On U.S. college campuses, 2015 was a wildly unpredictable year of reckoning. There were uprisings, shutdowns and lockdowns. There were bracing debates about racism, sexism and discrimination of other kinds. There were unprecedented efforts to tally up the toll of sexual violence at colleges and universities, including some of the most prestigious in the world.
And there was a tragic toll of gun violence: Nine slain in October at Umpqua Community College in Oregon by a 26-year-old shooter who then took his own life.
Academia thrives on tradition and ritual. Applications lead to admissions, which lead to enrollment. Then move-in day, the start of classes, the choice of a major (or two), perhaps a term of study abroad, perhaps a transfer, and finally, after four (or five or six) years, commencement. Here are 10 stories that shook up the rhythms of the college world.
Women’s colleges have been dwindling in number for decades. In March, yet another closure was announced, at tiny Sweet Briar College in rural Virginia. But alumnae revolted, questioning whether the 700student college founded in 1901 really faced a financial death spiral. They raised millions of dollars and persuaded state authorities to intervene. In June, an agreement was reached to give the college a chance to continue under fresh leadership with a $12 million cash infusion from supporters and the lifting of restrictions on $16 million in its endowment. The episode became a case study of the financial troubles many small colleges face, especially those in the middle of the market, and of one school’s unusual resilience.
9) Shutdown in Chestertown.
Washington College, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is a liberal arts school of 1,500 students with a history dating to 1782. Its tranquility was jarred in November when school officials heard that one of its students was distraught and had gone missing with a gun. The Chestertown campus shut down for several days around Thanksgiving as authorities searched for Jacob Marberger. Later that month, he was found dead in Pennsylvania of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The case illustrated the challenges all colleges face in addressing mental-health and security concerns after the shootings at Umpqua and elsewhere.
8) Lockdowns across the country.
Jitters spread in all directions as campus authorities sifted through a variety of threats, some of which surfaced through social media. Contributing to fears were the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris and the Dec. 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., also believed to be terrorism-related. Lockdowns, class suspensions or “shelter in place” warnings were reported at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (armed robbery suspect); at San Bernardino Valley College (bomb threat); Arkansas State University (armed truck driver); the University of North Carolina (report of armed, dangerous person); Western Washington University (hate speech threat on social media); and the University of Chicago (FBI warning of gun violence threat) — all within a few weeks in November and December.
7) Campus gun debate intensifies.
The University of Texas at Austin, scene of a mass sniper shooting in 1966, convened a panel to develop recommendations for how the school should comply with a new state law allowing concealed firearms to be carried on campus. The panel reluctantly recommended allowing concealed handguns to be brought into classrooms. But Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., showed no reluctance about guns on campus. Its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., urged students earlier this month to obtain concealed-handgun permits and arm themselves to help the campus deter terrorist threats, and he announced that the school would allow eligible students to store guns in dormitories for the first time.
6) GW goes test-optional.
Most college-bound students assume they must take an admission test, either the SAT or ACT, to qualify. But George Washington University in July became the latest prominent school to join the test-optional movement, dropping its requirement for most freshmen applicants to submit scores. “We had concerns that students who could be successful at GW felt discouraged from applying if their scores were not as strong as their high school performance,” said the school’s dean of admissions, Karen Stroud Felton. More than 125 private colleges and universities featured in U.S. News and World Report rankings now have test-optional admissions.
5) New evidence of widespread sexual violence.
Student activists and government investigations had put a spotlight in recent years on the scourge of sexual assault on college campuses. But doubts persisted. Rolling Stone magazine in April officially retracted a story on an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia that it had published in fall 2014. Also, data on the extent of the problem was scarce.
That changed in 2015. More than two dozen prominent schools belonging to the Association of American Universities surveyed their students in the spring. The findings, reported in September: More than 20 percent of female undergraduates said they were victims of sexual assault and misconduct. For the first time, the data showed the scope of the problem at specific big-name schools. At Harvard, 26 percent of undergraduate women said they were victims of non-consensual sexual contact through force or when they were incapacitated and unable to consent. At the University of Southern California, the rate was 30 percent.
The AAU survey results echoed in significant respects what The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found in a national poll of young adults who were recently in college. The Post-Kaiser poll, published in June, also found that 5 percent of men in college said they were victims of sexual assault and that alcohol was a key factor. Skeptics said these surveys greatly exaggerated the extent of the problem.
