Administrative Inaction: Universities Continue to Fail Undergraduates

By Elle Winfield

From state schools to private institutions, student protests against administrative inaction have been on the rise for the past few years. Often focused on racial tensions on campus, undergraduates across the country are increasingly frustrated by the lack of tangible change offered by school officials in response to demands for greater equity and inclusion.

One recent case in point comes from Duke University, a private school in North Carolina, where administrators faced an uproar of student discontent following the dismissal of two African American workers at on-campus coffee shop Joe Van Gogh. Larry Moneta, vice president of student affairs, reportedly admonished head worker Britni Brown for playing the rap song Get Paid by Young Dolph, deeming its lyrics inappropriate because of explicit language. Despite profusely apologizing and shutting off the music immediately, Brown was consequently removed from her position in the days following. Kevin Simmons, her co-worker that day, was also fired as a consequence of the incident by the JVG human resources department.

The removal of Brown and Simmons, which happened in early May, emerged as another incident in a series of racialized events on Duke’s campus. On April 26, a second year undergraduate student faced backlash for posting a meme containing a racial slur on Snapchat, which later made its way to a Duke University Facebook group. A day later, racist graffiti appeared outside the door of a young woman’s apartment, the perpetrators of which still remain unknown by campus police.

While these racist incidents caused student outrage and were denounced by Duke University as “deplorable”, the administration refrained from acting on the grounds that such language was not “in violation of any Duke policies on speech and expression.” Instead, Moneta specifically directed the student population to read a book about free speech on campuses, encouraging them to better understand the societal value of freedom of speech as “protecting the oppressed far more than the oppressors.”

Considering that Vice President Moneta made the decision to remove Brown and Simmons from their positions at Joe Van Gogh on the grounds that the music they were playing was too explicit, his calls for Duke students to educate themselves on the merits of free speech are nothing less than hypocritical and are certainly a deflection of the Duke administration’s responsibility to act. Moneta has been publicly called out on this hypocrisy and racism, even from those outside of the Duke community: Young Dolph himself donated $20,000 to each former barista after hearing about the incident and Stephen Colbert denounced Moneta’s actions as part of a segment on The Late Show.

Whoever that VP is, he don’t give a dam about nobody but his self… I guess he was trying to teach the students how to be selfish I guess……… smh🤦🏽‍♂️ 👎🏾

— its DOLPHHHHHH! (@YoungDolph) May 9, 2018

Racially discriminatory incidences – and subsequent inaction from administrative officials – like this are not quarantined to Duke by any means. Undergraduates at Princeton University, for instance, seized the Presidential Office in 2015 to protest the racist legacy and continued commemoration of Woodrow Wilson in on-campus buildings. Occupying buildings is part of a long history of university demonstrations. In April, Howard University students ended a two-month occupation of the administration building following claims of administrative inadequacy under sitting President Wayne A.I. Frederick. The dispute arose after a years-long embezzlement scandal by on-campus officials came to light, leading student activists to critique a range of university policies and call for changes across the board – from housing reform to sexual assault prevention.

The occupation at Howard ended in an agreement between protesters and the administration, which promised to meet most of HU Resist‘s demands. Princeton, however, failed to address the complaints of its student activists, following a trend of schools across the nation who have refused to meet the demands stipulated by their student population. Marginalized communities at colleges and universities are frequently the hardest hit by administrative apathy as inaction from administrators allows discrimination on campus to continue, perpetuating a never-ending cycle.

Currently, the Feminist Majority Foundation is working to give power back to students through an ongoing legal appeal against the University of Mary Washington, a public university located in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The school caught national attention last year for failing to act following the posting of aggressive and vulgar threats against undergraduate women on the now-defunct Yik Yak app. FMF argued that the inaction of the University administration constituted a violation of Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which could set a powerful precedent regarding freedom of speech on college and university campuses if ruled successful by the court. Following an appeal last month, the final verdict is expected to be released before the fall.

In the meantime, college students will continue to protest acts of discrimination and call on their universities to simply do more to meet their demands.

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