History class hosts teach-in on campus activism
Nearly 40 students attended a teach-in at Mason Hall on Wednesday morning to discuss nationwide issues related to student activism in light of recent events at the University of Missouri and Yale University.
Rackham student Austin McCoy, a graduate student instructor for the History Department, hosted the teach-in during his class on justice in Black America. The class, which was open to all students Wednesday, nearly doubled in attendance over the usual 18 students. McCoy split the class time into two parts, giving a brief history of Black student activism before facilitating a dialogue between students during the latter portion.
“Many of us have watched and wondered at the situation in Missouri … and I was sure people would want to talk about this,” McCoy said. “The question is how can we replicate some of these events?”
McCoy noted that the resignations of the Missouri system’s president and the chancellor of the flagship campus were caused by deep-seated tension between students and the administration. Student protest, which came to a head after the university’s football team refused to play until the president stepped down, stemmed from what many saw as the school’s failure to address several racist incidents on campus.
“Consider institutional failure,” McCoy said. “Administrations are often either oblivious or flat-out resistant to what students are demanding.”
The lecture also sought to place current events in the context of local campaigns — particularly, last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold Michigan’s affirmative action ban and the #BBUM movement, which organized on campus in 2013 to provide a voice to the experience on campus for Black students. The demands of Black student groups at the University, McCoy said, have remained largely the same since their founding in the civil rights movement.
“Both external forces … and local grievances sparked #BBUM,” McCoy said. “But there have been consistent demands, (like) increasing the Black enrollment to 10 percent of the student body.”
The following discussion on diversity and treatment of minority students was especially relevant following Tuesday’s campuswide diversity summit, a week-long effort to encourage campus diversity and inclusion hosted by Univesity President Mark Schlissel. Many chafed at the portrayal of diversity on campus, and commented specifically on the summit.
LSA sophomore Stephen Wallace expressed disappointment with administration’s response to student demands.
“Some people really think Michigan is diverse,” he said. “Like, ‘Two Black people in my class is so diverse.’ And numbers are important, but so is experience. It felt like Schlissel didn’t understand that.”
“The percentage of Black students on (recruiting) flyers is so much higher than the percentage actually at the University.” Engineering sophomore Raymond Smith-Byrd added. “It makes me feel like I don’t want your flyers.”
Students also discussed the relationship between free speech and racial sensitivity on campus.
LSA junior Vesal Stoakley commented on the recent controversy at Yale University regarding free speech and culturally considerate costumes. In advance of Halloween, the university released guidance encouraging students to avoid wearing “culturally unaware or insensitive costumes.” A response letter from a Yale faculty member saying students should be able to wear whatever they want later sparked outrage from many students.
“We have to keep a campus climate that is welcoming,” Stoakley said. “But there has to be a balance, where we’re not infringing on free speech, but we’re also considering the other side.”
LSA freshman Schaefer Thelen said creating safe spaces on campus takes precedence over potentially offensive free speech.
“Arguing for free speech for the sake of offending others doesn’t make much sense,” Thelen said.
McCoy concluded the teach-in by emphasizing that dialogue is the first step to any effective change on campus.
“I think if students pay attention to Missouri and the shortcomings at this University, I think something will come out of it,” he said. “It has to.”