Rice: Does Northwestern administration have solutions besides bromides?

Jeff Rice, Op-ed Contributor

Thoughts and prayers. Psychological counseling. Promises of reform. We’re far too familiar with these phrases and ideas, but they aren’t proof of tangible change. These are bromides —  statements intended to placate us with the hope of improvement — but they’re not solutions. Can they be well-intentioned? Yes. Can they help? Potentially. But will they make bad things better? Not likely. 

In our society, we have these things called structures. In most cases, structures run deeper than people’s feelings. Some structures are largely immovable: mountains, oceans, trees.  Some are made by humans, and can be unmade, or at least modified. The 90-foot distance between first and second base seems perfect, but we made it — we can change it. The same goes for the five-day work week. There are more examples than the length of this essay could possibly enumerate. Relationships can also be humanly constructed, such as how we engage with racism, legalized guns, sexism, marriage and parenting. They, too, can be unmade or modified. Laws are made by people. Laws govern civil society in which discrimination lives and thrives.

Mind you, feelings matter. Building a coalition, which requires a shared purpose, has led to changes in laws. Think ofhe civil rights movement, the feminist movement and the gay rights movement — all of which have resulted in progress. Police reform is a major topic in national politics at present as many work to figure out a reasonable set of reforms to increase security rather than participate in what we can call anti-security. This all fits into the upside of democracy and the power of participation.

Last week we received an email from Provost Kathleen Hagerty and other Northwestern administrators, signed with the words “in solidarity.” Several leading administrators decried the recent spate of anti-Black violence in Minnesota and Chicago, among other places. To its credit, the statement refers to the systemic nature of this violence.

The persistent, systemic nature of police brutality can take a psychological toll on many in the Northwestern community, particularly Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC),” the statement said.

This demonstrates the power of understatement in a place where people might actually fear the police themselves. In the following paragraphs, words of condolences, sympathy and offers of help follow each other in short sequence. Nowhere do the signers suggest that NU, like all institutions, locations and structures in the U.S., should be looking inward to see how and in what manner they contribute to this race-related violence. In short, the letter is quick on what I called bromides but short on solutions.

Only a short time ago, the University released a report raising questions about the way University Police operates and how BIPOC students, faculty and staff feel alienated from it. No mention was made of this problem in the recent email, nor of ways to mitigate the problem (including ones suggested in the report). No mention was made of the many issues raised by students since the 1968 Bursar’s Office Takeover about the racial disparities on campus. Similarly, the letter failed to mention the fact that students and faculty have complained about UP and its behavior since 1969. 

With respect to the matter of policing we must ask, nay, demand, a clear-cut statement as to the purpose of campus policing is — especially in light of Evanston Police Department’s cooperation with the Northern Illinois Police Alarm System. In a meeting with NU Community Not Cops, University President Morton Schapiro assured us that the goal of the police is to keep or make our students safe. This goal and policy, if it is real, is a  failure when the population which policing is meant to protect is afraid of it. A microcosm of the wider world.

My own students can and do raise questions which the University seems to either ignore, be intimidated by, or remain in stasis regarding. Students are willing to go places in their conversation that the administration may be afraid to. For them, talk does not lead to action as students are not deciders, nor are faculty or staff. NU remains a highly racialized environment, one also revealing deep social class inequalities. (As partly for a laugh, and partly as an indicator of difference, I once asked a 60-person winter class how many wore Canada Goose jackets.) 

Returning to the administration’s email and the current struggle of student groups regarding campus police, as a long-time participant in University culture, I feel an obligation to, once again, raise the same old criticism. Problems at NU having to do with inclusion, exclusion, prejudice and discrimination are quickly relegated to committees, verbiage and what seems like acquiescence by the administration. There are policies to explore, goals to be changed, strategies and tactics to be utilized. Action is demanded; the status quo must go.

I want to thank Marissa Jackson Sow and Wilton Paul Jackson, fellow alums, friends, and two who have deeply influenced my thinking on race in America.

Jeff Rice is a senior lecturer emeritus of political science and alumnus of class ‘72 at Northwestern. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern