Top 10 Protests Coming to Campus and What It Means for Higher Education

My favorite bass line is the inimitable start to My City Was Gone by The Pretenders. Besides being catchy as all get-out, it was played by a session musician who was never a member of the band. He used it as a warm up exercise and Chrissie Hynde built a song around it. It’s also notable because Rush Limbaugh adopted it as the theme for his radio show, so you may have heard it even if you don’t have the good taste to be a Pretenders fan (and you will have heard it if you have the bad taste to listen to Rush Limbaugh). Limbaugh is an avowed foe of women’s rights, the environment and animal rights. So it’s rich that he not only selected a song by one of the world’s most prominent female environmental and animal rights activists, but one specifically about environmental destruction (although he has enough sense to fade out before Chrissie begins to sing “I went back to Ohio / But my city was gone… reduced to parking spaces”).

Sometime in the 1990s, probably after one of his many scandals, Pretenders’ record company EMI objected to Limbaugh’s use. Limbaugh tried to throw money at the problem but was at loggerheads with EMI until Chrissie got involved. Apparently Chrissie’s dad back in Akron was a Rush Limbaugh fan and loved hearing his daughter’s song about Ohio on his favorite radio program. Chrissie thought it was hilarious, approved the use, and proceeded to donate the license payments to PETA, another organization Limbaugh hated.

Chrissie Hynde had a sense of humor about her activism. That's going to be vanishingly rare on college campuses this fall, and for good reason. After a summer of organizing and participating in protests of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks, outraged students are heading back to campus en masse, at least until the inevitable outbreaks. Student anger at racial injustice and the limited response of a calcified society will reach new heights and create major challenges for colleges and universities given that, as Carnegie Mellon professors Jason England and Richard Purcell rightly point out, “an ice cream company, Ben & Jerry’s, [has] come up with a clearer message of solidary with protesters and against injustice than [any] university.”

So in addition to struggling to figure out how to implement Covid testing and enforce social distancing – a hot mess that one University of Oklahoma insider has likened to “planning for the Fyre Festival” – America’s colleges and universities should be prepared for more intense skirmishes of forever wars, as well a few new issues stemming from heightened student activism. Here’s a quick watch list:

#10. Police Colleges with independent police forces may face new inquiries on past arrests of students and local residents of color. Students will demand concrete reforms, including defunding campus police forces. Many schools are likely to face calls to cease cooperating with local police, perhaps even barring them from campus. Similar demands are already being made of K-12 school districts.

#9. Renaming It took far too long, but Yale was slightly ahead of the curve when it renamed my former college, Calhoun, after computer science pioneer and alumna Grace Hopper in 2017. Serving in the House, Senate, and as secretary of state and vice president, John C. Calhoun may have been America’s most prominent proponent of slavery. Last week, Clemson announced it would be renaming its honors college, also named for Calhoun. Clemson still has Tillman Hall, the iconic building named after Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman, a former governor, senator, and proud racist. Meanwhile, a new petition calls for UNC Chapel Hill to rename 30 buildings named after white supremacists. These are easy cases. But what about Woodrow Wilson? Monmouth University is taking his name off a building. Or Robert E. Lee? Should Washington and Lee University continue to carry his name? (It was only six years ago that Washington and Lee finally removed Confederate battle flags from Lee Chapel.) Every college should expect unprecedented name scrutiny.

#8. Monuments Two years ago, protesters at UNC Chapel Hill toppled Confederate statue Silent Sam, and UNC trustees were slightly ahead of the curve in removing it from campus. When an Oxford college decides to pull down a statue of Cecil Rhodes, and when University of Oregon protesters knock down statues of “Pioneer Man” and “Pioneer Mother” that tell a one-sided story of white settlement, it’s clear there’s going to be more bronze on the ground come fall. Even small emblems like weathervanes are unlikely to escape notice. The monuments furor prompted this headline in The Onion: “Heavily Armed Fans Guard Statue of Yogi Bear In Case It Turned Out He Supported Confederacy.” (The Onion quoted a fictional Yogi defender who said “social justice warriors ignored the cartoon bear’s kindness to Boo-Boo Bear and well-known contributions to stealing ‘pic-a-nic baskets.’”) But when the alternative position – as voiced by President Trump – is defending monuments to the Confederacy, you can bet that any objectionable statue will be down by the end of the year.

#7. Curriculum The forever war over curriculum has made a punching bag out of many colleges and universities, caught between Western civilization conservatives and anti-imperialist progressives. There’s no question that the next jab will come from progressives seeking to increase offerings of diverse programs and courses (and concomitant funding). At resource-constrained institutions like Missouri Western State University, these programs have been under assault. And wealthy colleges like Harvard will be given no quarter if they fail to follow through on prior commitments to programs like ethnic studies.

#6. Departmental Diversity Departments with few, if any, underrepresented minorities among faculty and staff are likely to face renewed scrutiny this fall. Last week, Buzzfeed reported on Yale’s astronomy department, which had a single black employee 35 years ago and a faculty member who had the poor judgment to point to that single example as proof of a lack of systemic racism in the department. That won’t fly this fall (although it may cause Yale to launch the faculty member into space).

