Higher education had been dealing with the underpinnings of racial injustice and institutionalized racism for decades, even longer, but scrutiny over that relationship escalated on May 25 with the police killing of George Floyd. As public footage of the assault surged through social media, 8.8 million tweets with #BlackLivesMatter could be counted three days later. The backdrop of a global pandemic that had stalled life on campuses could do little to restrain the heightened activism to come from students and their mentors.
In those same days, an inevitable reexamination of the treatment of Black, Indigenous, and people of color heightened, and reactions were immediate. Black student unions and other student organizations called for dismantling university relationships with police departments, criticism over the ties between campuses and their slave-owning and slave-trading benefactors intensified, and institutional statements reacting to the killing were decried as tone-deaf, disingenuous, and from a place of privilege.
Social media also helped Americans recognize a reoccurring theme as the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in February and Breonna Taylor in March were thrust back to center stage. During those weeks, if there were students on or near campuses, masked and socially distanced, there were student-led protests: Wayne State University, California State University–San Bernardino, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri–Columbia, The Ohio State University, the University of Arizona, and many more.
When June did arrive, with more protests, nearly two-thirds of Americans polled, including majorities across all major racial and ethnic groups, were expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. July, August, and September came and activism never waned. As the U.S. elections approached, students experienced a rise in racial agency as petitions, protests, advocacy, and activism continued. It continued to the very eve of the election, as University of Miami College Republicans faced off with counterdemonstrators from Black Lives Matter, LBGTQ+ rights, and other social justice organizations gathered around a campus plaza. Students across the country displayed that political activism from racially and ethnically marginalized communities could openly revile institutional discrimination.
“Colleges and universities often take race-neutral positions … creating task forces and committees that make surface-level recommendations with little to no accountability for actionable change,” wrote George Washington University diversity scholar Deniece Dortch.
But maybe this time it would be different. It was but two days after Floyd’s death that the University of Minnesota said it would scale back its relationships with the Minneapolis Police Department. No longer would it contract with the department for security at special events like football games, concerts, and ceremonies. In June, more than 150 student organizations at Northwestern University and over 8,000 people released a petition calling for the campus to divest in its relationships with the Evanston and Chicago police departments, and as recently as November, faculty members at Northwestern were formally questioning the university’s president and other administrators about student protestors being intimidated by police.
Amid a global pandemic, the killings of Arbery, Floyd, Taylor, and others in the BIPOC community had sparked a new sense of advocacy and activism across the world that brought millions of people out to protest in their communities, causing self-reflection on individual biases, illuminating ways to leverage Black-owned business in communities, and intensifying a stronger sense of activism in college students across the world.
Student leaders came together using their platforms to reach out to local and state officials and campus communities about racial injustices and inequalities, recognizing that their voices are not just heard on campus, but in local communities as well. “We’re using our ability to go to these universities to our advantage to help not only ourselves, but the D.C. residents,” wrote Black student union leaders from Georgetown University, The Catholic University of America, and American University in a letter to Washington, D.C.’s mayor and police chief urging the local government to better address issues related to police brutality, white supremacy, and racism.
The zeal for activism also created learning moments for students seeking to freely express themselves. That was the case at the University of Kentucky when students displayed Black Lives Matter banners at the student center and several other locations on campus, only to have them removed by university employees. Two weeks later one student was cited for a conduct violation for not following the university’s signage policy requiring banners to be approved in advance. The Lexington, Kentucky, NAACP chapter got involved, saying the student’s civil rights were violated and that the university should not “re-traumatize and victimize students by denying them the opportunity to speak about their experiences on campus.” The student, Khari Gardner, eventually received an informal warning and continued to work on anti-racism on campus, telling a local television station: “I view this as a resetting point in conversations with the administration.”
Those conversations, and the work on social justice issues being conducted by students, do come at a cost, researchers have said. Writing in the Review of Higher Education, a group of researchers from four universities talked with students about activism as labor.
#BlackLivesMatter, #Undocuqueer, #DACA, and #MeToo are examples of a resurgence of student activism on college campuses, as students have “worked to hold their institutions accountable for racism, transphobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and sexism, to name a few,” the authors wrote. But there are costs to doing that work, as one student interviewee told them: “A student should have the privilege of just being a student, and it’s really weird how that is a privilege, just being a student, but it obviously is because there are people who cannot only be a student,” they reported.
“When students do not have the luxury of just being students, they take on more than their fair share of commitment to improving the community, resulting in them having less time to engage in creative, intellectual, and other endeavors that would benefit their growth and development during and beyond college. They experience backlash and resistance from administrators and significant levels of exhaustion and burnout as a result of their activism,” The Review of Higher Education reported.
