Liam Adams is an independent journalist in Denver writing for local and national outlets.  

Is Protesting a Privilege?

Originally published for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Campus protests advocating for diversity occur more frequently at elite colleges, a study suggests.

Since her days as a Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University, Dominique J. Baker says, she had wondered, “Why do certain universities have protests and others don’t?”

That curiosity led Ms. Baker and a colleague to study differences in protests among higher-education institutions.

Their recent report, published in The Journal of Higher Education, is titled “Beyond the Incident: Institutional Predictors of Student Collective Action.”

The more selective a college and the fewer of its students receiving Pell Grants, they found, the more likely those colleges are experiencing protests against racial microaggressions.

It’s not a new notion that protests occur more commonly at elite institutions. A previous study, by the Brookings Institution, found that more-affluent colleges are likelier venues for protests against controversial speakers, although the report was criticized for being incomplete.

The study by Ms. Baker, an assistant professor of education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University,-and Richard S.L. Blissett, an assistant professor in the department of quantitative methods and education policy at Seton Hall University, focused on the “I, Too, Am” movement, which started at Harvard University to protest microaggressions against students of color.

Racial microaggressions usually involve unequal treatment of people of color, or racial slurs or jokes, notes the report. Some students at Harvard were so fed up with microaggressions on the campus that they started a photography project in which students of color held signs containing offensive statements that had been made to them.

“I, Too, Am” spread beyond Harvard to 39 other institutions, the report says. A similar movement is called “Being Black at …” After identifying the colleges where those movements had taken root, Ms. Baker and Mr. Blissett studied the statistical differences among those institutions — “ITA” campuses — and non-ITA.

The ITA colleges, the two researchers found, had an average acceptance rate of 45 percent, fewer recipients of Pell Grants for low-income students, and a larger percentage of Asian students and a smaller percentage of black students than non-ITA colleges did.

The non-ITA institutions had an average acceptance rate of 66 percent and, from 2009 to 2014, “increased the percentage of students from a low-income background at a higher rate” than the ITA colleges did, the report says.

The results also showed that having a higher proportion of racial minorities didn’t increase the likelihood of protest. “Getting a certain number of different types of students is not enough to guarantee that an environment will feel inclusive for students,” says Ms. Baker.

The results could suggest that a certain type of environment allows a student more freedom to protest, she says. “Certain people have the time and resources to be able to protest in certain ways.” They are “given a language to be able to talk about certain issues and are given the space to be able to talk about certain issues” in a way that students at commuter institutions might not feel they have.

Besides that conclusion, another possible idea to be drawn from the study is that students’ dissatisfaction with racism on their campus is a “function of institutional environments,” the report says. Administrators should “be aware of the possible correlated environments that come along with that elitism” and should work to create more-inclusive spaces, the researchers write.

The report is “not to say protest is bad or this is how you stop protest,” Ms. Baker says. In fact, “we wanted to encourage institutions to dig more holistically about the challenges that students face.”

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