HUFF POST: When a College Chancellor Supports Her Students

Within the last few weeks, colleges all over the country have erupted in protest. Most of them were in solidarity with the concept “Black Lives Matter,” and reflect the growing awareness of students of all races and nationalities that they can’t be free until black victims of police violence are free to walk the streets of America without fear of arrest, or death by excessive force. It is not a great step to simulate a day in the life of people of color on many college campuses who live under the shadow of a racist past that comes to life through infamous names on buildings and dormitories, statutes, mascots, and praise songs; who must contend with today’s racial epithets, stereotypes, and assumptions about who’s on top and belongs there. “Stuff we see but maybe you don’t“. The reminders of the past, mixed with the culture of the present.

And so it is to the credit of these diverse student bodies, who are black but also white, Asian, Latino, Caribbean; male and female; gay and straight, who do see the injustice recently in Chicago, or Minneapolis, or at whatever college they attend. They renounce whatever privilege they have to focus on the things they have in common: a passion for justice, and a commitment to equality.

Some people from my generation (the 1960s) see this and understand. My fellow classmate Bill Newell from Amherst College, class of ‘65, said recently in an electronic conversation with fellow classmates:

    It seems likely that current Amherst students feel conflicted as they observe recent race-based events unfold in America. They feel they ought to be focused on their education—after all, they’ve got a wonderful opportunity at Amherst to develop their minds—but they also have this gnawing feeling they ought to be out there taking part in these events. So they ask themselves how they can participate while remaining on campus. Let’s set our own house in order (they seem to say).

But what happens when a progressive college chancellor expresses the same point of view with regards to the students on her campus? Some people in power apparently don’t think that’s proper.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal criticized Rutgers Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor (“Radical Parents, Despotic Children,” November 24, 2015), calling her, “ A perfect representative of American academia. And American academia is, by and large, idiotic.” Why ? Because of  her “Statement of Solidarity” in support of Rutgers Students dissatisfied with the status quo. She challenged students to be aware of,

“The scarring consequences of decade after decade, group after group, strangers to each other, enemies even within the same land, separated by an architecture of segregation, an economy of inequality, a politics of polarization, a dogma of intolerance.  We witness the loss of a new future, struck down.  And we wonder aloud, what we can do differently”

I wondered what could make one of the leading newspapers in the country go after a sitting university chancellor who has distinguished herself in so many ways at Rutgers Newark, and at so many other colleges where she has provided leadership. Clearly, the writer is angry with student demonstrators, and feels like Republican Presidential contender Ted Cruz when he called students at Princeton, “pampered teenagers.”  Therefore, lest these demonstrators spread their wings even more, any institutional support must be marginalized and discredited.

But Nancy Cantor has a track record of doing just what this newspaper of record should want colleges to do: she made possible innovative ways to make college produce young people who are confident, responsible citizens in a new age.  Take for example her Honors Living – Learning Community at Rutgers Newark, where the definition of “honors” in higher education has been redefined to mean more than just good grades, to give students credit for the talents they may have that heretofore have not been viewed as praiseworthy; where the concept of “diversity” has come to mean more than just providing a Noah’s arc of different races and nationalities together for display purposes, but where they are challenged to grow up in a college environment where democracy and fair play are valued and applauded; where the faculty and staff are encouraged to apply their skills off campus in the public school systems, and to devise programs on campus for grade school students and adults to sample all that Rutgers has to offer.

Ironically the value of such a Chancellor can best be seen in the most recent college demonstration held by members of the Rutgers Newark diverse student body. Chancellor Cantor was asked to speak to the students, to share her views.  At some point, the power went off, and so she had no microphone to project her voice. Instead of the students whipping out their cell phones to pass the time away, somebody said, “Let’s get closer, so that we can hear what she has to say.” They crowded together, and she said it was one of the proudest moments of her life. We sure wouldn’t have done that when I was in college!

Ironically the students at Rutgers Newark are not polarized by race, as made manifest in their rainbow demonstration in solidarity with black people. There was no take over of the Chancellor’s office, or any building, which has happened before at  Rutgers . Rutgers has its problems, and there may be more demonstrations.  But isn’t it better to respect the students for their values, and commitment; and acknowledge the Chancellor who seems to have gained their respect?

Newark NJ is poised to celebrate its 350th anniversary in 2016, and Rutgers Newark will be a part of that celebration. Rutgers has a lot to share with us in teaching what it means to encourage and prepare students to struggle for a better world.

Junius Williams is Director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers Newark, and author of the book, Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power.

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