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Legal Updates

Student Uprisings Highlight Diversity And Inclusion Issues For Independent Schools

In recent months, a surge of student-led protests has roiled college and university campuses across the nation. From Harvard to UC-Berkeley, students have called attention to what they view as unwelcoming or even overtly hostile campus climates.

Student groups — many connected to broader social movements like the Black Liberation Collective or Black Lives Matter — have issued demands aimed at improving campus climates, including addressing how institutions honor controversial alumni and officials; increasing student, faculty, and curricular diversity; and offering better support systems for students of color. They have charged campus leaders with responsibility for failing to foster appropriate campus climates, calling for some administrators to resign. Though such demands have met with varied success, the recent increase in student activism has contributed to intensified national discussion of issues of race and racism.

While activism by college and university students has garnered the greatest attention, it would be a mistake to think that the concerns raised by such protests are unique to higher education institutions. On the contrary, similar issues have recently emerged on primary and secondary school campuses.

Some schools are wrestling with demands to change the names of buildings that honor controversial alumni. Similarly, at the Boston Latin School, an exam-admittance public school, two students launched a social media campaign and posted a video on YouTube challenging the leaders of their school to address perceived issues of systemic racism on campus. The video caught the attention of the Mayor of Boston and the Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, both of whom then sought out meetings with the students. The Superintendent later pledged to create a more inclusive and respectful environment for Boston Latin students.

It is with examples such as these in mind that we encourage independent school leaders to stay abreast of this national conversation and proactively address issues of diversity and inclusion on their campuses. Below, we briefly outline a number of the general concerns that students have recently raised. We then recommend a number of actions that independent school leaders might take to anticipate and address student activism on their own campuses.

Student Demands

Though the specific actions and demands by students have varied from school to school, three general issues stand out.

Diversity In Representation. Students have demanded greater representation of racial minorities among students, faculty members, and school administrators. Students have pointed out that despite an overall increase in the number of students of color pursuing higher education, many schools — both private and public — have seen decreases in minority enrollment. Other student demands have centered on increasing the number of faculty of color. At the University of Missouri, for example, students demanded that by 2017-2018, black faculty members account for ten percent of the faculty, up from the current three percent.

Diversity As Meaningful Inclusion. Students have also charged that simply having a diverse population of students is not enough. Calling attention to what they view as persistent discrimination and bigotry, both explicit and implicit, they argue that a commitment to diversity also means building an inclusive, welcoming campus.

To that end, students have demanded that their schools establish or expand multicultural centers on campus, increase funding for cultural studies, and include scholars of color in course curricula across all disciplines. For example, Simmons College students sought an overhaul of the curriculum to include and highlight the contributions of people of color in all disciplines. Students have also demanded that their schools provide “safe spaces” and support services for minority students, such as mental health services and mentor programs, as well as funding and spaces on campus for cultural groups. Finally, students have called for mandatory diversity and sensitivity training for all employees and, in some instances, students.

Controversial Historical Legacies. At a number of institutions, students have sought to force their schools to acknowledge and confront their connections to slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and other historical injustices. These efforts have led to demands that institutions revoke their recognition of controversial historical figures who are honored on campus buildings or as mascots. At Princeton, for example, a debate continues about how the university should recognize President Woodrow Wilson on campus today. Activists point to Wilson’s advocacy and expansion of segregation while in the White House, arguing that Princeton should remove his name from its school of public policy and one of its residential colleges. By contrast, defenders of Wilson point to his legacy as President of Princeton, during which he helped to establish Princeton as a leading research university, and to Wilson’s work as an advocate for the League of Nations.

Elsewhere, Harvard Law School students have demanded the removal of the Royall family’s crest from the School’s official seal because of the family’s connection to slavery, and Amherst College’s Trustees recently decided to retire the College’s unofficial mascot, “Lord Jeff,” a British officer who advocated giving smallpox-infected blankets to First Peoples. School leaders concluded that Lord Jeff was dividing, rather than unifying — a mascot’s essential purpose — the community.

