Student leaders are calling for a culture of listening

Student leaders, unions and bodies would not feel the need to turn against higher education institutions if their voices were heard, according to Sharron Reed-Davis, a senior student leader and president of the Black Students’ Alliance (BSA) at Michigan State University in the US.

“If you listen to students, they will feel heard. There is no reason [why] students should have to feel they have to fight with the institutions they reside in,” she said.

Reed-Davis was part of a panel of participants during a dialogue on race and ethnicity perspectives in Africa and the diaspora held virtually on 13 May by the Alliance for African Partnership, a consortium of institutions, including Michigan State University (MSU) and African institutions.

Globally, student leaders have been seen to be at the forefront, and in some cases the drivers of important societal change, especially in addressing the marginalisation of minority groups.

According to Reed-Davis, student voices have a meaningful impact in the world and “shouldn’t be ignored when they want reasonable changes from institutions”.

Student impact in South Africa

The impact of student action in South Africa arguably was witnessed during the 2015 to 2017 #FeesMustFall (FMF) and #RhodesMustFall (RMF) nationwide protests led by student leaders.

It all began in March 2015 when students at the world-renowned University of Cape Town called for the removal of the colonial statue of Cecil John Rhodes who, in the 19th century, promoted colonialism and racism in South Africa and other parts of the continent.

Protests against colonial figures and symbols in South Africa’s higher learning institutions gained traction and resonated with many students in the country’s institutions. The RMF and FMF movements also highlighted, through protest and social media, the poor working conditions of outsourced university workers.

When the dust settled, many universities abolished the outsourcing of university workers and many workers were offered permanent employment with benefits.

Although scores of students were accused of public violence as institutions were damaged during the violent protests, the collective action of students, led by student leaders, resulted in the much-criticised decision not to implement university fee hikes during FMF.

These movements elevated students’ voices in key debates on financial access and institutional culture in South Africa.

Impact of students at MSU

In the case of Michigan State University, Reed-Davis discussed during the dialogue how the institution’s student leaders, comprising the organisation she heads at MSU (the BSA), the Council of Racial and Ethnic Students and the Council of Progressive Students drafted a 10-point plan with demands for marginalised communities within the university.

“We asked for more gender-inclusive housing and restrooms [and] more reflection and prayer rooms for different religions on campus . . . for the population of faculty and staff to reflect the population of East Lansing [the area in which MSU is situated] as far as race and ethnicity is concerned,” she said.

Reed-Davis said most of the demands were met by the university, but one aspect she noticed was how demands specifically addressing the needs of black students were not completed.

“It made it seem like it was easier to get things for other marginalised communities and not for the black community, which made black students feel like they don’t belong,” she said.

She added that institutions need to be more intentional in dealing with race and racism issues.

“Addressing race and equity issues in the classroom and community should be a blatant effort. It should be put at the forefront. Our money funds the institutions. We are a large stakeholder and should be regarded as such,” Reed-Davis said to University World News in response to follow-up questions sent to her via e-mail.

She said that, instead, institutions ignore student cries and complaints unless there is some kind of media influence.

“The institution and the systems in place are not built for black people, that’s the truth. To fix the issues — that first needs to be acknowledged by leadership. Then a real effort needs to be made to unlearn and reshape institutions and systems outside of the white supremacist lenses that they were created in,” she said.

Reed-Davis added that there are racist people in these institutions who want to uphold these practices and this hinders progress, the same way there are people who still believe that black lives don’t matter.

“That’s the truth, and until those people are weeded out of these systems and the leadership, there will always be a struggle for black communities. There should be efforts happening at every level, not just in the classroom and not just in diversity talk within the administration.”

Building a comprehensive inclusive culture

Elsewhere in the world, students and academics have accused their universities of a ‘tokenistic approach’ to the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death.

According to the students and academics, universities in many parts of the world have failed to tackle issues such as institutional racism said to be entrenched still in the education system.

Reed-Davis argued that institutional support for the movement has been “few and far between”.

“Before last summer, it was almost impossible to even get these administrations to publicly say that black lives actually matter. These institutions will do anything to stay on the good side of the people and corporations funding them, aside from students, of course,” she contended.