The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colleges and universities can do more to protect students and faculty against hate crimes. Here are some ideas.

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The national discussion on school safety is more often than not focused on K-12 schools — but it is just as much of a concern to those who work, visit or live on college and university campuses.

FBI statistics show that hate crimes on college campuses are rising, and the mass shootings in the country have left many Americans more concerned about gun violence than ever.

To be sure, colleges nationwide are trying to find new ways to protect students and faculty and staff members against hate crimes, but the authors of this post say many schools can and should do more — and they offer suggestions about what school officials can do to protect people from hate crimes.

This was written by Simone Ispa-Landa, a sociologist at Northwestern University, and Noelle Hurd, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. Both are Public Voices fellows through the OpEd Project, a social venture aimed at increasing the range of voices and ideas heard in the public square.

By Simone Ispa-Landa and Noelle Hurd

The recent mass shootings in the United States — including one at an El Paso Walmart that authorities have declared domestic terrorism — underline the urgency for universities to address the perils of hate speech and disruptions to safety on campuses.

Violence against members of marginalized groups continues to plague college campuses across the country. At Howard University recently, a trans woman of color reported a sexual assault on campus. At Stanford University, police are investigating a noose that was recently placed near a dorm where high school summer camp students are housed.

With classes at many universities either already started or starting soon, college and university administrators need to think about how they can protect and support students, faculty and staff who are on the front lines of the fight for greater tolerance, racial justice and gender equity.

The most recently released FBI data show that hate crime reports increased 17 percent from 2016 to 2017. Many institutions of higher education are becoming less safe, the data shows.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, in the spring of 2019 there were more white-supremacist fliers, stickers, and posters on college campuses than at any other time in the recent past.

Between September 2018 and May 2019, the report found 313 cases of white-supremacist propaganda on U.S. campuses. That represents a 7 percent increase from the 2017-2018 academic year, when incidents increased by 77 percent from the previous year.

No campus appears to be immune: In the spring term alone, there were 161 incidents on 122 different college and university campuses. Colleges in 33 states from California and Utah to Ohio, Oklahoma and Kentucky were affected.

By the time students get to college, many have already experienced hate crimes in the schools they previously attended. In suburban Maryland, high school students spray-painted anti-Semitic, anti-LGBT, and anti-black graffiti on their school. The graffiti included racist slurs against the black school principal.

In Normal, Ill., a high school boys’ locker room was defaced with a swastika and the words “I hate minorities.”

As parents and educators, we know the shock of experiencing ignorance and hate firsthand.

One of us, a sociologist at Northwestern University, has a 10-year-old child in a public school in Evanston, IL who reported to her mother, “Someone drew a swastika on the chalkboard today, but no one knew who did it.”

In 2016, the other of us, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, wrote an open letter to the former University of Virginia president, Teresa Sullivan, to ask her not to refer to Thomas Jefferson — a slave owner and white supremacist — as a moral compass. Hurd was inundated with hate mail and threats.

Later, in August 2017, a torch-wielding mob of white supremacists marched across the campus and attacked a small group of students, staff and community anti-racist activists. Though reportedly administrators were aware of the march in advance, they took no apparent action to warn or protect members of the university or broader community. On the evening of the march, university police stood across the street and watched the attack unfold.

Christena Cleveland, a Duke University Divinity School professor, recently resigned from her position, citing an environment that she called “insufferably hostile to black people.”

Each academic institution needs leaders who will funnel resources into anti-racist and anti-sexist activity, including support for those who are willing to speak out about potential solutions to pressing social problems. This can look different for different institutions. There is no one-size-fits-all panacea.

History teaches that advancement often comes with a cost. Evolvement is essential to improve society, but it is usually celebrated in hindsight.

In 1721, a smallpox epidemic raged through Boston, killing 844 residents. Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister and racist slave owner, learned about inoculation from Onesimus, an enslaved man from West Africa, where the benefits of the practice were well-known. When Mather advocated the lifesaving technique, he was ridiculed and threatened. Naysayers disparaged inoculation for its African roots.

In 1796, Edward Jenner successfully used cowpox to create immunity, and by the early 1800s, elected officials were promoting vaccination as a public health measure.

In real time, today as through history, many individuals and groups pay for the friction caused by advocating to change social practices.

Universities can lessen the costs of progress for those who bear them the most. Administrators can defend their students, faculty and staff when they are attacked, protecting their own community of thought leaders who are on the front lines of change.

The American Association of University Professors and the American Historical Association encourage university administrations to protect faculty from online harassment and litigious efforts aimed to silence.

One concrete step would be for administrators to secure appropriate expertise on their legal counsel for students, faculty and staff who are targeted for harassment and intimidation as a consequence of their efforts to address injustice. Unfortunately many university policies leave faculty who are targeted by strategic lawsuits against public participation to fend for themselves.

Often, faculty who are targeted because of their public engagement do not know what kinds of administrative and legal support they can expect from the university. Universities can change this by writing and publicizing guidelines.

Administrators can also provide strong messaging about the need to create environments where members of marginalized groups and their allies can thrive. Instead of moving to the default of allowing students and faculty to navigate racist, sexist and toxic behavior within the university community on their own, administrators can create environments where it is clear that such behavior will not be tolerated.

Investing in evidence-based programming to improve institutional climate can also help. Programs that foster connections and trust among individuals from diverse groups are promising. Intergroup dialogue that is accompanied by social justice pedagogy can build meaningful connections across difference, engender allyship and improve school climate.

Such actions increase the sense of belonging and safety of members of marginalized groups and those who advocate for justice. They also inspire students to transform the world in ways that reflect a broader sense of humanity.

As educators, we understand it is necessary to create climates that nourish — rather than drain — the energies of those who are paying the price for transforming society in positive ways.