Oberlin Students and Alumni Reflect on Activism at the College


I have some thoughts in defense of Oberlin students. Let me make clear that I am a foodie and a white person who enjoys cooking ethnic cuisines. While at Oberlin, I remember CDS served something called the “Indian Platter,” which consisted of feta cheese, pita, raw spinach, and hummus. The feta cheese was listed as “paneer” and the pita as “naan.” The previous day, CDS served exactly the same dish but called it “Mediterranean Platter.” CDS was known for casually using ethnic buzzwords to remarket old dishes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the exact same Banh Mi sandwich depicted in your article was served the day before, but listed as “pulled pork sandwich.” I understand how it seems extreme to accuse CDS of cultural appropriation for these minor transgressions, but I also think there is some background you must understand.


Oberlin advertises itself as the first racially integrated college in the country. From my understanding, a very low percentage of Oberlin’s students of color make it to graduation, and many students feel this results from a lack of institutional support. There are few professors of color. At least once a year, racial slurs and threats are posted on some public forum. Many students are in the process of learning about the racial inequality of our criminal-justice system and are rightly angry about it. Campus officers are not immune from racism. I have heard stories about officers assaulting students of color. And financial aid is almost non-existent. A lot of students of color feel like they don’t matter to the college.


In that climate, it is easier to understand how minor transgressions like inauthentic food can offend students of color. They feel their school doesn’t care about them. Inauthentic food is just one more aggravating factor that brings them over the edge. Food is embedded in culture. It’s nothing new for offense to be taken when someone misuses the name of a dish.


As a foodie from New York who, growing up, could easily find a great Banh Mi sandwich for $10, I was never satisfied with Oberlin’s cafeteria food. I am a picky snob. But the people fighting to change CDS are not picky snobs from New York. They are people of color from many walks of life who feel like their college doesn’t care about them. They are trying to improve their living conditions. That is a noble cause, and I hope I have shed some light on why students think it is important.

A 2010 graduate agrees that the “food appropriation” controversy should be viewed in a larger context, but thinks that context reflects poorly on today’s students:

When I read the reports coming out of Oberlin I’m ashamed and embarrassed, but I also find myself thinking: It didn’t used to be this way. Among the activist-minded students there were always a few who were shrill, intolerant, allergic to critique, and bent on subsuming the whole of reality within their preferred ideological framework. They didn’t care about persuasion … they knew they were right and didn’t give a damn if they alienated everyone to whom they were ostensibly preaching.


But their approach to advancing their agendas on campus was different. Before, student activists generally viewed a direct and immediate appeal to institutional authority as a double-edged sword (one that could bring your goals to fruition, but not without the cost of some degree of democratic credibility). Today, student activists have become acutely aware that the decision-making authority at Oberlin is the college administrators, and they’re increasingly willing to take even the most minute problems straight to the top to be institutionally rectified.


Ideas that thrived in a space of open exchange, a space that the administration stayed out of, are now seen as needing institutional validation, codification, and, indeed, enforcement. The various conceptual iterations of “privilege,” for instance, were current and widely discussed, as were “whiteness,” “safe spaces,” and the many different “-isms.” But such concepts were not then what they have since become–cudgels. They had not yet hardened into a rigid system of moral norms, enforced by a self-appointed activist vanguard with the backing of cowed administrators, norms that to transgress would invite public shaming, harassment, or social ostracizing, to say nothing of official disciplinary action.


There were plenty of people who vocally proclaimed their categorical dismissal of the very existence of forms of oppression that today no one would dare question. Did I myself agree with such people? Not at all. I almost always came down on the side of the anti-oppression crowd when I felt their positions were staked out in good faith, were intellectually sound, were practically applicable, and weren’t fueled by that uniquely liberal-arts-college brand of narcissism and self-indulgence. I enjoyed learning about their work and being challenged by their ideas, and I tended to regard the majority of complaints about PCism as short-sighted, because I never felt like I couldn’t disagree with anyone. For the most part, people with seriously divergent views could air them without risking any kind of official infraction. There simply was not a precedent for reporting someone to the authorities because their very opinions made you feel, to use the watchword of today’s activists, “unsafe.”


In short, beyond a certain point, people with opposing views simply left each other alone, and even in as small a place as Oberlin there was room enough for everyone. There was a tradition of grudging inclusiveness toward different views–and genuine inclusiveness need not be anything more than grudging. Yet everything I see from Oberlin now suggests that this tradition has given way to something very different. There is now an atmosphere of close-mindedness, intellectual submission, conformity, and fear. Anti-oppression activism, something inherently noble, has become an extensive apparatus for suffocating freedom of expression and crushing dissent, and an increasingly illiberal left devotes its energies to denouncing, pillorying, and silencing anyone who doesn’t march in lockstep with its latest orthodoxies.


Whoever can most cunningly, loudly, and shamelessly cloak themselves in the flag of social justice is empowered to effectively disregard everyone’s speech other than their own. Administrators, terrified of being accused of this or that ism, are unwilling to push back in any way against activist bully tactics and have allowed them not only to dictate the course of campus life but to have effective veto power over curricula as well. And who do the victims mostly end up being? Who are the harassed or dis-invited speakers? The professors who can’t teach what they want? Liberals and other leftists whose crime has been to presume that they are in some sense on the activist side but who have failed to meet their limitless criteria. This is not social justice at work.


The business about culturally insensitive dining-hall fare is attention-grabbing for its ludicrousness, but it’s hardly the prime example of what has taken hold. A better example would be the the list of demands issued by the Black Student Union. Beyond the stunning extent of these demands, which include firing certain faculty and staff… they reflect a truly perverse view of education as the forcing of a worldview down the student’s throat.


An ability for nuance, for a recognition of degrees, subtle differences, finer essences, and other aspects of abstract thought in which the liberal arts are supposed to train one, seems to escape these students. It’s not enough to point out contradictions and inconsistencies in enlightenment universalism, with its tendency to take a certain dominant group’s narrative as applicable to all people, and attempt to rectify them. No. All of Western culture is tainted by white supremacy, and thus Western higher education as we know it should itself be dismantled.  


Student activism in this country is only possible because generations of Americans on and off college campuses have forged a tradition and a culture of freedom of speech, in tandem with a jurisprudence of expansive legal protections for speech and expression. Yet, not only are today’s activists turning on the very tradition that has allowed them to be activists: they may also be unwittingly engaged in long-term self-sabotage in the event that the various speech restrictions they demand are one day used against them. Conservative Christian safe spaces, anyone?


My sincere hope for the future of Oberlin and for student activism is that it turns off from its present course, toward one that honors principled disagreement, self-critique, and individual conscience. As it stands now, all of those values are endangered. I am, of course, interested to hear what current Oberlin students have to say about all this (including the ones who would disagree with me), so I hope you’ll receive some responses from them and compile them in another article.

This next correspondent agrees that Oberlin activists contribute to an intellectually “oppressive” climate, but defends their good intentions and primary goals:

Oberlin is not, sometimes, a “safe space” for those who express skepticism about safe spaces. This call for less cultural appropriation in the dining halls comes amidst giant upheaval in other areas: there was the petition calling for better food to be served at the African Heritage House, for it to contain less cream, since African-Americans are often lactose intolerant; and there was the petition from the Black Student Union which was quickly picked up by conservative blogs (like here) which demanded fairly outrageous structural changes to the institution, including paying activists for their work on an hourly basis, developing a prison to college pipeline, firing specific administrators, and tenuring certain professors.