#5. Standardized Testing The proximate cause of the underrepresentation of underrepresented minorities is that they underperform on gating standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, GRE. The inability of College Board, ACT, ETS, and other providers to deliver reliable tests remotely in the wake of Covid-19 has caused schools to drop tests like a 20-lb. test prep book (thud). But University of California’s decision to abandon the SAT and ACT permanently wasn’t based on delivery, but rather equity and justice. As higher education must be an engine of socioeconomic mobility, not a brake, other universities will come under pressure to follow UC’s path.

#4. Protesting Each Other Last week, the New York Times reported that high school students have been using social media to hold classmates accountable for racist behavior. Students are naming names and including photos and videos. Said one student: “I get a lot of DMs from people sending racist things their classmates have said online, things people have said in livestreams, on Snapchat stories. If I have their Instagram or Snapchat, I’ll post that along with their racist behavior because I believe in having productive conversations. My aim is not to send people to bully these people; it’s to send people to go educate and inform them about what they’re saying and how they’re wrong.” Anonymous Google Docs seem to be accelerating the trend. The result is a social media pile on that may be coming to a campus near you in two months.

#3. Endowment Reparations Ford Foundation made headlines earlier this month with a decision to borrow $1 billion in order to substantially increase giving in a time of great need. Four other foundations (MacArthur, Kellogg, Mellon, Duke) followed suit. Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Goldie Blumenthal reported on an idea out of UNC Chapel Hill to ask donors to unrestrict their gifts. As Goldie adroitly asked, “What’s the use of a fat endowment, or even a not-so-fat one, if you don’t tap into it when times are most dire?” Some institutions may seek to increase borrowing, others may be successful in unrestricting gifts, but expect to see a new movement for reparations from endowments. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted, many universities should have already made reparations for slavery. “I don’t know how you get around that. I don’t know how you conduct research that shows that your very existence is rooted in a great crime and shrug, say you’re sorry and just walk away.” Uniquely, Brown has already done so, albeit in an extremely limited way, carving $10M out of its endowment in 2006 for the benefit of educating children in Providence.

#2. Speech The forever war over speech is likely to reach fever pitch this fall for as long as students remain on campus. Students are returning in the heat of the first Presidential election in history where the incumbent seems to prefer burning down the country to looking bad; the clarity of the good vs. evil dynamic will rival Star Wars (and young people tend to get riled up about Star Wars). Political and other statements deemed offensive will be denounced and colleges will labor to balance stated commitments to free speech with popular opinion on campus.

#1. Divest Facebook In higher education, 2020 will be remembered as the year of Covid, Black Lives Matter, Social Distancing, and Remote Learning. But before the year is out, a fifth term may come to mind: Divest Facebook. President Trump will continue to utilize social media to spew false and offensive messages to the country. Twitter has taken limited measures, but Facebook seems intent on allowing Trump to utilize its platform as a digital megaphone. Beginning with South African apartheid in the 1980s, Colleges and universities have demonstrated susceptibility to student divestment movements. More recently, endowments have divested from gun manufacturers and fossil fuel companies. In terms of Facebook, some advertisers and mission-driven companies are already showing the way; Talkspace, a digital therapy company, said it would refrain from partnering with Facebook because it couldn’t “support a platform that incites violence, racism, and lies.” The trick here is that the coming Divest Facebook movement won’t only involve endowments. It will demand that colleges and universities stop spending marketing dollars on Facebook, following socially responsible firms like The North Face. Higher education institutions spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on Facebook marketing of degree and certificate programs. Acceding to Divest Facebook demands could put some schools at a material enrollment disadvantage – particularly for online programs – and also hamper fundraising. Nonetheless, students are likely to demand that their institutions stop contributing to the operating profits of an amoral company. With roots firmly in higher education, Facebook may face the music when students return to campus.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, although it may prove exhausting for many higher education leaders; the resulting headaches may accelerate the return to remote learning as the quickest path to ending the protests. But the sad truth is that during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, protests won’t help colleges deliver the improved economic outcomes that students desperately need – specifically, helping them land good first jobs.

Our social crisis is a byproduct of unequal economic opportunity. As David Brooks pointed out last week, the wealth gap between white and black families is as wide as it was in 1968. So it would be productive for the coming protests to also address abysmal completion rates of black and brown students, and record unemployment of the minority who graduate. The protests are coming regardless, and the upshot is that while American higher education needs to walk and chew gum at the same time, the wad of gum abruptly thrust into its mouth this year is a mass of historic proportions. As a result, colleges and universities are less likely to undertake critical employability initiatives in digital credentialing, integrating real work into coursework, turning degree programs upside down, last-mile training partnerships, and tracking employment outcomes. It's not exactly shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, but more like trying to make up for centuries of injustice while the institution sinks and becomes less central to helping today’s students and families achieve the American Dream.

To my ears, continuous campus protests + continuing lack of connectedness to employers and employment sounds a lot like the vicious circle of malcontents and unrest that typifies universities in certain European countries: students don’t graduate into good jobs anyway, and so focus on other things, thereby keeping institutions from focusing on jobs. To follow firmly in the footsteps of Europe’s bureaucratic and solipsistic universities – alongside Europe’s underwhelming innovation and economic growth over the past generation – American higher education is only missing one ingredient: free college.