Just two weeks before George Floyd’s death, former President Barack Obama was encouraging Black students during a virtual 2020 commencement address to more than 27,000 graduates from historically black colleges and universities, to stay grounded, seek allies to support their activism, and to not rely solely on
“First, make sure you ground yourself in actual communities with real people—working whenever you can at the grassroots level. The fight for equality and justice begins with awareness, empathy, passion, even righteous anger. Don’t just activate yourself online. Change requires strategy, action, organizing, marching, and voting in the real world like never before. No one is better positioned than this class of graduates to take that activism to the next level. And from tackling health disparities to fighting for criminal justice and voting rights, so many of you are already doing this. Keep on going,” Obama told the graduates of 78 colleges and universities. “Second, you can’t do it alone. Meaningful change requires allies in common cause. As African Americans, we are particularly attuned to injustice, inequality, and struggle. But that also should make us more alive to the experiences of others who’ve been left out and discriminated against.”
One criticism of the hundreds of protests that occurred on campuses and in communities was that they created health hazards during the pandemic, with large groups of people gathering together. That was not the case at all, according to the report, “Black Lives Matter Protests, Social Distancing, and COVID-19,” published by a group of health care economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Looking at protests in 315 of the largest cities in the United States, the investigators found no evidence “that urban protests reignited COVID-19 case or death growth after five weeks following the onset of protests.”
Students and young activists have led four important movements for changes in the past decade having tangible effects on each of the issues: Occupy Wall Street (#occupy), Black Lives Matter (#blm), deferred action for deportation (#Dreamers), and protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (#nodapl). Now at the forefront is anti-racism, and college campuses are maintaining high levels of engagement.
White men and women account for 76% of all faculty members on college campuses, while 55% of the undergraduate student body is white, according to the Pew Research Center. Only 5% of faculty members are Hispanic, contrasted with 20% of all undergraduate students. Similarly, 6% of college faculty are Black, despite 14% of undergraduate students identifying as such.
As universities continue to examine their histories related to slavery, skepticism remains about how earnest administrators are in discussions about diversity, multiculturalism, and equity, and with incorporating inclusion into their institutions. Writing for the American Association of University Professors, Northwestern University’s Leslie M. Harris pointed out that some institutions were going beyond examining past ties with slavery and looking at more recent issues like Jim Crow era segregation, African American convict labor, and events related to the oppression of Native Americans.
“Many student groups called on their colleges and universities to remove monuments and rename buildings that commemorated the Confederacy or people they considered to be white supremacists. Institutions that had earlier recovered histories of slavery were pushed to do more,” Harris wrote. “Most controversial and least successful have been efforts to provide direct financial redress to communities negatively affected by slavery and racism. As in the larger reparations movement, the idea of redistribution of wealth has run up against dominant capitalist notions of wealth creation and ownership, in which workers, whether enslaved or free, have the smallest claim to the wealth they helped produce.”
Activism and the 2020 Election
Long before the pandemic and Black Lives Matter demonstrations took over their social media feeds, college students had been spending the earlier part of the year preparing to turn out in the 2020 U.S. election. “Get Out the Vote” efforts started in late 2019 with the National Voter Registration Day Steering Committee reporting that 579 colleges and universities had signed on as partners. In 2020 that number grew to 762 colleges holding voter registration drives and awareness campaigns.
Universities had encouraged voter registration efforts as a means to have their agendas carried forward by students, and that single day non-partisan event on September 22 saw 1.5 million voter registrations added or updated across the country. Even if most students were experiencing a virtual fall semester, the pandemic environment did little to quell student activism related to politics and racial inequity. The pandemic was hovering, but it was in the days after Floyd’s death in May that a tone of urgency was set for many student voters in the United States.
“Considering everything that’s going on, we have too many reasons to vote and no reason not to,” said Qwameek Bethea, a Furman University student and NAACP student chapter president who made a 450-mile round-trip to his hometown in order to cast an early ballot.
Students at the University of Georgia agreed and led an outcry when the university announced it would cancel all on-campus early voting as a pandemic precaution. The non-partisan voting rights student organization UGA Votes had hosted voting sites in Tate Student Center in 2016 and 2018 and cried double-standard this time, pointing out that over 20,000 people were gathering for university home football games. With Georgia politician and voting rights activist Stacy Abrams tweeting, “#COVID19 must never be used as an excuse to limit voting access, including on college campuses,” the university reversed the decision and provided a 10,000-seat coliseum as a voting site.
College unions have been utilized as polling locations for years, and in some states like Colorado, student unions are required by law to do so. Early voting there started in mid-October, and union staffers rekeyed spaces for access, designed line queuing to run outside buildings, and considered issues like what to do about students wearing election-related clothes inside a building that served as both a classroom and a polling site.
At North Carolina State University, Talley Student Union saw a record turnout for early voting after being recognized as one of the least used sites in the county in 2018, when only 10,652 votes were cast. Between October 15–30, county election officials there said 21,033 people had cast votes at the student union during the 2020 election.
