More Diversity Means More Demands

Last semester was a stormy one for the Claremont Colleges, a consortium of seven elite institutions in suburban Los Angeles.

As the 2017 school year came to a close, protesters at Pomona College staged a sit-in, symbolically unregistered themselves from sociology classes and called for rescinding a visiting scholar post that was awarded to Alice Goffman, a white sociologist who chronicled the impact of prison and policing on black youth. In an open letter to the sociology department they demanded “peer-appointed influential student positions on the hiring committee.”

By then, students were already well practiced in making their demands known.

A few weeks earlier, at Claremont McKenna, so many had protested the appearance of Heather Mac Donald, a Black Lives Matter critic, that she ended up addressing a mostly empty hall while the event was live-streamed. Several black students then wrote David W. Oxtoby, Pomona’s outgoing president, demanding an apology for the “patronizing” email he sent on academic freedom in response to the Mac Donald protest and asking what “steps the institution will take and the resources it will allocate” for “marginalized students.” They also ordered action against student journalists at the conservative Claremont Independent “for its continual perpetuation of hate speech, anti-Blackness, and intimidation toward students of marginalized backgrounds.”

The previous month, a call-out painted in looping yellow letters on a Pitzer College “free speech wall” against cultural appropriation — “White Girl, Take OFF your hoops!!!” — had escalated into widespread criticism of the wall painters.Campuses that have prided themselves on increased diversity in admissions are now wrestling with students who want more control over the institutions they attend, including a say in hiring (even of visiting professors), housing (a theme house at the University of California, Santa Cruz, must be painted in Pan-African colors) and curriculum (among nearly 50 demands presented to the University of Chicago: the creation of courses on the Islamic golden age, sequences on Caribbean and Southeast Asian civilizations, and a required diversity/inclusion course).

All this might remind old-timers of calls in the late 1960s and ’70s to institutionalize a more diverse viewpoint, leading to the establishment of black studies departments. Ralph F. Young, a historian who runs weekly “Dissent in America Teach-ins” at Temple University, predicts that “we will have the 1960s all over again.” But where that era’s activists focused on a few issues, he said, “now it is about everything — everything is under attack.”