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Responding to Campus Racism: Analyzing Student Activism and Institutional Responses


Scholarship on student activism describes how protests, demonstrations, and hunger strikes push higher education institutions towards progress and increased institutional accountability. However, cyclical demands, particularly from Student-Activists of Color regarding campus racism, suggest more complexity at the institutional level. In comparing the responses of two public higher education institutions from 2015 to 2018, this study explored the responses by senior-level administrators, faculty, and governing boards to determine how they align with students’ concerns. Their multiple perspectives, competing demands, and layered dynamics complicate what are considered to be the institutional responses and how they are perceived by Student-Activists of Color.

Situating student activism through the Institutional Response Framework, this comparative case study employs document collection, archives, and interviews. Moreover, in the traditions of Critical Race Theory and Black Feminism, these responses are contextualized within the sociopolitical histories of each campus to further illuminate the roles of incrementalism, reputation, and trust. Through critical discourse analysis and thematic analysis, I map these patterns, tactics, and considerations onto three dimensions of the Institutional Response Framework: control, demand, and institutionalized racism.

Findings reveal how responses minimize students’ concerns, criminalize activism, co-opt initiatives, and only “claim diversity” through empty dialogues. Yet, responses also result in educational initiatives, new curricula, changes in institutional policies, and strategic ways to “protect” students. The decision-making rationales regarding morality, the university’s “best interests,” and peer group comparisons reflect the larger narratives of embedded whiteness, racism, anti-Blackness, and neoliberalism within higher education. The subtle and sometimes stark differences between these perceptions and responses demonstrate the positional pressures and competing goals of each of these groups, while still inching towards institutional improvement. The functionality of the Institutional Response Framework and mapping these differences serve as an analytical tool to inform actionable practices. The study’s intersection of organizational theory and Critical Race Theory provides a unique interrogation of how racism and color-evasiveness materialize at the institutional level. Lastly, the research design offers an alternate methodological praxis that places under scrutiny an underexplored participant: the institution and its racialized dynamics.

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