That said, these complaints and demands arise from one of the most liberal wings of fairly liberal colleges at a time when the plight, struggle, and disadvantage of people of color in this country is finally coming to light in vicious and often incomprehensible ways: black people are being killed with impunity, and, it now dawns on us, always have been, but the general public didn’t notice, as individuals chose to look the other way.


There is a sense at Oberlin that something should be done about this, especially at an institution that prides itself as a beacon of progress and enlightenment, a bulwark against backwardness and ignorant conservatism. Oberlin students want what other college students are asking for, whether they phrase it this way or not: better control of the college’s money. It’s time, I think, to revoke some of the power that the boards of trustees have—the undue sway of the moneyed few—in favor of the consciences of the paying and physically attending students. So for us, I think, legitimate complaints have gotten mixed up with more questionable ones.


As someone who lives in the Oberlin environment, I can speak to the enormous outrage about—and the difficulty of expressing—the gross narcissism involved in some of the students’ rhetoric. Considering the privilege most of us have––which most of us have to have in order to even stumble on a place like Oberlin––it’s sickening to hear certain complaints, not about the quality of the food, which of course is pretty terrible (situation normal, all fucked up) but the language-mantle of colonialism. This group of largely white students is also young and fairly privileged, and it makes sense that they can be blind to the circumstances of many whose lived existence they use as an excuse for leverage and social cache, ignorant of the hypocrisy of campaigning for even greater privileges for themselves by using the experience of the benighted poor as justification. That experience of the American poor, a population they’ve been separated and insulated from, is not necessarily your experience, and to appropriate it can be as scandalous as bad sushi.


My classmates are bright and articulate people—often. In many senses they are the future: the future of government, the future of NGOs, of non-profits, the vanguard of green-energy policy, et al. And their progressivism is often to the good.


Yet we (Oberlin students as well as onlookers) must not fail to recognize that the most seemingly progressive of people are not the most goodly people by default; rather, like others with extreme views, they are fully susceptible to blanketing over inconvenient truths and signing away liberties (particularly involving free speech) in the name of more and more rules that “protect” us. This is not something we are inclined to support when it comes to the NSA, and we should be very careful when considering enforced codes appended to documents meant to “keep people safe.”


There is no safety from ideas, merely ignorance, and to argue that “some things just aren’t up for discussion,”—rather than to posit that by arguing something one feels cheapened, or sacrifices a part of one’s morality—but to insist that things simply can’t be talked about, is more conservative and narrow than I think my classmates realize. Many Oberlin students reading this would argue, I think, that it mischaracterizes honest efforts to change an unjust institution within a damnably unjust world. I hope I can honor and join in the efforts of my classmates to change our many situations for the better while reserving the right to point out creeping egotism where it erupts—but the atmosphere for doing that work of semi-judicious skepticism is just a little tough right now.

This correspondent believes the media’s focus on the “food appropriation” story is misplaced:

As a current 4th year at Oberlin College, I would like to take you up on your offer and provide one (of many) insider’s perspective … This was not a unified issue on campus: I saw many Asian-American students who were unconvinced that this constituted a cultural appropriation… while the complaints were circulated, this did not receive nearly as much publicity as MANY other issues on campus.  The amount of attention that this issue has achieved in the media is COMPLETELY MISREPRESENTATIVE …


Just last week a petition was circulated detailing various institutional demands which generated around 700 signatures within a day.  However, the petition was defaced with INCREDIBLY RACIST, ANTI-SEMITIC, AND VIOLENT words and symbols (which I have attached below).  This issue was FAR MORE RELEVANT, IMPACTFUL, PUBLICIZED, and IMPORTANT than any of these food complaints, yet NOTHING in the media has covered this.  In truth, what the general public believes to have been the “focus” of student activists this semester is a fabrication by the media and not remotely representative. I do appreciate the fairness and depth to which you wrote your article (compared with any other news source I have seen).  But now I am urging you:  please share this racist incident and encourage all others in the media to do the same.  If you truly want to hear what is going on at Oberlin: this is it!  While calling out cultural appropriation in food is valid, this is how you can report what truly are relevant and important issues not only at Oberlin but facing marginalized communities as a whole!

This next alum started to mistrust the earnestness of fellow Obies after observing the social incentives to laud and defer to members of groups that are perceived as victims:

At Oberlin, anyone seen as vulnerable is given the benefit of the doubt: there is no room for understanding, there is a victim speaking their mind and there is the oppressor. This mode of thought impacts all issues (race, gender, sex politics, etc.). In order to be hip, one should identify or sympathize with whatever group is being oppressed. Most of it is for show.


I would be happy to take a bet that the Vietnamese freshman was not offended as much as they were excited to see an opportunity to be the victim… I guarantee they got 10+ emails congratulating them on their courage… If you’d like another outrageous story, I urge you to find ABUSA’s petition which made waves within the Oberlin community and demanded (basically) a hostile takeover of the college by black students and students of color (my last name is _____, mind you. Not all POC Oberlin people feel this way). This included the hiring and firing of professors, inclusion of incarcerated folks in the college community, and boycotting Israel.


It’s wild.


​Honestly, the social climate of that school is bullshit. Plain and simple. Very privileged kids trying to run away from their privilege by being part of the solution.

A 2014 graduate criticized the press, cautioned against dismissing the complaints of black students, and posited that Obies know they’re not exposed to enough dissent:

… While Oberlin students can be a bit overzealous in their social justice efforts (which I think is a good thing!), what is disturbing is not their activist excesses but how journalists frame them as ridiculous, pie-in-the-sky claims… The idea that students at “elite” campuses (where, by the way, many black students attend not from their parents’ wealth but from Pell grants) are too privileged to be taken seriously is an old canard. When students claim their campus is racist, or culturally insensitive, we should listen …


You end the article with these sentences, which I found striking: “From the outside, Oberlin seems unable to provide dissent in anything like the quality and quantity needed to prepare these young people for the enormous complexity of life in a diverse society, where few defer to claims just because they are expressed in the language of social justice. Is that how it looks from the inside, too?”


Yes. That is exactly what it looks like from the inside. And students are very aware of this problem. Although the “radical left” students are the most vocal, many of us (and many of them) recognize that the lack of political diversity on campus is concerning. It makes our arguments weak and it prevents us from honing our claims against the grindstone of critical opposition.


I’m only one alumnus, and others may feel differently, but what I would emphasize is that there is a lively debate, both in and outside of Oberlin, about how to find the balance between idealism and pragmatism, zeal and diplomacy. When articles like yours appear online, we discuss them at length—and there is plenty of disagreement. I can only hope that journalists will take it seriously, and view it as a sign of deliberative democracy rather than the thoughtless churning out of liberal sentiment.

An Oberlin senior writes:

Really, this is about much more than food. It’s about the myth of multiculturality that our school likes to perpetuate, but fails to enact. Here’s an example regarding the serving of beef in recognition of Diwali: on the surface, this looks like an attempt to make Hindu students feel welcome. However, by using beef, they served a dish that Hindu students could not eat. By doing this, our dining services showed that they are not concerned with serving authentic food to Indian students, but instead with branding our dining hall and institution as multicultural.


Its reflective of a tendency to value the foods of other cultures while rejecting the people of that culture.


That’s a problem.

