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Higher-ed institutions examine policies, cultures in response to protests

Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels. (file)

Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels. (file)

Baltimore-area colleges and universities have made it a priority to engage their surrounding communities since the death of Freddie Gray, offering new social programs and employment opportunities.

But institutions have also had to look inward, examining their policies and campus cultures now that many students of color, buoyed by their peers protesting racism and inequality across the country, have spoken up to demand an end to policies and practices they feel are discriminatory.

The response to the events of April has dovetailed with an ongoing national conversation about social justice, racism and equity in higher education.

Anger over the deaths of young black men at the hands of police has led to the rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, and students of color across the country have protested incidents of racism and what they see as discriminatory policies on their campuses.

Campuses in the Baltimore area haven’t seen demonstrations on the scale of the University of Missouri, where a series of high-profile protests led to the resignation of that school’s president, but students locally have been voicing their own frustrations.

At Towson University and Johns Hopkins, students last fall presented administrative leaders with lists of demands that included hiring a more diverse faculty, toughening penalties for incidents of racial intolerance and requiring cultural competency education.

JHU President Ronald Daniels met with Black Student Union leaders in November, acknowledging their concerns and promising further dialogue. The following month, Hopkins announced a $25 million initiative – which had been in the works since before the protests – to increase the diversity of its faculty. It includes training faculty search committee members to avoid unconscious bias, and the university will issue a report of faculty diversity efforts every two years.

Goucher College renamed and refocused its Center for Race, Equity and Identity last fall to provide more support and outreach for underrepresented students, including students of color, first-generation college students, and the LGBTQ community.

The center has also sponsored programs to increase awareness of racial justice issues, including a workshop series targeted at white students to help them understand racism, according to the college.

Last month, Loyola University Maryland created a racial justice task force to address the concerns of students who had observed or experienced racist remarks. The panel will develop recommendations for a racial justice training program for the entire campus community, according to the university.

‘We want to feel safe’

After Towson students occupied his office last November, interim President Timothy Chandler discussed their list of 12 requests with them for several hours, ultimately signing a pledge to increase the university’s tenure-track black faculty and ensure strict enforcement of non-discrimination policies, among other actions.

Kim E. Schatzel, who succeeded Chandler as president in January, reaffirmed the university’s commitment to those requests earlier this month, writing in the student newspaper The Towerlight “one of TU’s greatest opportunities to advance our university, is a relentless pursuit of a diverse and inclusive campus.”

But the day after that statement was published, an incident where a student reportedly used racist and potentially threatening language toward an employee of an on-campus café made some of the Towson community feel the university still wasn’t listening.

Campus police determined that no crime had been committed and referred the incident to the Office of Student Conduct, which will determine if the student violated the school’s code of conduct.

That response didn’t satisfy many students of color at Towson, who expressed their frustration on social media. The Black Student Union published a Towerlight column calling for stricter action to be taken against that student – who they said had been involved in similar incidents in the past – as well as more thorough reporting of cases of hate or bias on campus and stricter penalties for the perpetrators.

Sophomore Bria Johnson, a member of the BSU and one of the organizers of the occupation of Chandler’s office, told The Daily Record that she felt there wasn’t enough communication from the administration on matters relating to the safety and emotional well-being of students and faculty of color.

“We just want to feel safe, we want to be comfortable in our identities, and we want an education,” Johnson said. Such incidents tend to stay within the departments in which they are reported, and students need to be more aware of them, she said.

Those concerns haven’t gone unnoticed by the administration.

In a letter to the campus community last week addressing the incident, Schatzel acknowledged that the reporting process for such incidents had been widely criticized for being “confusing, ineffective and non-responsive.”

Building on suggestions presented by the school’s Social Justice Collective, Schatzel promised a series of changes, including the creation of a central body to respond directly to hate-bias incidents, conducting a full review of the hate/bias reporting process, keeping victims informed of the investigations and their outcomes, and making sure that incidents that don’t rise to the level of crimes — which are already reported in a police log — are also reported to the entire campus community.

“Implementing these ideas for changes will be part of our ongoing efforts to be an inclusive campus,” Schatzel said. “This is a priority.”