The lesson of #OccupyTowson

#OccupyTowson students probably learned more in 8 hours in the president's office than they will in any class.

We can't pretend to hold real insight about what it's like to be an African-American student at Towson University or to understand the level of prejudice and mistreatment minorities face there. But what we can judge is the manner in which black student activists have raised their concerns and the way the university has responded to them. In a season that has witnessed the debacle of the resignation of the University of Missouri's president and chancellor over similar protests, the conduct of Towson activists and administrators is nothing short of exemplary.

The #OccupyTowson movement is part of a recent resurgence in campus political activism, much of which has lately been focused on racial intolerance by students and faculty or the lack of an appropriate commitment to diversity on the part of administrators. In addition to the Missouri protests — which included a hunger strike, tent city and a threat by the football team to stop playing — activists at Yale staged protests and events this fall that prompted that university's president to announce a series of steps this week to increase academic offerings on the study of race, hire more minority faculty and provide additional training to administrators, among other steps.

But #OccupyTowson is notable not only for the speed with which its members persuaded interim President Timothy Chandler to sign its list of demands — and promise to resign if he doesn't keep up his end of the bargain — but for the constructive way they went about it. According to The Towerlight, Towson's student newspaper, student activists staged a takeover of Tuesday's Student Government Association meeting and presented SGA President Kurt Anderson with the same demands they would later give to Mr. Chandler. The SGA voted 20-3-1 in support, and Mr. Anderson signed.

Yesterday, the group, chanting "Black students matter," arrived at Mr. Chandler's office and presented its demands, which include a commitment from the university to increase diversity in its tenured faculty, to hold periodic cultural competency training in its departments, to advocate for greater attention to diversity in fraternities and sororities, and to enforce a no-tolerance policy for racial, sexual and homophobic epithets. He did not immediately sign.

At that moment, the students could have decided to make a point, to walk out and call for the interim president's resignation. Instead, they stuck around and worked to make change. Mr. Chandler could have dismissed the students tactics as inappropriate or their demands as impractical. Instead, he listened. What's praiseworthy about what happened yesterday and early this morning is not that the protesters were willing to occupy the president's office for eight hours or that the president in the end agreed to their demands. It's that the two sides spent the time working together — with other administrators and even university lawyers — to edit the demands, line by line and even word by word, until they came to a document both sides could accept. According to The Towerlight, the entire list was revised twice, and the activists paused to confer among themselves to make sure there was consensus around the compromise.

The protesters have been getting a lot of support on social media for their cause and cheers for their success, but they have also attracted critics who believe they should have been suspended for their impertinence or should instead be focused on going to class and studying what they're paying tuition to learn.

But that's missing the point. College isn't just about coursework, it's about preparing young people to take their places in society. That's not just about learning to live independently, it's also about practice in navigating the structures of the adult world. The SGA members are coming to grips with the challenges and obligations of self-governance. The Towerlight reporters and editors are practicing how to observe and analyze events fairly and responsibly. And the #OccupyTowson activists are learning how to effectively negotiate and compromise in a tense, emotional situation. We expect they will get more use in their lives out of the eight hours they spent in Mr. Chandler's office than they will from any course they take in college.

The final result that the students achieved was important, to be sure. Universities must provide an environment where students of diverse backgrounds can learn without harassment, and some of the mistreatment the students alleged is awful. But it was the process by which they achieved their goals that prompted President Chandler, after what must have been an exhausting and fraught process, to voice his pride in their "ability to express their opinions and find solutions to the problems as they see them." He is absolutely right: "This is what universities are supposed to do."

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