Hope, Resistance, and Transforming Higher Education

By Charles H. F. Davis III

Campus Uprisings: How Student Activists and Collegiate Leaders Resist Racism and Create Hope edited by Ty-Ron M. O. Douglas, Kmt G. Shockley, and Ivory Toldson. New York: Teachers College Press, 2020.

Campus Uprisings broadly considers the practical possibilities for creating inclusive campus cultures amid the persistent and troubling racial realities on college and university campuses in the United States. As the editors of this volume suggest in the introduction, racist incidents have garnered increasing attention in national and local news. The editors recount several examples that include racist vandalism in the forms of painted symbols associated with neo-Nazi and white supremacist iconography, the writing of anti-Black epithets on student dorm room doors, and social media posts recounting acts of racial violence. Building on the work of campus climate scholars such as Sylvia Hurtado, the editors draw connections between historical legacies and contemporary incidents of racism and the long-standing tradition of organized resistance. Altogether, this volume adds to the reemerging literature on campus racial climate and campus racial cultures. By using campus uprisings as a heuristic for understanding broader campus climate issues, the text also advances the idea that activism should be understood as a symptom of the disease of institutionalized white supremacy.

The volume includes nine chapters, which are partitioned into four discrete sections that together offer a snapshot of contemporary racial realities on college and university campuses. Notably, it addresses those realities across what I and other higher education scholars now refer to as white-serving institutions (WSIs) and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), institutional contexts that are commonly compartmentalized in studies of campus activism that focus on either the former or the latter. The decision to consider both contexts challenges a false, but common, assumption about racism and anti-Blackness in US higher education, which is that it exists only at WSIs and not at institutions with explicit missions to educate and develop Black students. While this connection could be made explicit with more theoretical and conceptual grounding, readers and producers of scholarship on race may easily recognize this particular through line. In this way, the book is as much about campus racism and racial crises as it is about activism specifically, perhaps even more so.

Each section of the book offers an impressive accounting of incidents and instances of campus uprisings within their broader institutional and historical contexts. Part 1 focuses on historical and recent cases of campus-based resistance at the University of Missouri–Columbia, Howard University, and HBCUs more broadly. Part 2 includes two chapters that discuss the role of symbols, images, and social media in the context of campus movements and the sociopolitical issues related to racist representation—for example, through building names and statues—and campus sexual violence. In part 3, chapter 6 discusses the roles and experiences of racially minoritized academic professionals during campus protests. Chapter 7, the last in this section, uses a crisis-management framework to examine the challenges of college and university presidents who may be either unfamiliar with how higher education organizations function or, in the case of those with academic backgrounds, underprepared by their graduate programs and postgraduate careers to respond during a crisis. Chapters 8 and 9 complete the volume in part 4 and offer conversations with two senior leaders from the same institution who recount their respective approaches to navigating their university's campus racial crisis. In conjunction with chapter 7, this section is a much-needed resource for higher education leaders looking to improve their professional competency in managing racial crises.

One limitation of the volume is that contributing authors mostly consider uprisings as sociological phenomena without offering a deeper analytical understanding of motivations for participation, resource mobilization, political opportunities, or other phenomena and processes typically associated with studies of activism and social movements. Similarly, framing social media as tools within and in conjunction with broader tactical repertoires remains tacit if not entirely absent. Although contributors frequently refer to social media, they pay relatively little attention to how those social media function as resources for campus-based movements. Instead, they recount online chronologies and tweets and make frequent mention of various social-media hashtags, which are broadly attributed to increasing issue awareness and facilitating dialogue about students’ experiences of campus and classroom racism. While such analyses are indeed a starting point, they do little to explain how social media generally and hashtags specifically contribute to deeper organizing and mobilizing work—as scholars of critical media studies, digital sociology, and student activism in the digital-media age have previously theorized. If there is an exception to this critique, it is chapter 5, in which Noelle W. Arnold, Lisa Bass, and Kelsey Morris use visual methods and narrative analysis to offer a more deliberate theorization of how digital images and texts—as aggregated by hashtags—can (re)articulate a movement’s frames for understanding issues of campus sexual violence. Greater attention by the volume’s contributors to the overlap and material intersections of campus-based movements with broader social movements—and to the fictitious boundaries between the two—would have been welcomed.

Despite these shortcomings, the volume as a whole provides important analytical approaches that deliberately move Black student activists and other Black campus actors consistently responsible for transforming colleges and universities away from the margins of higher education research and toward its center. It does this in multiple noteworthy ways. Not only do the chapters focus on Black-led movements, but they are also written predominantly by Black scholars and scholar-practitioners. This is not insignificant. Much of what has been, and continues to be, privileged in academic and public discourses about racism and Black activism fails to center the work of Black people with robust racial analyses. By contrast, the chapter authors cite numerous Black studies and Black feminist perspectives on racial ideology, racial attitudes, and systemic racial inequity. As a result, this volume also functions as a political artifact in the ongoing resistance forged at the impasse of rival epistemologies in higher education research. It does the work of what Lori D. Patton describes as “disrupting postsecondary prose”—that is, challenging the norms of how scholars write about higher education—an act for which I am always appreciative.

Charles H. F. Davis III is an assistant professor of higher education at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan. He is also the founder and director of the Scholars for Black Lives collective. His email address is [email protected].

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