Ignorance of Hindu dietary restrictions strikes me as a far more likely explanation for the misstep of dining hall workers than “rejecting” the culture of Hindu students. I don’t understand the impulse to frame matters in a way that presumes that others are acting in the most hostile way possible when odds are against that interpretation.  

The senior continues:

In response to your quote from Freddie de Boer: No one is berating the underpaid workers. In fact better benefits for dining hall workers have been the subject of recent protests. You didn’t include this in your article. Instead, complaints have been directed towards the management level.

I should have mentioned that some student activists have called for better treatment of dining hall workers. And de Boer did mention that in his commentary. However, I think the students who insist that they are targeting the corporation that runs the dining halls at Oberlin without affecting the workers preparing their food are naive about the likely effect of students complaining that they’re being served incompetently prepared fare that has been offensively named.

A 1970 graduate believes that the college should just stop trying to serve ethnic fare because it will only upset people when the cooks inevitably get various things wrong:

The dilemma of a college food service trying to be all things to all people seems a modern one.  My vague memory of Obie food back in the day was that it was decent American food.  There weren’t many attempts to be multi-cultural.  I knew some of the food service workers at the time.  The meals were prepared by cooks, not chefs.  The one constant is that college students always, always complain about the food.  My daughter’s a sophomore in college and she complains about the food.  Venturing too far afield from the cuisine food service cooks have mastered … is an invitation to insult, and complaint.  Rather than cook Indian, or Thai, or Japanese food badly, I just wouldn’t go there.  

Another correspondent explains why people who go to Oberlin tend to pick fights over seemingly small matters––and defends that inclination as laudable and salutary:

I graduated from Oberlin with majors in English and Dance in 1997. I was inspired and emboldened by recruitment and admissions materials that were glossy black, with an image of earth in the center. The text above the satellite image read, “Think One Person Can Change the World? So Do We.” Oberlin is a small campus.The student population hovers below 3,000. The insularity makes it such that potential injustices or oversights do both seem and become worth fighting for. This is inspiring. It can also mean that these issues can seem too big, too immediate, to be rational or appropriately reflective. But I would rather see students’ risk overreacting for the sake of what feels right, than dissipate their political awareness in humility—and I say that while NOT agreeing with all of Oberlin students’ missions, including the embrace of BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) against Israel.


While the reactions may read to some as knee-jerk self indulgence, I gather they are a sincere response to approaching the cafeteria serving line, and––despite the names of the dishes being served––feeling on some level miscounted, anonymous, voided. Oberlin is not only the kind of place where this can be expressed, but where there is the latent promise that dialogue about how we understand and interact with one another is viable. While it may seem small, or entitled, it is also within the promise of the campus to consider that small things can resonate largely, because values systems translate from what is on the plate to more impactful levels of global discourse, outside of the dining hall.

A former Oberlin dining hall worker takes a dim view of today’s students and wants to give them a taste of their own medicine:

As a teenager, I worked in the food service area of the college.  The staff members were overwhelmingly black.  I doubt that’s changed.  How dare these privileged college snobs complain about food prepared by oppressed minorities? Administration should forced these students to attend sensitivity sessions until they learn to respect other cultures.  And hire another administrator to oversee the program. That’s the way it’s done at Oberlin.

A 1998 grad who worked in the dining hall isn’t quite so down on the student protestors, but is annoyed:

Students really do care about food, and they also really care about oppression. They’re not insincere, but they can be annoying … When I worked in the dining halls, employees were either students on work study or adults from the community. Most of these adults were low-income African Americans …


There’s something I find deeply irritating about mostly privileged students whining about how the dining hall staff isn’t preparing the sushi with the same reverence as a Japanese chef. There also seems to be very little understanding of how much it costs to serve food on a large scale, and how the changes students are seeking will inevitably impact tuition. None of this means Oberlin can’t make improvements. But students have to recognize that dining halls have limitations, and that sometimes bad sushi is just bad sushi.

The next correspondent feels that the college is in crisis:

I’m a current Oberlin student.


Sadly, academic merit, deep history, and dedicated faculty aside, it seems the only thing we’re known for these days is being the target of ridicule from The New York Post and others. First and foremost I wanted to thank you for writing an article that treated us like people, not children. But the story of Oberlin in 2015 is much more than the small, incredibly loud, socially conscious minority that drives mainstream opinion here.


Oberlin is a campus in crisis.


A week ago, a petition was posted by the Black Student Union that was rightfully criticized for being utterly ridiculous. It included such demands as the renaming of buildings, admissions quotas for black students, an increased number of exclusive safe spaces, and free classes for town residents, among others. They also demanded the alteration of several meals served in African Heritage House, which the New York Post included in their article. The administration responded to these demands by revoking Bill Cosby’s honorary diploma. The (public) Google doc containing the signatures was unfortunately posted anonymously to 4chan and vandalized with racist language/imagery and a threat to the auditorium, although it was never specified which one. The next day there was an increased police presence on campus and a protest on one of our quads in which white students formed a barrier around black students. Students groaned on Facebook as to why the food incident was being reported on but this was not.


My greatest disappointment about the reality of Oberlin is its failure to recognize differing opinions. As upsetting as these online threats were, I and others understand that they were radical, extreme, anonymous threats with little reason to send the campus into the frenzy that they did.


Of course racists hate us, of course they want us killed, but I hold the belief that it’s only then that we need to be bigger than them and maybe not stoop to their level. Of course I never voiced this opinion outside of a small group of friends. It truly would have been social suicide and I would have been labeled the racist, cisgender, heterosexual white man that I am. The complaints about the food on the other hand were maybe valid on a certain level but were completely ill-intentioned and alarmist on behalf of those students. That’s why as a proud Oberlin student I am completely split on where I stand on these issues.


It is enraging to see how we are depicted in The New York Post, but still there’s truth to it. It still baffles me trying to come to terms with how we can be ranked so highly as an academic institution, with some of the best professors in the country and some of the most brilliant young minds, but also stoop so low as to engage in petty complaints about the ingredients in our campus food while a number of students scrub dishes in our kitchens to desperately try to alleviate some of the burden of debt.

Another alum blames consumerism for the food protests:

As a 2001 graduate of Oberlin, I have lately begun to cringe whenever my alma mater makes headlines. I guarantee you that the students are perfectly serious in their intent. Think about it: approximately $60,000 buys one year of classes, housing, and dining at Oberlin, placing the student in the highest tier of American educational consumers.


Given this, why should they not place demands—substantive, banal, and yes, even ridiculous—on the very system that so gleefully accepts their tuition checks? Look, I co-oped all four years at Oberlin. I ate my tofu, protested financial aid policies, and generally did all the usual things that one did at Oberlin. But you know what I didn’t do? I didn’t dream that campus dining was ever trying to be authentic (even if they said they were) when serving Asian, Italian, or any other kind of food. You know what you’re getting with campus dining. To pretend otherwise is just stupid. And to appropriate the language of social justice as a tool with which to badger folks working in the service industry is just cruel.

