Students at Johns Hopkins University packed a lecture hall for a forum organized by the Black Student Union for a discussion with the administration about how to improve the Black experience on campus. (Photo by Roberto Alejandro)
Mandatory cultural competency coursework, increased Black faculty, and greater accountability for acts of racism on campus were among the demands made by the Johns Hopkins University Black Student Union at a recent forum on improving the experience of Black students at the storied institution in Baltimore.
Held on the main undergraduate campus on Nov. 30, the forum, organized by the Black Student Union (BSU) and consisting of a panel made up of two members of the BSU executive team and seven members of the university administration (only one of whom was Black), including president Ronald Daniels, was an opportunity for the Johns Hopkins community to address and receive a response from the university administration with regards to concerns about racism on campus and the impact it has had on Black students.
“Every student deals with difficult classes and harsh grading curves, but Black students also have to deal with discrimination and erasure in various aspects of campus life. From professors who espouse anti-Black views on social media, to classmates who see no fault with making racialized jokes and comments, Hopkins can be a toxic environment to be Black,” said Tiffany Onyejiaka, one of the BSU executive team members who sat on the panel.
Partly in response to these sorts of concerns, President Daniels spoke of the progress the university had made on a number of measures, including an 82 percent increase in the number of Black applicants, a 50% increase in the percentage of the student population made up by Blacks (from six to nine percent overall), and the equalization of six year graduation rate for Black and majority students, which Daniels described as “a very significant shift in percentage.”
All of these changes “reflect progress, but it also reflects intentionality, commitment, hard work,” said Daniels.
But there appeared to be a disconnect between the concerns about racism raised by the Black students and alumni present, many of them speaking to qualitative aspects of their experience of Hopkins, like the impact of a lack of Black mentors, and the quantitative measures being touted as progress by the administration. This disconnect was particularly underscored when Caroline Laguerre-Brown, vice provost and chief diversity officer for the university, was asked about the university’s policies regarding the disciplining of students who have made racist remarks to Black classmates, and, after describing the policy, remarked, “I have to tell you, I have been here for 10 years and those kinds of complaints haven’t really made it to me.”
If the comments by students from a variety of backgrounds at the forum were any indication, then the regularity of racist incidents on the campus of Johns Hopkins seems to be something that students are far more aware of than the administration, and one that is not captured in percentages and other statistics.
Towards the end of the forum, one alumnus who identified himself as Colby Little from the class of ‘94 and a former BSU president, stood up and addressed Daniels, thanking him for what Little called “the most progressive remarks that a president of this institution has ever made” on the topic of race on campus.
“But we should be clear this evening that progress is not the goal,” continued Little, “the goal is solutions.”
Few solutions were forthcoming, however, and the administration members present, were not prepared to either agree to the demands set forth by the BSU, or set timelines for goals they admitted sharing with the students, such as an increases in the number of Black faculty members. Towards the end of the event, Daniels challenged the idea that this was the same as opposition to the concerns presented by the BSU and their allies.
“A sign of our respect and our partnership should not be manifest on whether every demand that you bring to me I agree to, and if I don’t, I somehow have not heard you, that I have somehow conveyed disrespect, or a lack of empathy or understanding. . . . We can’t live in a world where if we don’t agree, that that means all bets are off, and we have somehow failed to achieve progress or solutions,” said Daniels.