Students Won the Campus Culture War

Last year, protests erupted over offensive monuments and trespassed-upon ‘safe spaces.’ What happened next may have changed campus life forever.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Last year, college campuses roiled with student activism and protests, from hunger strikes to requests for trigger warnings on academic curricula, the likes of which the country hadn’t seen in decades.

Student groups across the country, many of them aligning themselves with national movements like Black Lives Matter, submitted demands for greater faculty and student diversity and a campus climate that is more inclusive and supportive of minority students.

As of December 2015, students at roughly 80 schools nationwide had submitted lists of demands to their universities: calls for new deans and presidents, more globalized curricula at liberal arts colleges, and school-endorsed “safe spaces” for minority groups, among other things.

Many universities and colleges have attempted to assuage students—and right the wrongs of history—by abandoning symbols and traditions with ties to racism, colonialism, and slavery.

Yale University, which was criticized for deciding not to rename Calhoun College at the end of last semester, has established a new naming committee to reconsider the issue as school reopens.

Indeed, a number of liberal arts schools have developed new diversity and inclusion initiatives in response to protests by the “Firebrand Generation”—a nickname, coined the New Yorker’s Nathan Heller, for today’s politically restive students.

As the new school year begins, it’s clear that universities are bending to student activists’ forcefully stated will.

These students have won many small and large battles against old-school institutions, sometimes refusing to eat until their vilified college leaders resigned. Do not expect students’ demands for change to die down anytime soon.

Here’s our guide to the most high-profile student protests over the last year—and how school administrations are heeding their calls for change.

“Masters” abolished; traditions, symbols, and songs abandoned

Last year, students at schools across the country called on their respective universities to abandon traditions and symbols with ties to racism. Harvard’s residential “House masters” were officially renamed “Faculty Deans” in the spring semester, in response to complaints that the title “master” connoted slavery. Harvard Law School also retired its official coat of arms, which dated back to 1936, because of its link to a slave-owning benefactor.

The racially charged names of two student dormitories at Georgetown University were abandoned last year. Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall, both named for university presidents who authorized the sale of 272 slaves in 1831, were respectively (and temporarily) renamed Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall.

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The university’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, established by Georgetown’s president in September, has been “thoughtfully developing a comprehensive range of actions for the university to consider to best acknowledge our historical ties to slavery,” a school spokesperson told The Daily Beast.

Comprised of Georgetown Jesuits, faculty, students, staff, and alumni, the group is responsible for considering “the renaming of buildings, identification of significant historical locations on campus, enabling research that advances understanding of the history, support for descendants, and convening events and opportunities for dialogue on these issues,” according to the spokesperson.

Amherst College retired its unofficial mascot, a colonial-era military commander and the college’s namesake, Lord Jeffery Amherst.

Many students argued that “Lord Jeff,” who advocated to “inoculate” Native Americans by spread of germ warfare, symbolized white oppression. The school agreed to remove all “Lord Jeff” imagery and representation on campus.

Students at Princeton University orchestrated a 32-hour sit-in in President Christopher Eisgruber’s office, calling for the university to reconsider the impact of Woodrow Wilson’s “racist legacy” on campus. Last April, the university’s board of trustees voted to keep Wilson’s name on Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs, as well as on one of its residential colleges.

At Yale, a campaign to rename Calhoun College—a residential building named for the bigoted statesmen John C. Calhoun—was initially vetoed last spring by the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing body that includes President Peter Salovey.

The decision was widely condemned by alumni, professors, and students. This summer, dishwasher Corey Menafee protested Calhoun’s legacy by smashing one of the slavery-depicting stain glass windows in the residential college—and was welcomed back by the university after he resigned.

Yale has since announced that it will reconsider renaming the residential college, tasking an 11-member committee of alumni, students, staff, and faculty to arrive at a decision. The university also promised to remove all window panes depicting scenes from Calhoun’s life by the time students returned to school this semester.

Just last week, Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos announced that the residential Confederate Memorial Hall will now be known as Memorial Hall.

The residential building “spoke to a past of racial segregation, slavery” and “looms over a present that continues to struggle to end the tragic effects of racial segregation and strife,” Zeppos wrote in a letter to the community, noting that “many generations of students, faculty, and staff” have debated the name of this residential hall, but were all “blunted” in the past.

He stressed that the school was not trying to “rewrite history,” but to acknowledge their privilege as an institution to “teach, to learn, and, indeed, to make history.”

Beginning this semester, the University of Mississippi’s marching band will no longer play the Civil War-era song “Dixie” at football games and other athletic events, a tradition that dates to 1948.

The school had already dropped its “Colonel Reb” mascot and other symbols of the “Old South.”

Safe spaces, new leaders, and diversity “task forces”

You’ve likely seen the video of Mizzou student protesters linking arms in front of a “safe space” they’d formed in the quad, threatening to call the police if media—including student reporters—didn’t back away from the area.

Or the petition at Wesleyan University to cut funding for a school newspaper that ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. By publishing this critique, the paper “neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color and we are doubtful that it will in the future,” petitioners wrote.

In both cases, “safe spaces” could be construed as a euphemism for segregation and censorship. But schools have been receptive to the concept of a “safe space” on campus as a supportive space, where people who have experienced racism or microaggressions can share those experiences without others invalidating them.

As of August, Ithaca College had revised a list of “action items to promote diversity, respect, and inclusion” in response to fervent student protests last year.

Among these items is the creation of a new safe space for its ALANA (African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American) students, which will open this fall in the Campus Center. The space will serve as “both a forum for open interaction and a retreat where they can reflect and refresh,” according to the action items list.

Professional and student staff within Ithaca’s Offices of Residential Life and Public Safety will also participate in a “shared trainings on diversity and inclusion” this fall, the document reads. The school has purchased “body cameras” for its Public Safety officers and is “working to define the policies and procedures for how the cameras and footage will be used to ensure adherence to legal requirements, best practices, and the privacy of our students.”

Ithaca President Tom Rochon will also step down from his leadership post in July 2017, acquiescing to student protests and a subsequent student-and-faculty vote calling for his resignation.

During family weekend last year, student protesters orchestrated a “solidarity walkout” demanding that the president step down and criticizing his “disregard for minority community members.”

Princeton also established a Special Task Force on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the end of 2015, which had outlined 41 recommendations to improve campus climate as of May 2016 (PDF).

The university also created a Dean for Diversity and Inclusion position, appointing Dr. LaTanya Buck, founding director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Washington University, to the job.

Buck officially began work in her new role at Princeton in August, which includes supervising the directors of the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Understanding; the LGBT Center; and the Women’s Center.

The Provost’s Office allocated $400,000 in funding to grow the centers’ staff and increase their programming budgets.

Brown will continue to implement new policies as part of its Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion program, which was created last year in response to student protests.

In an email to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for Brown called the initiative a “highly detailed action plan” which has outlined “a set of more than 50 concrete, achievable actions,” some of which are underway while others will take shape in the years ahead.

The university has invested $165 million in the initiative—money that will go toward adding to the staff at the Brown Center for Students of Color, the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, and the LGTBQ Center.

As part of the initiative, Brown has promised to double the number of its faculty members from diverse backgrounds by 2025.

New and returning students at Columbia University will be invited to participate in a “storytelling series” where they can share their experiences “à la The Moth,” Suzanne Goldberg, executive vice president for University Life, wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. The first of these storytelling series, “Identity,” will begin in late September.

It’s unclear whether Columbia professors will include trigger warnings on their syllabi, as students asked them to do last year.