University administrators confronting student protests over racial issues can derive valuable lessons from peace building initiatives in war zones. In doing so, they can strengthen their educational missions and develop more inclusive campuses, especially for minority groups.
Recently, student sit-ins at Princeton University forced university officials to examine the racist legacy of its (and America’s) former president Woodrow Wilson. Protests at the University of Missouri led to the resignation of top officials. Yale is confronting an ongoing legacy of racism in its residential colleges and, at Harvard, photos of African-American law professors have been vandalized.
Certainly, wide differences exist between ethnic conflicts in U.S. universities and atrocities in countries torn apart by political violence and facing United Nations intervention. But war zones bring into sharp relief the difficult questions that will test universities also confronting deep legacies of racial injustice.
My research in some of the world’s most fragile states — including Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia — reveals that the three most pressing issues to understand for building peace are: people, places and the past.
First, people. Peace negotiators, from national presidents to university presidents, must ensure the right people are at the negotiating table. In Sudan, a 2005 settlement between the Khartoum government and southern Sudanese ended Africa’s longest civil war, but it snubbed Darfuri people in western Sudan, who fought back and faced an onslaught that observers labeled the first genocide of the 21st century. Women I met in Somaliland, the semi-autonomous region of northern Somalia where elders negotiated their clans out of civil war in the 1990s, lamented that women’s concerns remain secondary to maintaining political balance between rival groups.
At American universities, understanding people means appreciating the complex demands of protesters and those who are more silent. One’s racial identity coexists with one’s gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or religion. Student groups, alumni and university officials might consider bringing into the debate, for instance, Muslim-American students (following calls they should be registered into a national database), transgender students, survivors of sexual assault, undocumented students — and those who are the first in their families to attend college. Their experiences address how racial injustice intersects with other forms of injustice.
Second, places. Resolving conflict involves creating spaces for people to work through trauma, slight and discrimination. In war zones, this means the provision of medical and mental health services for survivors of war — including civic activists and former combatants. As an aid worker in South Sudan told me, some survivors must “overcome their own traumas before they can actively engage in peace building.” For other survivors, joining a peace building effort promotes personal healing and builds mutual trust, helping to defeat the long-term effects of trauma.
Here at Princeton, 40 percent of students access counseling and psychological services, a figure not unique in American higher education. Students I meet at colleges across the country live in fear simply because they belong to an ethnic, gender, or religious minority. As in conflict settings, civic organizations can do much of the work, if university deans allocate additional funding for student groups, resource centers and events that shape the debate and create safe spaces for student-led empowerment.
Finally, the past. Preventing conflict involves addressing grievances over injustices — the ordeals of the past that bring people into battle. Truth commissions can, under the right conditions, tackle past grievances by documenting injustice and preserving a historical record. Holding transparent conversations about unaddressed trauma may chart a new course and pave the way for other universities to heal their own wounds.
Asking and answering questions about people, places and the past is itself a world-class education in any setting where conflict occurs, from Khartoum to Mogadishu to Princeton.
Mark Fathi Massoud teaches politics and legal studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is a Law and Public Affairs Fellow at Princeton University. He is the author of the award-winning book, “Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan.” Follow him on Twitter: @profmassoud.