Towson, Hopkins and U-Md. students join protest movement for racial inclusion

Students around the region seem emboldened by protests at the University of Missouri and other institutions.

Towson University student activists wouldn't leave interim President Timothy Chandler's office until he signed their list of demands to address institutional racism on campus. The negotiations lasted eight hours, into early Thursday morning.

At the Johns Hopkins University, President Ronald J. Daniels was filming a video on a Homewood campus quadrangle last week when more than 100 students surrounded him, chanting, "It happens at Mizzou; it happens here, too."

And in College Park, University of Maryland students used the unveiling of a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass on Wednesday to repeat a call to rename Byrd Stadium, the football arena named for a former university president who held segregationist views. A broad coalition of student groups is working on a list of other demands.

Students around the region have been emboldened by the actions of those at the University of Missouri and other institutions, where protesters have demanded administrators do more to address incidents of racism and promote racial inclusivity. The demonstrations have spurred debates over political correctness and the role of universities in dealing with racism.

The discussions also build upon efforts across Baltimore's predominantly black campuses, including Baltimore City Community College, Morgan State University and Coppin State University, to address racial and socioeconomic inequality in the wake of April unrest over the death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old Baltimore man died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury while in police custody.

"This is a very powerful time on campus," said Rhys Hall, a University of Maryland senior who has been active in efforts to draft a set of demands for administrators on the College Park campus. "Students have begun to recognize what comes with their rights of protest and speech."

The movement began when University of Missouri students staged a series of protests over incidents of racism and the treatment of graduate students that culminated earlier this month in the resignation of university system President Timothy Wolfe.

Protests spread to campuses including Ithaca College and Yale University, where students criticized administrators' handling of racially tinged incidents, and Claremont McKenna College, where a dean stepped down after an email she sent a Latina student sparked campus protests and hunger strikes.

Hopkins students cited incidents of racism at the University of Missouri when they interrupted the filming of a segment for an annual thank-you video earlier this month. Administrators had issued an open call for students to appear in the video, and activists had notified student affairs staff of their plans to protest, according to university spokesman Dennis O'Shea.

Daniels listened to the group and spoke with them, O'Shea said. Afterward, Daniels sent a letter to students, faculty and staff acknowledging that "we wrestle with a complex racial legacy" at Hopkins. He noted that this year's entering class was the private school's most diverse, with 23 percent from underrepresented minority groups.

The university's Black Student Union has drafted a list of eight demands that include efforts to diversify faculty, particularly adding professors of African descent and scholars of Africana studies.

Daniels is scheduled to meet with student activists Nov. 30, and O'Shea said administrators take students' concerns seriously and are "definitely open to discussions."

Towson students staged a sit-in at Chandler's office Wednesday afternoon. Along with several other administrators, he reviewed a list of 13 demands line by line, editing it until both sides agreed on its content about 12:40 a.m. Thursday.

Student activists declined to speak with reporters. Chandler called the discussion "long and very difficult" but "quite fruitful."

Among the points they agreed on were efforts to hire more people of color into tenured faculty positions, adding cultural competency courses and establishing a zero-tolerance policy for the use of racial, sexual and homophobic epithets.

Kurt Anderson, Towson's student government president, said many of those efforts already were underway and acknowledged the difficulty of enforcing the hate-speech policy because of the First Amendment. Still, he was hopeful.

"We've got a really supportive administration; all we need is to begin the conversation," he said.

At the University of Maryland, student government President Patrick Ronk said students have been discussing these thorny issues since March, when an email from a fraternity member sparked outrage. The email was laden with racial epithets and promoted rape.

The incident prompted sit-ins and protests, as well as a town hall meeting with administrators. In announcing that the student who wrote the email had not violated university policy, President Wallace D. Loh encouraged the campus to focus on "restorative justice" instead of "legal justice." And students have been responsive, Ronk said.

On Tuesday, students, faculty and staff met to discuss the set of demands being drafted for university administrators, he said.

"There has been a huge general conversation about it, and it's something the administration has taken very seriously," Ronk said. "It's ongoing, but I think it's been more of a cooperative tone at Maryland as opposed to some of the other campuses."

As some campus protests across the country have turned hostile, another debate is emerging over how universities police student behavior, said Hollis Robbins, director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins. A 1961 federal court decision established that colleges and universities could not discipline or expel students for political demonstrations.

"We're engaging in these questions in a really positive and constructive way," Robbins said. "There are difficult questions coming to the forefront of debate."

Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at Maryland, said she thinks several factors have contributed to the wave of student protests across the country. Many universities have become more diverse. And social media has made it easier for students to organize and to publicize incidents of racism.

While universities have long been crucibles of protest and calls for social change, the environment surrounding that discourse has changed.

"People have to figure out: What does that mean? Do you no longer have the right to say anything that pops into your mind?" Parks said. "The First Amendment does not protect you from consequences."

Chinedu Nwokeafor, a senior at Morgan State who has helped lead rallies in Annapolis in recent years seeking more funding for historically black colleges and universities, said he appreciated that Mizzou students "did something, and people were selfless about it." And he said expects the activism to continue.

"What they are going to see is basically people taking control of their lives again, whether it be students or community people," he said. "We put all our power in elected officials, from the university to the national level, and we forget the power they have is the power we gave them."

For Hall, the University of Maryland senior, the movement is about spurring action. While it's a good thing that universities like his have become more diverse, he said that's only a first step.

"We are all behind a push for not just diversity, but inclusivity," he said. "Diversity is a thing; inclusivity is process."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

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