4) U. of Oklahoma expels students after racist chant.
Beware the viral video. Universities learned that lesson anew in March when a video surfaced that showed fraternity brothers at the University of Oklahoma wearing tuxedos on a bus and chanting a song that included a racial slur and references to hanging people from a tree. University President David Boren swiftly booted two of the song leaders out of school, declaring “zero tolerance for this kind of threatening racist behavior.” The national Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity apologized and closed its OU chapter. Soon after, University of Maryland officials confronted a similar issue when the community learned of an email from a fraternity member filled with racial slurs. U-Md. President Wallace Loh denounced the email as “hateful and reprehensible” but concluded it did not violate school policies and was protected by the First Amendment.
They were tired of sexist stereotypes on campus and in the working world. So these women in high-tech and industrial fields started a movement over the summer that exploded on Twitter: #ilooklikeanengineer. Emily Calandrelli, who posted a photo of herself with that hashtag at Lick Observatory in California, said that when she meets new people they often seem surprised when they hear about her graduate education in aeronautics and astronautics, technology and policy. “Wow, you don’t look like you went to MIT!” they tell her.
— Emily Calandrelli (@TheSpaceGal) August 3, 2015
Here’s another of many from that outpouring in August:
— Pamela Assogba (@pam_yam) August 4, 2015
2) A racial reckoning in the Ivy League (and elsewhere).
Many elite schools that were once bastions of exclusivity and white privilege now pride themselves on becoming much more diverse. But these schools learned in 2015 that they have a long way to go to ensure every student feels welcome on campus.
At Yale University, hundreds of students confronted the university’s top leaders to demand that people be held accountable for racism. Some surrounded Yale College’s first black dean in front of the school’s main library on Nov. 5 and accused him of not standing up for them. That night, university President Peter Salovey told a large group of minority students the university must do better. “We failed you,” he told them.
U-Va. was rocked in March after white officers with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control arrested a black student outside a bar in Charlottesville. Images quickly circulated showing Martese Johnson’s bloody face as officers held him to the ground. Black students at U-Va. said the incident was part of a troubling national pattern of racial discrimination by law enforcement. Johnson’s lawyer said the student did nothing to provoke the violent arrest. Charges against him were later dropped. The ABC officers involved were reinstated after an investigation of the incident.
At Princeton, student protesters forced the university in November to reconsider its relationship with an icon from its past. Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton before he was elected the 28th U.S. president. Princeton’s famous Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs is named for him. But Wilson also was a strong supporter of racial segregation and opponent of civil rights for African Americans — a point of history that demonstrators said the university must acknowledge. After a 32-hour protest, university President Christopher Eisgruber reached an agreement with students that included asking the board of trustees to initiate a review of Wilson’s legacy and how he is recognized at Princeton.
2a)A new free-speech debate.
Along with the uprisings against hate and discrimination came a movement to defend free speech on campus. Debate arose over “microaggressions,” “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” as some analysts worried about the “coddling of the American mind.” Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan University’s president, warned against false choices. He said the university can take steps to safeguard free speech and quell bigotry at the same time. “The institution has to protect people against attack that causes harm,” he told The Post. “But it should never protect people against ideas that are difficult to digest.”
Without doubt, the story of the year was the student protest that toppled two leaders of the University of Missouri. The flagship is based in Columbia, a little more than 100 miles west of Ferguson, where the fatal shooting of a young black man in 2014 ignited national debate about race and law enforcement.
Drama at Mizzou built over weeks during the fall as protesters accused the school leadership of failing to address racist and bigoted incidents, including when the undergraduate student body president was called the n-word, when a white student climbed onto a stage and shouted slurs as a black group rehearsed a skit, and when a swastika was drawn on a wall with human feces. The football team expressed solidarity with protesters by threatening a boycott, a show of force that drew national attention.
On Nov. 9, university system President Tim Wolfe resigned. “My motivation in making this decision comes from love,” for the school, he said. The governing board also announced that Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, leader of the flagship, would step down. The swiftness of their fall and the clout of the protesters sent shock waves through higher education. “A few people standing up and speaking out can have a profound impact on the places where we live and work,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.