In some cases, the road to the election was a perfect storm for free speech discussion on campuses. Two hundred miles away from Talley, Appalachian State University’s Plemmons Student Union became ground zero for a debate on campus voting sites. The university administration argued Plemmons should not be used since it was also being used for classes, and offered another location, while the state board of elections went forward and approved the union for early voting. Local election officials sued the state officials, asking to close the voting site. One of those officials sent a letter of concern about voter safety to the university police department after a Black student organization, Concerned Black Mountaineers, had issued a list of demands over what it called “a profound contradiction between App State’s mission and its treatment of its students from marginalized groups.” In the end, a judged denied the lawsuit, Plemmons was used as a voting site, and both Black Mountaineers and the campus student government association issued statements calling for the election official to apologize and resign. The county board of elections also reported 6,765 votes were cast at Plemmons Student Union.
A divisive climate prior to the election was evidenced as well at the University of Miami after opposing presidential election campaign signs were damaged and student political groups held counter rallies. It was just 10 days before the election that University of Miami President Julio Frenk issued a statement condemning the vandalism of a Trump sign, saying: “Our strength is found in our relentless pursuit of truth and our steadfast respect for one another.” Frenk was then was criticized for the lack of response to incidents involving Black Lives Matter banners on campus.
Historically, college students have always faced some hurdles to voting. Voter registration, voter identification, absentee voting, and mail-in ballot deadlines vary from state to state, as do proof-of-residency requirements that in some states also make it difficult for out-of-state students to register, especially if they live in residence halls or at other temporary addresses. In Tennessee, for example, people who register to vote online cannot vote by absentee and must vote in person. In New Hampshire, in a move seen as specifically targeted at disenfranchising student voters, the state legislature passed legislation requiring a person to become a legal resident of the state before being eligible to vote. In early 2020 a superior court judge ruled the new
The pandemic did not make student “Get Out the Vote” efforts any easier. With large gatherings prohibited and dramatically less foot traffic in student unions, hosting traditional voter registration drives or debate watch parties was not possible. Out-of-state students and many in quarantine or isolation may have never received a mail-in ballot, leading to assumptions that efforts were being made to suppress student voting. Other universities had early voting sites denied, further impacting turnout, where it would have helped alleviate hurdles to voting during the pandemic.
Yet, many universities made extra efforts: the University of North Carolina–Asheville created an entire website providing voter information for both students and the surrounding community, and the University of Texas–San Antonio created a YouTube video detailing registration guidelines. Universities also made extra efforts to aid their student voter engagement by supplying them with identity cards and documents, such as utility bills, to help prove residency requirements for voter registration.
Students continued organizing to get classmates registered, to the polls, or to assist in seeing mail-in ballots were cast in a timely and accurate way. There were efforts by college students to get polling locations on their campuses, like at Stephen F. Austin State University where a bipartisan effort by students led to a first-ever polling place at Baker Pattillo Student Center.
Universities were also moved by students to make Election Day an academic holiday and cancel classes to encourage voter turnout and even volunteerism by their students, as a national shortage of poll workers was expected due to the pandemic. The University of Utah asked faculty to avoid academic testing November 3-4 and said athletes would not practice or compete. At American University, a student-led drive that included petitions and letters to administrators prompted an October announcement by the university’s president that the campus would close for Election Day.
“Civic engagement and pursuit of American democratic ideals is part of American University’s DNA. Beyond just our location in the nation’s capital, American University was founded on the principles of service and training future generations of our country’s leaders,” noted American University President Sylvia M. Burwell. “AU students, faculty, and staff—changemakers to the core—put their knowledge and purpose to work to make our country and our world a better place. And true to that spirit, this fall our students fostered a broad and constructive dialogue about the value of supporting our community by making Election Day a university holiday. We appreciate their engagement and are pleased to arrive at this outcome.”
The efforts were not in vain, as 2020 saw an increase over previous record-setting young voter turnout in 2016 and 2018. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement reported that the youth vote in 2020 surpassed 50%, 10% more than in the last presidential election and representing 17% of all voters. The center also found young voters, regardless of personal identity, to be the most likely of all age groups to consider racism a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem (83%). College students were more vocal than ever and were pursued by the presidential candidates more strategically than in other election cycles, with college students supporting candidates like Bernie Sanders, who campaigned on issues such as free college and student loan debt cancellation platforms. With the enormity of participation in the 2020 election, it will certainly not be the last election in which college students and universities will be key players.
Debate and Dialogue
Not since the Iraq War in 2003, and before that, the Vietnam War in the 1960s, have campuses seen such a dramatic increase in student activism. Writing for Forbes, Missouri State University President Emeritus Michael Nietzel declared 2020 the “Year of the Student Protest” thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, the recognition of the continued presence of racist and bigoted symbols on campuses, and the pursuit of federal policies unpopular with young voters. Those included the rejection of new applicants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the directive preventing international students from taking all online courses during the pandemic, and an executive order banning certain diversity trainings, including those offered on college campuses receiving federal funding.
We should expect student unions to remain the primary places for students to gather and exercise their First Amendment rights, and with that an expectation that campuses will continue to face challenges debating “free speech zones,” balancing free speech and institutional values related to fostering open thought, and navigating student perceptions on higher education brought about by the pandemic. Partner those with the use of social media as the accustomed method for stirring partisan passions and student reliance on that medium, and the comments associated with the student union will continue to be entrusted as a site that fosters dialogue and education.