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Opinion Yale, University of Missouri and the broken promises of America’s universities

Supporters of Concerned Student 1950 celebrate following University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe’s resignation announcement Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, at the protest movement’s camp area in Columbia, Mo. (Nick Schnelle/Columbia Daily Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been observing the convulsions at Yale (my alma mater) and the University of Missouri, curious both about the culture of higher education and the way searching conversations about race in America have played out in college and university settings.

Yale students have been pushing for the renaming of Calhoun College (one of its residential communities) for someone other than the architect of the philosophy behind secession that lead to the Civil War, and the university has seen the departures of a number of prominent black faculty members, moves that some have interpreted as a sign that Yale fails to develop and retain professors of color. But deep rifts over race at Yale came to national attention last week after a pair of incidents; an email the associate master of my former residential college, Silliman, sent pushing back against a cautionary note from university officials about racially offensive Halloween costumes, and a party at a fraternity that allegedly turned away non-white guests.

And the University of Missouri has been riven by labor unrest, the disturbing results of a sexual assault survey, a fight over a campus statute of Thomas Jefferson, and a number of ugly incidents, including reports that the student body president had been the subject of racist slurs. Though many factors contributed to the campus environment, the racial issues and incidents have received the most attention, particularly because of a perception that administrators were handling them poorly. On Saturday, a large group of University of Missouri football players announced that they would strike until university president Tim Wolfe resigned, joining a hunger striker with a similar demand. On Monday, Wolfe quit.

It will be fascinating to see how Yale and the University of Missouri respond to students’ demands in the weeks, months and years — since these are issues that date back to the integration of institutions of higher education — to come. But it’s also important to ask a larger question that lies behind the racial issues at these two schools, behind the difficult discussions around how to handle allegations of sexual assault, and behind conversations about free speech and community-building in college: What can colleges and universities reasonably and sensibly promise their prospective students?

When we look at the gaps between what colleges promise and what they actually deliver, much of the discussion is–not unreasonably–financial. Is a college education worth it, especially in an era of skyrocketing costs and crippling student loan debt? But those gaps between expectations and experiences aren’t merely financial.

As Yale senior Aaron Z. Lewis put it in a widely-circulated post on Medium, “The protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party. They’re about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day. They’re about real experiences with racism on this campus that have gone unacknowledged for far too long. The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn’t.” Yale actually sells itself as even more than that, as my friend Dara Lind pointed out in a piece earlier this week; the residential colleges are touted as “little paradises,” both for their facilities and sense of community.

That same idea shows up in my colleague Wesley Lowery’s interview with Jonathan Butler, a University of Missouri graduate student who ended his hunger strike when the school’s president resigned.

“We have reactionary, negligent individuals on all levels at the university level on our campus and at the university system level, and so their job descriptions explicitly say that they’re supposed to provide a safe and inclusive environment for all students,” Butler told Lowrey. “But when we have issues of sexual assault, when we have issues of racism, when we have issues of homophobia, the campus climate continues to deteriorate because we don’t have strong leadership, willing to actually make change.”

In many cases, the gaps between expectations and experiences feel particularly sharp because of how long colleges and universities have been grappling with these issues. In 1969, Ernest Dunbar reported from Cornell where, “in a process that is being duplicated on campuses across the nation, university executives and deans are undergoing a painful self-examination that is part of a new learning process in which the black students often do the teaching.” Among a number of other requests from the Missouri protesters is the demand that “the University of Missouri meets the Legion of Black Collegians’ demands that were presented in 1969 for the betterment of the black community.” That document is illuminating today because it makes clear that Missouri has yet to resolve questions from almost fifty years ago about on-campus harassment and hiring black faculty.

The Cornell students were advocating for co-op housing on the grounds that “they were not at ease in the dormitories and that some of their customs were misunderstood by their white dorm-mates,” included “the employment of a black psychiatrist” in their list of demands, and tried to get Cornell to commit to the creation of a black studies department where students would have substantial input into faculty hiring, or even where the department would become an independent degree-granting institution closed to white students. These requests are strikingly close to some of the requests in a document released by a group of African-American students after a Black Student Alliance at Yale meeting last week, which include requests for “Mental health programs for the Black community & other communities of color that are specifically funded and specific to our experiences,” and circumstances in which “Students [are] able to give input on the hiring of professors and other programs related to hiring professors of color.”

Concerned Students 1950, the organization that coordinated efforts on the University of Missouri campus, has made similar demands, and hearkened back even more explicitly to 1969. Like the Yale students behind the document I mentioned, they want some sort of mandatory racial education. At Yale, the ask is for mandatory training for students and faculty, and mandatory classes in three departments for students. At Missouri, it’s for a “comprehensive racial awareness and inclusion curriculum…mandatory for all students, faculty, staff, and administration.”

The Missouri students want the school to increase the number of black faculty and staff members by ten percent by the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year. And like their Yale counterparts, they want more resources for mental health care; the Missouri students also asked that those funds be directed, in particular, towards hiring black mental health professionals.

As Yale and Missouri move forward, part of what will be important is the process of disentangling the differences between different kinds of promises each school has made to its students. What promises can actually be met, and how quickly can the universities mobilize to pay their overdue pledges? And which promises should schools never be making to their students in the first place?

Hiring more faculty and expanding mental health services (which at Yale have been under considerable fire in recent years) require money. Yale is flusher than the University of Missouri, to the tune of $23.9 billion dollars in 2014 against $852 million for Missouri in 2015. But neither institution is within laughing distance of financial collapse, and Yale last week set aside $50 million as part of a diversity hiring initiative. Meeting some of these commitments to improve faculty diversity and campus culture and resources must be possible. In a similar way, collecting data on alleged incidents of bias on campus (part of what the Yale students have requested) would require deft and sensitive administrators, which is not to say that such people can’t be found. And it’s a relief that University of Missouri police were able to move so quickly to identify and apprehend the person who allegedly made threats against the campus’s black students.

I don’t know that I, or student protesters, or university administrators actually know how to deliver on the larger and much more nebulous promises colleges make to get students to pony up the price of admission: that colleges and universities, many of them enormous institutions, are entirely amicable, agreeable places, and that the years you spend attending one will be the happiest of your life. These are pledges that colleges, particularly ones like Yale, rely on as part of their marketing campaigns. But they aren’t realistic promises, given that all but the smallest colleges are going to include staff and students from markedly different backgrounds and of markedly different beliefs — including about what a safe and inclusive environment consists of — and that college often is, to a certain extent, a necessarily turbulent passage from our parents’ care to adult independence.

I wish that American colleges and universities actually had the moral authority that lies behind their claims to educate our country’s future leaders, that schools of higher learning had actually cracked the codes on racism and sexual assault in a way the world outside have not. I’m not being facetious when I say it would be a marvelous thing if somebody had figured out an educational program to eradicate not just bigotry, sexual violence, and the tendency to be a jerk or cad; and if a place like Yale or Missouri had actually developed systems to deliver justice to victims of bias and rape that were superior to our criminal and civil justice systems.

But if there’s anything the last few years have made clear, it’s that colleges and universities are struggling on these questions, too. Whether Yale and Missouri are judged to have responded well to their current crises may be come down to whether they hire more black faculty or improve mental health services. The real hero in American higher education, though, might just be the college or university president who steps forward to talk honestly about what institutions of higher learning can really offer their students in the first place.