law can reinforce structural racism, something from which colleges and universities are not immune.
The campus race debates take place on complicated and contested terrain. The Supreme Court, in its ruling last summer in the second Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case, handed a narrow victory to advocates of affirmative action in college admissions. In September, Georgetown University formally apologized for its slave-owning past, announcing plans to rename campus buildings for former slaves owned by Georgetown and to offer their descendants admissions preferences similar to those of children of alumni. By some measures, diversity is increasing on many campuses. But the discourse of diversity is an impoverished one whose primary concern is ensuring that white students benefit from exposure to the diverse perspectives offered by students of color. Deeper questions of remedying past racial injustices, of reparations or substantive equality, are left untouched in this soft quest for a corporatized “cultural competence.”
Lost in the past year’s media condemnations of purportedly coddled students is the fact that students were not protesting about hurt feelings; they were protesting against systemic racism. Students of color continue to be routinely subjected to institutional and structural discrimination on our nation’s campuses which could be seen as an obstacle to learning and potentially subject to antidiscrimination law. But campus organizing and advocacy against racial injustice and inequality have been to a large extent mischaracterized as primarily about restricting free expression. But the daily drumbeat of “small racisms” can be exhausting for students of color and can seriously impede their capacity to focus on learning, their core right and responsibility as students. So-called microaggressions are part of systemic racism, and asking colleges and universities to mitigate them ought not to be characterized as a sign of insufficient grit. The term political correctness has become a political weapon used to excuse rudeness, bigotry, and offensiveness toward members of traditionally marginalized groups.
We have much to learn about the ineffectiveness of old methods and the possibility of new approaches to achieving social change. Black Lives Matter is but one example of bold new activism that has reframed approaches to complex social issues, from mass incarceration to campus racism. Student activism highlighted the costs of corporatization of our universities: the curriculum, faculty diversity, and academic freedom have been negatively affected. In law schools, for example, a demonstrable shift to a “teach-to-the-test” mentality has developed in recent years as lower student enrollments have increased pressure on law schools to deliver higher bar passage rates. At the same time, law firms have increasingly demanded “practice-ready” graduates. Law schools, in turn, have routed students into bar courses, effectively pushing courses on the social impact of law, discrimination, racism, inequality, and interdisciplinary issues to the margins of the curriculum. Contingent faculty in all departments are expected to deliver “results” as defined by the administration, knowing they may be dismissed if they do not. Student activists have underscored the need for academic freedom and argued that higher education should be driven not simply by market imperatives. Social justice concerns about rooting out institutional discrimination and inequality are fundamentally academic freedom issues, which have never been more imperiled or important. We occupy a moment of profound precariousness and possibility and should seize this opportunity to reinject higher education — and specifically legal education — with a social justice mission.
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