The next correspondent feels that the problem is that critics of Oberlin students just don’t understand the social justice concepts that would help them to see reality:

I’m emailing you just to explain some of the reasoning behind some of the complaints. Cultural appropriation is the “adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.” At Oberlin people take cultural appropriation very seriously. For example, at a school sponsored event a few months ago students were outraged by the presence of henna tattoos. Giving people henna tattoos would be an example of cultural appropriation because it trivializes a traditional act by another culture. I think that people were trying to bring attention to the lack of appreciation for other culture’s foods when they’re reduced to just another thing on the dining hall’s menu. CDS in general has done a poor job of giving other cultures dishes the recognition they deserve. Bahn Mi and sushi are both traditional dishes from cultures that are not our own, so, if prepared at all, they should be prepared in a manner that gives the dish the respect it deserves. People don’t usually think about food as something that deserves respect, but food is reflective of the heart of different cultures. I identify as religiously and culturally Jewish and I would be offended if someone prepared a traditional Seder plate incorrectly at some time other than Passover. This would de-sanctify the religious meal of Passover and reduce it to just another quotidian meal.


Food plays a large part in people’s cultural background and I agree that it is wrong to prepare traditional foods incorrectly. Cooking a traditional dish with improper ingredients and using incorrect method demeans the culture of those who hold those dishes dear. I hope you read this and at least gain a bit of understanding about why students were upset about the quality and nature of food they were being served.

As best as I can tell, most critics of the Oberlin students are well aware of the rationale set forth in the email above, but reject many of its premises as wrongheaded.

An Oberlin freshman is shocked by the climate at the college:

I’m a freshman at Oberlin College. My first semester at Oberlin was interesting to say the least. I’m a liberal, politically active kid from [very liberal city].  I didn’t expect the atmosphere at Oberlin to be much different from the one I’ve been used to for the past 18 years. I was mistaken.


Not everyone at Oberlin is a lunatic. Yet the most radical students are by far the loudest so it seems like Oberlin is way more radical than it actually is. I hadn’t even heard about the food thing until I got home for break and saw Oberlin students sharing a Fox News article about food appropriation.  But there have been many heated discussions (via Yik Yak, an anonymous iPhone app for instance) regarding similar issues. For instance, a couple months ago, there was this big debate about whether Henna is cultural appropriation.  When these discussions come up, I, along with the other smart Oberlin kids, don’t get involved.


The reason is that the radical vocal minority is quick to ostracize anyone who disagrees with them. This is why I would ask that if you would like to quote me on anything, you keep it anonymous. The far left radicals are as bad as equally radical right wingers. Although I agree politically on almost all issues, their inability to tolerate people with different views is absurd. They tend to not focus enough on reaching a goal but instead on having a strong reaction.  I feel frustrated when I think about my school because I know that if I were to do something like share the Fox News article and make fun of my school, I would get disparaged on Facebook.


Oberlin students responded to these articles by complaining that they detracted from the big issue now at Oberlin, the ABUSUA petition. This petition was created so that black students could demand certain changes to address issues at Oberlin. I agreed with many of these issues but I didn’t sign the petition because some of it was completely unrealistic. And it demanded that certain teachers be fired without giving enough explicit info about their supposed wrongdoing. On Yik Yak, many people were against the petition but no one said anything against it in public.


This is because it became abundantly clear that to critique the petition would be racist.  Any dissenters are called racists by the vocal minority which completely shuts down conversation. This is a very long winded email but I hope to convey some of my uncertainties about my new school. I think these issues have become apparent in many liberal arts schools. If you have any specific questions for me, I would be happy to answer them. But again, I wish to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

Finally, a reader who neither attended nor worked at Oberlin remarks from afar:

The most valuable thing I learned in college was that (aside from a few close friends and family members) nobody in the real world cares what happens to me. They don’t care where I’m from, what my dreams are, if I’m happy, or even if I’m fed or clothed. It was a hard lesson, but a formative one. It’s important to know that. The idea that a college administrator would care that I’m satisfied with, or at least not offended by food choices is an idea that I have literally never considered before.


My mind is blown.


I worked in a college cafeteria. The people who prepare the food are trying to get through their shift. They are assembling pre-packaged ingredients according to standard protocols. They are quite uninterested in who eats the food, or how they feel about it, or even if they like it. There is no scheme to appropriate culture. They are indifferent to culture. I don’t doubt that the students are offended, and I don’t mean to minimize their feelings. It’s just hard for me to relate to their demands.

Does Affirmative Action Create Mismatches Between Students and Universities?


Last week, during oral arguments in the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia drew outraged criticism for declaring that “there are those who contend that it does not benefit African­-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less­ advanced school, a slower­-track school where they do well.” Scalia was clumsily alluding to “mismatch theory,” a prominent critique of affirmative action. Its proponents argue that non-academic preferences in college admissions ill-serve some intended beneficiaries, who end up admitted to schools for which they are relatively unprepared, and struggling, rather than thriving at different schools where they would be at least as well prepared as their classmates.

The denunciations were fierce.

“It is deeply disturbing to hear a Supreme Court justice endorse racist ideas from the bench on the nation’s highest court,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. The cover of the New York Daily News declared it “Scalia’s racist rant.” Andy Borowitz, whose humor reliably flatters the preexisting beliefs of the average New Yorker reader, quipped that Justice Antonin Scalia would fare better if he served as a judge at a court that was ‘less advanced’ than the United States Supreme Court.”

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In response, some indignant conservative media critics declared that “mismatch theory” is “a taboo subject for the MSM” and that “the left” is made up of “contemptible liars” who are “terming Scalia a racist” because “the left’s ugly belief that subjective hurt somehow trumps statistical fact means that he must be labeled a bigot.”

If the underlying subject were inconsequential, America’s red and blue tribes could watch the uncharitable back-and-forth, get their respective serotonin boosts, and depart with the satisfaction of feeling superior to their ideological adversaries. As is often the case, however, the hyperbolic sniping that emerged from the political culture of stigma-and-outrage junkies muddied an important debate about a subject that deserves to be engaged cooly, rigorously, and constructively.

After all, many institutions of higher education give admissions boosts for non-academic characteristics, including race, athletic ability, musical talent, leadership potential, geographic diversity, and having parents who are alumni. It would be beneficial for the relevant admissions officers to have empirical answers to questions like, “Does an admitted student’s graduation rate change predictably depending on how many standard deviations they are from the mean SAT score or GPA?”

Colleges can hardly avoid provisional, working answers to that question. And there are cases in which nearly everyone either agrees with, or rejects, “mismatch theory.” If Harvard’s admissions team unexpectedly decided to admit ten students, never mind their race, who scored in the bottom 10 percent on the SAT, everyone would expect those students to fail. If Duke admitted 10 students of any race who scored a single percentile lower than the school average on the SAT, no one would expect that tranche of students to fail out of the university at a higher rate. Admissions officers regularly say about people of all races, “I’m impressed by this young person, but their ACT score and GPA make me wonder if they’d thrive here or be set up to fail.” Treating that commonplace as taboo is irresponsible. The only question is at what point academic credentials matter and to what degree.

With better information, colleges might learn that more expansive race-based preferences would not lower graduation rates; or that a subset of orchestra members or legacies or minorities are harmed by policies intended to help them; or that institutions can eliminate differences in graduation rates among students with GPA disparities by investing in specific types of academic support. Accurate, detailed conclusions could plausibly improve many thousands of lives, whatever they say.

Yet that isn’t the focus of the public debate. Why?

Scalia’s error was to talk carelessly and imprecisely about a predictably fraught subject. Contrary to his lazy characterization, proponents of “mismatch theory” do not believe that admission to selective colleges “does not benefit African ­Americans,” full stop, or that African Americans would benefit from “a slower track school.”

