The Daily Northwestern

Editorial: University shouldn’t relegate Black History Month recognition to students

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University support of marginalized groups on campus is a storied concern. In 1968, more than 100 students occupied the Northwestern Bursar’s Office in protest after NU failed to meet a list of black students’ demands. Fast forward 50 years, and the Black Student Experience Task Force Report still shows that current black student satisfaction with their undergraduate experience continues to lag behind that of every other racial and ethnic group on campus.

There are very tangible actions NU could take to begin creating a more inclusive space. Yet while Black History Month presents itself as a timely way for the University to do so, NU has failed to take advantage of the chance to show real institutional support for black students.

Raising a Black Lives Matter flag at Norris University Center has certainly been a move in the right direction, but it is also representative of a larger issue: Students carry the bulk of the burden in organizing. Black student groups at college campuses throughout the country organize every February for Black History Month to increase awareness with more intentional programming, events and recognition. At NU, too, students often lead the charge, perhaps even more so than at other institutions. It’s long past time for the University to also step up.

While NU put on more extensive programming throughout January for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, only nine events are currently listed on the website for Black History Month. It goes without saying that quantity shouldn’t be prioritized over quality, but last year, the University of Illinois at Chicago put on twice as many special events. NU not only lags in numbers, but also includes among the nine events a community meeting that already occurs every month. Other Big Ten schools regularly link their programming directly to the celebration of black history — through exhibits and events exploring black literature and poetry, for example — while many of NU’s events don’t draw an explicit connection and call into question the University’s genuine dedication to the cause.

To be clear, we understand NU’s list of programming is not exhaustive and doesn’t fully represent the events coordinated by student groups and organizations without University oversight. We are not criticizing their efforts, but rather the structures that lead students to force the conversation themselves in the first place. On a campus where, as of 2016, black students represent 5.9 percent of undergraduates (aside from those who may be included in a separate, multi-racial category) and report too often “being the only one” in spaces throughout campus, they can’t also be forced to carry the burden of making others aware of the month’s importance alone. The University must show its own concern first.

Furthermore, more than half of the events NU lists are sponsored by Multicultural Student Affairs. It sends a clear message when certain departments are constantly relegated to putting on programming, while others don’t acknowledge Black History Month at all. Less than five percent of NU’s full-time faculty is black as of 2015 — just as students shouldn’t be expected to bear full responsibility, black faculty and staff can’t be either.

Students and faculty bearing the brunt of organizing is no new narrative. The Latina and Latino Studies and Asian American Studies Programs’ current demands for departmental status, as well as the upcoming Native American and Indigenous Studies minor, are only possible due to decades of student activism. The Black House, the single cultural space for black students on campus, continues to stand today thanks to student resistance. Counseling and Psychological Services hired a staff member specifically for black student outreach only after student demands that funding be allocated to hire counselors of color. Since, NU has yet to actively show it values the diverse student experience in response. Organizing programming sponsored directly by upper-level administrators and more departments, institutional recognition of Black History Month and better communication of its importance to students could be a worthwhile start.

Greater support and recognition of Black History Month wouldn’t be a sweeping solution to issues black students experience on campus. Deeper problems continue to exist the other 11 months of the year, beyond programming or recognition NU offers in February.

More intentional involvement from the University can, however, represent a tangible effort to demonstrate support for black students — beyond platitudes and task forces. Institutional support matters, and we urge NU administrators to recognize their role in honoring Black History Month.

This piece represents the majority opinion of the Editorial Board of The Daily Northwestern. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members or Editorial Board members of The Daily Northwestern.

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