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Searching for Empathy in Universities

In Columbia, Mo., tents filled with students covered the lawn facing the University of Missouri’s administration building as an eight-day hunger strike ensued against the administration’s failing acknowledgement of deep racial wounds that had divided their campus.

From Missouri, a large, public Division I football school, to Yale University, an Ivy League, conflict regarding racial tension between students and university administrators has brought campus life to a halt. Through protests and open meetings, students have asked administrators how they will respond to institutional wrongdoings.

But all this begs the question, how does an institution respond and fix such wide scale problems that are in often a result of individual actions, not always even the actions of university affiliates?

Student demands have invoked formal responses from the universities including the resignation of President Timothy Wolfe from the University of Missouri and the hiring of a more racially diverse faculty by Dr. Jonathon Holloway, dean of Yale College.

Dr. Holloway, dean of Yale College, listens to the concerns of students, being brought to tears.

While these gestures of administrative shuffling show protesters and the public that universities hear the cries of black students and intend to answer, what real good will these bureaucratic actions do when the problems take root on a different level?

Protests at Missouri State initially broke out in response to racial slurs thrown at Payton Head, student body president.

At Yale, forums and the recent march on the dean’s house began as a result of an individual faculty member’s insensitive e-mail and the denial of black girls into a “white girls only” frat party by members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

Students at Yale University gather on Nov. 9 in “The March of Resilience”

These actions are the actions of individuals.

There certainly are problems to be dealt with behind the doors of deans’ offices to show students that their college strives to be more diverse and defeat racist culture. But their responses, public statements and rotations of board members, are only temporary and exterior changes that will be all for naught if universities cannot inspire change in individuals on campus, the real soldiers of this battle.

Universities have not lost administrative grit. They have lost empathy.

Whether they be students, professors, coaches or deans, people have been disrespectful and insensitive, perpetuating racial conflict. In order to end the plight of black students, and any other marginalized groups, campuses must inspire the strongest morality and empathy within students and faculty, something that could be done by changing the intellectual intent of the modern university.

College has become more of a technical necessity than a place of moral and intellectual growth, as it was in the 60s to 80s. Universities are so career-focused that many liberalizing aspects that developed the moral change-makers of tomorrow have dissipated.  

Current protests on Yale and University of Missouri campuses are reminiscent of the old moral radicalism of the Civil Rights and feminist movements on campuses. Given the additional progression of time though, one would expect this moral voice to have far surpassed the previous liberal nature of colleges rather than approach it from behind.

By emphasizing the moral nature of colleges through broader, liberal arts measures, universities can instill that spirit of change, morality and awareness back in its students.

Schools making structural adjustments to their faculty payrolls should also consider restructuring university requirements. When students can participate in small group seminars on racism and other cultural disparities, it creates a safe (and mandatory) space for students to listen and understand the struggles of their fellow students.

University of Missouri students lead campus protests.

The University of Missouri stopped classes for two days requiring students to attend teach-ins focused on racial relations. Though a step in the right direction, this is a very instantaneous event.

Best stated by author Mary Pearson, change of heart and growth of empathy “doesn’t happen overnight—it’s molded by people who don’t give up.”

Change on this level will require long-term programs and incentives.

By restructuring classes, expanding university counseling and support groups and making inclusion and thoughtfulness pillars of a university, the morality and empathy that an end to racism calls for will be learned by individuals, stitching up the heart of American universities.

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Kelly is a student at the University of Notre Dame studying marketing and journalism, originally hailing from the great city of Holland, Michigan. Kelly's academic and political interests focus in one gender inequality and wage inequality. Her future career interests, whether writing or marketing, are focused in the fashion and beauty industries. Kelly has worked with companies such as philosophy, which promote using the beauty industry as a means of empowerment, which she believes to be a very important lesson. For fun, Kelly finds her peace on the yoga mat and running the beach or the woods. She loves the outdoors and traveling, having already been to 8 countries. Along with writing, she lovs to sing, a performer on stage and most definitely in the shower. Kelly also is actively involved in event planning, another passion of hers. And above all she loves ice cream, pizza, her friends, and her two dogs.
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