He ought to have made all of the following clear:

  • Many black students are fully qualified to attend the most highly selective institutions of higher education in America, and proponents of “mismatch theory” of course believe that this subset of black students benefits from doing so.
  • Professor Richard Sander of UCLA, who many regard as the foremost scholarly proponent of “mismatch theory,”and Stuart Taylor Jr. of Brookings, who co-authored the book Mismatch with him, “support the modest use of race in admissions but think very large preferences have harmful effects.”
  • It’s not about just about race. As Sander himself wrote last week in the Washington Post,“The ‘mismatch hypothesis’ contends that any person (certainly not just minorities) can be adversely affected if she attends a school where her level of academic preparation is substantially lower than that of her typical classmate.”

While Scalia’s defenders contend that he was speaking in shorthand and referencing amicus briefs and scholarly research that convey the foregoing more clearly than he did, I do not think it overzealous “political correctness” to expect more carefully drawn words on this subject in a high-profile hearing, given Scalia’s prominence and the ugly, wrongheaded belief in black inferiority that persists in bigoted enclaves. A man of his position and intellect is capable of better. From a purely consequentialist perspective, he should’ve anticipated that his shorthand would add more heat than light to the debate. As Taylor told the New York Times, “Mr. Scalia’s lack of eloquence had made what he said sound worse than it was.”

If Scalia sometimes shows more talent for provocation than rigor, the press ought to understand how amplifying and denouncing his least careful words misleads readers, who are owed a careful exposition of the actual arguments to which he alluded. At Vox, Libby Nelson at least explained to readers, “Scalia wasn’t making up his objection from the bench. He was drawing from a frequent conservative argument against affirmative action: Students with lesser academic qualifications don’t benefit from being admitted to a more competitive college.”

But even she gives the impression that mismatch theory is persuasive only to conservative opponents of affirmative action and that it is safely dismissed. As she put it, “research has found this isn’t true. If anything, it’s the opposite—students benefit from going to the best college that will admit them, even if their academic credentials are a stretch, because more selective colleges tend to have higher graduation rates.”

Notes



Sander, who isn’t mentioned in her piece despite his prominence in the debate and an amicus brief in the case before the court, is hardly a conservative ideologue. He graduated from Harvard and chose, as his first job, volunteering as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago; he wrote his graduate dissertation on fair-housing laws and residential segregation; he worked on the effort to elect Democrat Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, and served on his transition team; he has a track record of empirical research aimed at figuring out how institutions of higher education can best help struggling students to thrive; and he’s a tenured law professor at UCLA. None of those factors means that his theory is necessarily correct; but they certainly cut against innuendo that “mismatch” is rooted in conservative hackery or racism.

Sander’s initial paper on mismatch theory focused on law schools.

Proponents of mismatch theory––and some agnostics––also cite a study by Duke University’s Peter Arcidiacono, who found that affirmative action might cause its beneficiaries to drop out of the most difficult majors at disproportionately high rates. It is conceivable that such mismatches, if they exist, are particularly likely at law schools and in STEM fields, and less likely to be observed in other disciplines—or even that they vary widely by institution.

Other formidable scholars––Matthew Chingo prominent among them––have offered strong critiques of “mismatch theory.” I have no position to offer on the many questions on which these academics disagree. But perusing the critics, Sander’s most up-to-date defense of his scholarship and various attempts to characterize the overarching debate, I’m baffled that any journalists are treating it as settled, even as tenured social-scientists at top-tier universities declare that it deserves to be taken seriously. No one, it seems, can yet provide a precise answer to the question, “at what point do disparities in GPA, SAT score, or high-school quality start to matter,” even though everyone surely agrees that they matter at some inflection point.

It would be useful to know, whatever it is.

One reason for the stridency of the reaction to Scalia’s remarks is the long history of racial exclusion and discrimination in university admissions; some critics fear that “mismatch theory” portends a return to segregated campuses, making the question of mismatches based on race more fraught than it is with respect to preferences based on athletics. Fortunately, almost no one today favors race-based exclusions, and public universities in states like California, where racial preferences are outlawed, have proven able to maintain a large degree of racial diversity. The biggest risk of bungling the mismatch debate is likely leaving students at schools where they are less likely to thrive.

As an observer who is open to the possibility of “mismatch” proponents or skeptics having the better of the argument, the only thing that seems clear to me is that more study of this question is worthwhile. Why does anyone disagree? Nelson writes, “Mismatch theory is always brought up in the context of affirmative action. But universities admit less academically qualified students for all kinds of reasons—because they’re the children of alumni or donors, due to athletic or musical talent, and so on. There isn’t nearly as much concern about how those students fare, and some research has found they’re more likely to drop out than other students, including those admitted through race-based affirmative action.” Wouldn’t it therefore be salutary to have answers to the whole array of questions?

In Mismatch, Sander and Taylor advocate for one step as a possible middle ground. “Schools should provide any information they have available or can reasonably obtain on learning outcomes for past students similar to the admitted student,” they write. “For example, a student admitted to a college with a given SAT score and high-school GPA should receive its best estimate of the past graduation rates of comparable students, their college GPAs, and their rates of attrition from intended majors.”

In one of the most even-handed articles on the controversy, the National Review’s Reihan Salam, an agnostic on racial  preferences, offers a compelling endorsement of that narrow position:

The goal of transparency wouldn’t be to discourage students from attending selective schools. If Chingos is right, the news would in most cases be more encouraging than discouraging. Yet students with below average levels of academic preparation would have a clearer sense of the obstacles they face, and that they’d be wise to take advantage of enrichment resources on campus to keep up with their better-prepared classmates.


It’s not just beneficiaries of racial preferences who’d profit from access information of this kind. So would athletes and benefits of other preferences, like legacy preferences and regional preferences. Indeed, I suspect all students would benefit from having some sense of where they stand in the pecking order. One often hears about students who resent the suggestion that they’ve benefited from racial (or other) preferences. Transparency could do a great deal to address these concerns. If I know that I’ve benefited from a preference, and I’ve made an informed decision about what that will likely mean for my academic prospects, I’d presumably feel far more secure. If I can’t stand the idea of benefiting from a preference, however, I might instead attend a school where I’d start at the top of heap. The ability to make an informed decision in accordance with your values is no small thing.

I suspect information of that sort would’ve better prepared me for the calculus course I struggled through as a Pomona College sophomore admitted with an SAT score that put me well above average in verbal skills and decidedly below it in math. It seems as though it would’ve benefitted Afi-Odelia Scruggs, whose powerful Washington Post op-ed about struggling at an elite college––and benefitting from going there anyway––serves as one powerful anecdotal retort to Scalia’s speculation. And the case for transparency dovetails with the demands of some student activists, who want more transparent data about how successfully institutions eager to recruit them to campus are serving them once they matriculate. Perhaps if lots of private institutions parted with such data, best practices would emerge.

Meanwhile, neither the right nor the left should stigmatize those who disagree with them on this subject. Careful proponents of mismatch theory and its most careful critics are both doing a service by advancing knowledge in an area where accurate information is highly likely to benefit that subset of students of all races who benefit from various admissions preferences, regardless of what the facts turn out to say. Journalists ought to be invested in the rigorous pursuit of that knowledge, and do harm insofar as they overstate what is known, or stigmatize earnest scholars on either side of a debate that won’t be settled without many more studies at diverse institutions.

As John McWhorter put it, this is “a complex matter upon which reasonable minds will differ. With the well-being of young people of color at stake, we can’t afford to pretend otherwise.” Stigma and insults help no one. But more knowledge will.