Addressing Student Activism

We encourage independent school leaders to stay attuned to these student uprisings and to anticipate and prepare for issues and activities that may emerge on their own campuses. In particular, we recommend that independent schools consider the following steps:

Alert Board To Underlying Issues And Potential Activism. Independent school governance boards should be informed about diversity and inclusion concerns and potential advocacy that may arise on their campus. Board members might use this as an opportunity to review their school’s diversity goals, philosophy and mission, consider how those values are translated today, and evaluate whether their school is living up to these standards.

Evaluate Campus Climate For Diversity And Inclusion. Administrators should be closely attuned to their individual campus climates. This may require that schools take affirmative steps to determine whether students perceive their campus culture and environment as inclusive, supportive, and welcoming. This is a far-reaching, multifaceted issue. Factors to consider include whether there are “safe spaces” on campus, rooms available for cultural-affinity students, and support systems in place to voice concerns. Schools should also review their curricula and consider the extent to which diverse cultural studies are incorporated. Another important piece of this analysis is evaluating the campus racial climate for faculty and staff.

Audit School Environment And Traditions. Schools should consider conducting an audit for potentially controversial symbols and traditions. This review should consider the names of buildings, departments, and awards; the use of insignia, seals, and mascots; and various other emblems around campus that honor controversial figures or legacies, or raise contentious connotations under today’s standards. Similarly, it may be important to have conversations about titles or other phraseology, such as the term “headmaster.” The school community may be unknowingly engaging in potentially divisive traditions, like rubbing a brass bust of a historically controversial president for good luck. If such symbols exist on campus, careful consideration should be given to their purposes, the grounds meriting the subjects’ recognition, and how these symbols are understood and used within the school community. Confronting these issues may be complex and difficult, especially for tradition-oriented schools, but doing so may be a significant step for the community.

Review Student And Employee Policies And Procedures. A school’s policies serve as one means for it to communicate to its community its philosophy, goals, and expectations, including its commitment to student safety, diversity and inclusion. Thus, schools might review and update, for example, their non-discrimination and diversity statements, codes of conduct, and bullying, hazing and harassment policies.

In addition, open communication about these topics may help prevent serious misconduct from occurring and foster a culture of inclusion, personal responsibility, mutual accountability, and positive peer leadership. To this end, incorporating education for students and training for employees may complement the goals of these policies.

Addressing Activism On Campus. When student activism emerges on campus, effective communication and transparency are often two essential components for a school to smoothly navigate the situation.

Thus, when student advocacy arises, we encourage school leaders to acknowledge it. A lackluster or evasive response will likely escalate the situation and may bring unwanted negative public attention. A school should take time to listen and understand the issues raised and why students are raising them.

Similarly, a school should anticipate student expectations that the school will be transparent about how it intends to evaluate and respond to their concerns. We encourage schools to establish and outline a process. While the details of the process will depend upon the school and the specific issues raised, the process should address how and who at the school will consider and respond to the concerns.

Throughout the process, schools should give special attention to maintaining appropriate communication channels with students, parents, alumni, and employees. In addition, we encourage schools to promote a dialogue among the community and create avenues for students, parents, alumni, faculty, and staff to contribute their opinions. Schools should expect that social media will play a large role in any activism. In some instances, it may be important for a school to use its own social media resources to communicate with a wider community.

Additionally, schools should anticipate that student activism will likely be met with internal opposition. Groups of students, faculty or alumni may band together to speak out against student movements. For instance, in recent months, we have seen opposition groups criticize student activists for allegedly seeking to restrict freedom of speech and academic freedom and for engaging in behavior perceived as rude and disrespectful. Thus, schools should remain vigilant in holding community members to their codes of conduct and policies that prohibit misconduct, including bullying, cyber-bullying, hazing, harassment, and discrimination.

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In sum, a thoughtful plan for responding to student activism, and careful execution of that plan, can help promote a successful resolution of concerns raised by students. Independent schools uncertain about how to proceed should contact trusted counsel for advice and guidance. Attorneys at our Firm have a depth of experience in this area, and we would be happy to help.