Campus Politics: A Cheat Sheet


The country’s college campuses have seen a surge in student activism amid escalating tensions over their hostile racial climates. Student groups nationwide—many of them in conjunction with national initiatives such as the Black Liberation Collective and Black Lives Matter movement—have issued sets of demands aimed at improving the campus climate, enhancing student and faculty diversity, and ensuring better support for people of color in higher education. Common demands include the development of curricula focused on teaching cultural competency, the creation of cultural centers, and leadership changes.

In a November 20th op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, outgoing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has received more than 1,000 complains of racial harassment at colleges and universities during his nearly seven years in office. The Atlantic’s Andrew McGill has found that the number of black students at top-tier universities has actually shrunk. As McGill put it, the numbers suggest that the activism that’s exploded since the University of Missouri is more an “inevitability” than a “spontaneous uprising of discontent.”

The protests have been met with widespread support, though they’ve also triggered debates about free-speech rights and backlash including threats of violence against the protesters. Meanwhile, some students question whether college administrators will respond with constructive plans for change or merely band-aid approaches to allaying the turmoil. “Genuine opportunity is about more than enrolling; it’s about finding a home and a community,” Duncan wrote.

This cheat sheet and timeline provide a working overview of how things look right now and include highlights from some of the most high-profile campus protests. We will be periodically updating it throughout the year. (The protests’ exact dates are often hard to nail down, so unless otherwise noted, the ones summarized below are organized in reverse chronological order by the day on which protesters published their demands; doing so helps ensure a consistent national comparison.) While the schools mentioned below have gotten national media attention, students at about 60 schools nationwide—from Occidental College in California, to the University of Alabama—have submitted lists of demands to their respactive universities. A running list of those schools can be found here.


Harvard University

What: A group of students initially issued a list of demands back in December 2014, but the school’s racial tensions reemerged on the public radar November 19 after portraits of Harvard Law Schools’ black professors were each covered with a piece of black tape. The Guardian reports that the same tape had previously been used by activists from the group Royall Must Fall to cover the law school’s seal in several locations on campus in an effort to raise awareness about the seal’s history: “The family crest of the wealthy and ruthless slaveholder Isaac Royall Jr.” According to The Crimson, hundreds of law-school students, faculty, staff, and administrators subsequently gathered to condemn the law school’s “racist and unwelcoming environment”; some criticized Law School Dean Martha Minow for failing to adequately support minority students. One law-school student wrote a post for Blavity describing it as “a hate crime.”

Who: Royall Must Fall, Harvard Black Law Student Association, Chan School Justice

Aftermath: Campus police are still investigating the vandalism. Administrators, including Minow and Harvard President Drew Faust, said they’re committed to making the Ivy League college a more inclusive place. Last year, the school created a working group on diversity and inclusion, and on November 20th, a day after the vandalism was discovered, officials released the group’s report. It recommended more diversity at the college and better support for affinity-based students groups on campus and in multicultural centers, among other proposals.


Princeton University

What: Students staged a 32-hour protest and sit-in, taking over President Christopher Eisgruber’s office. They issued a set of demands, including calls for the university to revisit how it treats Woodrow Wilson’s “racist legacy.” (The 28th president supported racial segregation and opposed efforts during the civil-rights era to combat discrimination.) Some of their efforts focused on raising cultural awareness through required courses and supporting students of color by creating a space on campus tailored to their needs. The protest ended when Eisgruber signed a document conceding to some of their requests. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who:  The Black Justice League

Aftermath: Eisgruber has agreed to consider—and in some cases execute—the students’ demands; he issued a letter on November 22nd explaining that changes were already underway. Eisgruber agreed to the possibility of renaming the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public affairs and removing a mural of him. He also agreed to creating a cultural space and indicated that campus leaders were contemplating the creation of a course on diversity issues that would be required of all students. Soon after the protest, the university issued alerts that there had been anonymous threats of violence involving bombs and firearms.


Brown University

What: After a Dartmouth student was handcuffed and thrown to the ground in a “heated and physical” incident with Brown campus police while attending a conference on race, gender, and socioeconomic issues, Brown President Christina Paxon promised a full investigation. Hundreds of students at Brown, a campus known for being progressive, teamed up with peers from Providence College to protest in solidarity with the students at the University of Missouri. Students organized a “blackout,” wearing black in honor of those who’ve faced racial discrimination on campus and elsewhere. Students gathered on the green and took turns speaking into a megaphone and telling their experiences of being victimized by racist remarks. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Black Student Union, other groups

Aftermath: Brown plans to invest $100 million achieving the goals set out in a new 19-page outline called “Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University.” Paxon has asked students and faculty to complete an online feedback form to comment on what they think of the new diversity initiative. It includes: adding staff to the Brown Center for Students of Color, the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and the LGBTQ Center, offering sensitivity and social justice training, compiling statistics on bias and inclusion, and doubling the number of faculty from diverse backgrounds by 2024-25.


Yale University

What: After a string of racially charged events on campus—including a fraternity barring black women from their party, swastikas drawn across campus, and a letter from an administrator implying that students offended by culturally insensitive Halloween costumes should just “look away”—students held a “March of Resilience” that garnered more than 1,000 supporters. Students gathered in the Afro-American cultural center for hours discussing how they felt left out of Yale’s culture, and President Peter Salovey admitted in a closed-doors meeting that the university had “failed” its minority students. Students demanded that the university increase support for cultural centers, address mental health issues for minority students and remove the administrator who had written the letter, Erika Christakis, from her position as the associate master of Silliman College. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Black Student Alliance, Yale Next

Aftermath: The controversy at Yale has inspired debates around free speech and initiatives by administrators nationwide to acknowledge and address systematic racism. Salovey met many of students’ demands by their November 18 deadline, notably omitting the one calling for the removal of Christakis and her husband Nicholas, whose emails largely sparked the debate in the first place. Salovey did, however, announce that the school will increase funding for cultural centers, hire four diverse faculty members, and launch a series of conferences on diversity and inclusion.


Amherst College

What: An initial sit-in was organized by three students at the small, elite liberal-arts college in solidarity with their peers at Mizzou and other institutions around the world “where black people are marginalized and threatened.” Students gathered to speak about their experiences with racism at the college and elsewhere and called for the university to abandon an unofficial mascot, Lord Jeff, commemorating the college’s namesake, who allegedly engaged in germ warfare against Native Americans by giving them smallpox-infected blankets. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Amherst Uprising

Aftermath: Most of the Amherst students’ 11 demands were ultimately rejected. A majority of faculty did, however, vote to change the mascot; the vote is nonbinding and will be presented to the board of trustees in January. Several of the Uprising’s demands have garnered a good deal of criticism over free-speech concerns. They include a request that the college to discipline the students who posted “All Lives Matter” signs and other posters criticizing the Mizzou protesters. The college’s president, Biddy Martin, expressed her support for the protesters and seemed to side with them in response to accusations that they were seeking to stifle free speech on campus.


Claremont McKenna College

What: Although the events at Mizzou and Yale seem to have sparked the current spike in unrest at the Claremont McKenna, the uprising at private liberal-arts college in Southern California actually traces back to April, when a group of 30 minority students originally wrote to the university president with their own list of demands. Greater faculty diversity and funding for multicultural services were among the original requests—most of which hadn’t been met as of the recent wave of protests, according to The Student Life. The national movement, combined with a controversy at Claremont McKenna involving former Dean of Students Mary Spellman, prompted new attention on the racial tensions at the California school, with protesters issuing an open letter outlining the same demands and fervidly pushing for new leadership. Spellman reportedly precipitated the campus-wide protest and hunger strikes by two students after sending an email to a Hispanic student (who’d written an op-ed in the campus newspaper criticizing the college for failing to support marginalized students) pledging to better support students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”

Who: CMCers of Color, Brothers and Sisters Alliance, Sexuality and Gender Alliance, Asian Pacific American Mentors, GenU

Aftermath: Spellman resigned on November 12. A day earlier, when the demonstrations took place, President Hiram Chodosh sent out a letter announcing the creation of new leadership positions on diversity and inclusion; a greater emphasis on recruiting and hiring people of color and teaching about diversity issues; and the establishment of a center dedicated to diversity, identity, and free speech. Protest organizers continue to push for their involvement in decision-making around resources and hiring, stressing that their efforts are just beginning. “This is not the be-all and end-all,” Jincy Varughese, a senior environment, economics and politics major, told the Times. “The fact that it took eight months of protest and two students saying that they wanted to go on a hunger fast to create all of this to happen is very telling.”   


Ithaca College

What: A “solidarity walkout” organized during the college’s family weekend whose main demand was that its president, Tom Rochon, step down. Protesters distributed a document, “The Case Against Tom Rochon,” a scathing censure that accuses the president of “incompetence,” “disregard for minority community members,” and “disconnection from what is actually happening at [Ithaca College] and what needs to happen.” (The source of the document is unclear.) The Ithaca College protest has been closely compared to that at Mizzou and was, according to the Ithaca Journal and student newspaper The Ithacan, prompted by “ongoing concerns of racial injustice” on campus, including “a string of … race-related incidents” in the weeks leading up to the demonstration.

Who: People of Color at Ithaca College

Aftermath: The chair of the school’s board of trustees, Tom Grape, issued a statement on the same day of the walkout assuring students that administrators would do their best to heed their concerns. Rochon, however, is still in office, and Grape noted that the board is “actively partnering” with the president and other campus leaders to ensure “that Ithaca College will emerge from this chapter stronger and more resolute in its direction forward.” (The day prior to the protest, college leaders announced the creation of a new chief diversity officer position; the college’s current associate provost for diversity, inclusion, and engagement is taking up the role in the interim.)


University of Cincinnati

What: In July, a white University of Cincinnati police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, Samuel DuBose, after a routine traffic stop. Students in response formed the Irate 8—a group that’s named after the percentage of black students at UC last year and has since spearheaded racial-justice efforts on campus. A petition outlining their demands went live November 9th, calling for the development of a curriculum focusing on “racial awareness” and the recruitment and retention of black students and faculty; it’s also demanding that the school improve its handling of police misconduct and divest from companies involved in the operation of private prisons. Students also staged a silent protest on November 18 in solidarity with the other campus demonstrations. (A list of the protesters’ demands, which were first presented to the university on October 15, can be found here.)

Who: The Irate 8, UC Students Against Injustice

Aftermath: The group’s petition has received hundreds of signatures. The university’s chief diversity, Bleuzette Marshall, told The Washington Post that she’s met with the group repeatedly to ensure them that changes are taking place. (The percentage of black students on campus, for example, has slightly increased.) Some activists are skeptical of all the commitments being made, with one telling the Post he’s “getting weary of the niceties.”


The University of Missouri

What: Protests kicked off after a series of racist incidents on campus in the fall, including a report that feces that had been smeared in the shape of a swastika in a dorm restroom. Black students have long described a segregated and unwelcoming environment at the university that administrators failed to address. On October 10th, activists tried to confront University President Tim Wolfe, stopping his car during the school’s homecoming parade and reciting through a megaphone incidents of racism on campus tracing back to the university’s founding in the 1830s. Wolfe reportedly remained silent during the entire confrontation. The ensuing protests included a hunger strike by one student, a mass student demonstration and faculty walkout, and a strike by the university’s football team—the last of which is believed to have clinched Wolfe’s resignation. During the demonstrations, activists were shown on video seeking to keep journalists away from protests, including a clip of some of them—students and professors—intimidating a photographer. (A list of the protesters’ demands can be found here.)

Who: Concerned Student 1950, a coalition leading the protests that’s named for the year Mizzou admitted its first black graduate student; Jonathan Butler, a graduate student and veteran of the Ferguson protests, launched a hunger strike that ended when Wolfe resigned; Faculty​; The Mizzou football team

Aftermath: On November 9, Wolfe and Chancellor Bowen Loftin both announced their resignations (which seem to have been precipitated not only by the uproar, but also by preexisting questions about their leadership). That same day, the university’s Board of Curators announced that it was enacting a series of diversity initiatives—including the appointment of a chief diversity, inclusion, and equity officer and efforts to recruit and retain more faculty and staff of color—that would go into effect within the next three months. A number of employees involved in the altercation with the photojournalist apologized, including a communications professor who resigned from a courtesy appointment she held at the university’s School of Journalism. The protests were followed by a good deal of disorder on campus, including canceled classes, threats of violence on social media and by phone, and other suspicious activity. On November 10th, a 19-year-old white Missouri University of Science and Technology student was arrested in connection with a Yik Yak post in which he threatened to shoot every black person he saw. The movement leading up to the departures of Wolfe and Loftin has been described as “seismic, ” with the Mizzou protests attributed with sparking a wave of protests on campuses nationwide over racism on college and free speech, among other related issues.

The Missing Black Students at Elite American Universities


Over the past 20 years, black enrollment in colleges and universities has skyrocketed. It’s a huge success story, one that’s due to the hard work of black families, college admissions officers, and education advocates. But at top-tier universities in the United States, it’s a different story. There, the share of students who are black has actually dropped since 1994.

Among the 100-odd “very high research activity” institutions scored by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research, most saw their percentage of black undergraduates shrink between 1994 and 2013, the product of modest growth in black enrollment amid a much more rapid expansion of students on campus, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

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This list includes not only Ivy League schools and selective private colleges, but also many large public universities, including UCLA, Florida State, and the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, other institutions of higher education—including speciality schools, baccalaureate programs, and colleges that primarily offer associate degrees—have seen black representation increase, sometimes dramatically.

This statistic put the recent campus discussions on race in a different light: less a spontaneous uprising of discontent, and more an inevitability.

“When you already have an issue around inclusion … these incidents of late heighten that perception and confirm that perception,” said Tyrone Howard, an associate dean for equity and inclusion at UCLA and director of the university’s Black Male Institute. “It gives some students of color some pause—do I really want to go to a place that, at least from the optics, suggests they’re not inclusive?”



Since 1994, black enrollment has doubled at institutions that primarily grant associate degrees, including community colleges. In 2013, black students accounted for 16 percent of the student body there, versus 11 percent in 1994.

Universities focusing on bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees also broadly saw gains, with blacks making up 14 percent of the population, compared to 11 percent in 1994.

But at top-tier universities, black undergraduate populations average 6 percent, a statistic that has remained largely flat for 20 years. (It’s less than half of what their share of the population might suggest; the Census reports that 15 percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 24 are black.) While some schools have had success—the University of Missouri’s main campus has actually increased its black share by 3 percentage points since 1994—the median school barely budged.

(At Harvard, for example, 6.5 percent of undergraduates were black in 2013, down from 7.4 percent in 1994.)

Researchers say top-tier schools have left black students behind in their push for ever-more-selective admission rates. Many rely heavily on measures that disadvantage minority students, including standardized test scores. The greater emphasis on such criteria has left high school counselors in predominantly black schools underprepared to respond. And tighter admissions may have prompted high school counselors to steer black students toward less selective schools.

“Those schools don’t have as much support around college prep as they should. As a result, those students are woefully in the dark about their college options,” Howard said. “If a student shows he or she has a profile that would be considered at UCLA or Berkeley, if no one at the school or a counselor or an administrator helps the student to recognize it, that student shoots for a [less-selective] state school instead.”

But simply admitting more black students isn’t enough. Persistently lower graduation rates among black students show that promising enrollment numbers alone won’t build an inclusive campus. The curriculum matters, academics say, as does support. So does the diversity of the faculty.

“Even at places that are impressively diverse, students still feel very much on the fringes,” said Shaun Harper, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. “Simply having more students of color on a college campus does not ensure that they are going to feel included and respected.”

There’s no question that top-tier schools are becoming more diverse. White students made up 58 percent of the student body in 2013, down from 72 percent in 1994. Universities have also recruited more Hispanics, the United States’ largest minority group.

But indifference to black students isn’t an issue colleges can afford to take lightly. “Young black folks are refusing alteration or the mollification of conformity and are simply demanding justice,” the New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently wrote. And the numbers are their side.

Being Muslim on Campus


Even before the Paris Attacks, Muslims on American college campuses were often the targets of hatred or violence. In November, Virginia Tech responded to a threat that claimed “I will kill all Muslims,” and Islamophobic posters were hung at American University. And it’s only gotten worse since.

“People are a little more careful traveling alone, going out at night, walking to their cars,” Adeel Zeb, the Muslim Chaplain and director of Muslim life at Duke University, told me. And that reality plays an important role in the everyday lives of students.

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Across the country right now, students are walking out of classes, demanding administrators’ resignations, and staging protests to draw attention to prejudice on campus—and to press for greater inclusion. Most of their focus, though, has been on race. Where does pushback against Islamophobia fit in?

Many Americans, including some presidential candidates, draw little distinction between the violent ideologies of extremist groups and mainstream Islam. As a result, there is often an anti-Muslim backlash in the wake of attacks, despite overwhelming condemnation of terrorism and the use of the Quran to justify mass murder among practicing Muslims. As my colleague Conor Friedersdorf points out:

Hate crimes against American Muslims spiked tremendously after 9/11. Hate crimes against Sikhs increased too. In Britain, hate crimes soared after the London bombing. And after the attack on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, The Independent reported that “twenty-six mosques around France have been subject to attack by firebombs, gunfire, pig heads, and grenades as Muslims are targeted with violence.

The university atmosphere acts as a social laboratory of sorts, a model written into the mission statements and strategic plans of many schools. That’s why, like many other cultural groups, Muslim organizations use resources—in the form of student activity fees or membership dues—to stimulate intercultural interaction. Zeb explained that Muslims are among the most active participants in the university’s interfaith community. A principal goal is to foster understanding and respect among people who may have never been exposed to significantly different beliefs and practices.

For Muslim groups, the uncomfortable reality is that the starting point is often showing that their values are rooted in love and kindness—that they’re “not terrorists.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that, because of international events, a lot of young Muslim students are looked upon to answer questions about these types of things—as if they have a Ph.D. and a 20-year tenure of answering these questions—when they’re simply just trying to get past organic chemistry so they can get into medical school,” Zeb said. “They happen to be Muslim and perhaps a terrorist happened to be Muslim as well, so there’s somehow a correlation, and an onus to condemn the terrorism—or you’re assumed to be complicit in it and I don’t think that’s very fair.

Fatima Koli, a student at Columbia University, told me that this burden puts her in a difficult place. “No matter what we do, we are always left in the weaker position, always reacting instead of paving our own way,” said Koli, who is also the president of the Muslim Student Association at Columbia. “Why do we always have to wait to have our hurt acknowledged? Why do we always have to step back and accept that our lives aren’t valued in this world?” she asked me. “Muslims are always at the back of the line for that compassion.”

Koli rejects the notion that she bears a personal responsibility to take an active role in combatting prejudice against peaceful Muslims. “While I highly respect individuals and organizations that do the work of dispelling misconceptions, I can’t do that kind of work,” she said. “We need to cultivate our own spaces and have productive and meaningful discussions within our own community, and the work of educating the ignorant can take a step back for once.”

But those who do choose to take an active role on that front say that it usually just takes a simple, positive interaction. “Until a Muslim from within the community speaks up to reaffirm these beliefs, many of my student peers are not as confident about explaining such misconceptions of Islam to others or confronting those who are perpetrating hateful speech,” Afrad Khan, a student at New York University, told me.

The most violent instances of backlash haunt many Muslims. Zeb referenced the murders at the University of North Carolina in February during our conversation; Koli recalled a woman in London who was pushed into the path of a train. But Islamophobia manifests in nonviolent ways, too. Yik Yak on campuses is often inundated with vitriolic anti-Muslim slurs, and xenophobic distaste commonly manifests in subtle ways—as microaggressions against “visibly Muslim” people.

And sometimes, the hostility comes from professors. Khan told the stories of a student who heard a professor say in class that the Prophet Muhammad hallucinated on fumes in a cave—causing him to believe he had talked to God—and of another student who was told that she is “too pretty to be wearing a hijab.”

An exceptional case—where Islamophobia and campus free-speech concerns are colliding—has been unfolding this year at my alma mater. In January, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a Vanderbilt law professor, Carol Swain, wrote that “Islam is not like other religions in the United States, that it poses an absolute danger to us and our children” in an op-ed for the Tennessean, adding that “Islam is not just another religion to be accorded the respect given to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Baha’i and other world religions.” Student activists of all faiths (and of none) denounced Swain’s words and organized protests and other events to push back. When some activists began to call for Swain to be sanctioned or fired, a debate about free-expression and safe spaces ensued (to much the same tune as the recent conflicts at Yale and Mizzou). Last week, a student-drafted petition to suspend Swain reached over 1500 signatures. The chancellor, Nicholas Zeppos, released a statement pointing out that Swain’s views are not consistent with the university’s, but affirming the school’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom.

Days later, terrorists struck Paris, and Swain took to Facebook to reaffirm her stance: “I rest my case,” she posted, later adding:

I am astonished by the timing. My “controversial” essay about Islam was published after the Charlie Hebdo attack. The second massive attack in Paris occurs in the midst of the turmoil at Vanderbilt which accuses me of hate speech for an essay published in January that pointed out a problem with Islam. It’s Ironic that some people see Christianity as a threat. I am afraid we have made it easier for terrorists to attack us.

It’s an exceptional circumstance; not many tenured professors around the country espouse views (at least not publicly) that marginalize an entire faith. But the response Swain provoked at Vanderbilt illustrates that student activism doesn’t stop at Black Lives Matter, and that battling Islamophobia is part of the growing demand for inclusivity at colleges and universities.

That movement for inclusivity, though gaining steam, faces uncertain prospects. At the tensest moments—when genuine breakthroughs seem possible—the core demands made by activists have often been overshadowed by concerns about the methods they employ. In the short term, the headlines about intolerant activists and the suppression of free speech may garner the most attention. But those activists are trying to expose deep-seated prejudices that matter far more in the long term. And for Muslim students, that task now seems particularly urgent.