As racist admits expose themselves on social media, colleges and universities must consider where to draw the line regarding admission.
Sean Glaze—an 18-year-old track and field standout who had plans to attend Xavier University (OH)—must have thought he was on solid ground this past May when he tweeted “…in America, you are allowed to be racist as long as you don’t act on it.”
He could hardly have picked a more precarious time to test that theory. His tweet came just five days after the May 25 death of George Floyd during an encounter with Minneapolis police. The incident sparked protests throughout the nation and the world under the banner of Black Lives Matter after a video surfaced of one of the officers kneeling on the neck of Floyd, an unarmed Black man, for nearly nine minutes until he stopped breathing.
But Glaze wasn’t done sharing his views with the Twittersphere. He followed his right-to-be-racist tweet up with another in which he stated that Ku Klux Klan rallies were “less violent” than the George Floyd protests.
A couple days later, James Farr, a professional basketball player and alum of Xavier University, tweeted to the university and its athletics department: “Something must be done about Sean Glaze. Do NOT sweep this under the rug. Address this matter instantly!”
Farr, who is Black, got his wish the same day when Xavier's athletic department confirmed Glaze would not be a part of cross country or track and field at Xavier.
Glaze was just one of two high school students to have their admission rescinded this spring after spewing racially offensive views on social media.
Around the same time that Glaze lost his admission to Xavier, Marquette University (WI) revoked its offer to an incoming lacrosse player who dismissively compared the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck to protesters who kneel during the national anthem.
“As a Catholic, Jesuit institution, we are called to build a nurturing, inclusive community where all people feel safe, supported, welcomed, and celebrated,” Marquette spokeswoman Lynn Griffith told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel while explaining the decision to revoke the lacrosse player’s offer.
Xavier University, which is also a Catholic, Jesuit school, expressed similar sentiments after the school revoked its offer to Glaze. In a statement, Xavier said the school “continues its work of building a culture of accountability in advancing our commitments to diversity and inclusion across our campus and in our community.”
While many would quickly agree that Xavier and Marquette universities were justified in revoking their admission offers to the student-athletes who expressed their racially offensive views, some would argue that rescinding admission may be a missed an opportunity to change the hearts and minds of these students.
“If these colleges really believe that all their ‘progressive’ education works, you’d think they would welcome students who seem to need to be awakened and convince them that their views are wrong,” said George Leef, a director at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a North Carolina-based nonprofit that deals with issues in higher education.
“But evidently all of that is just virtue signaling and they’d rather treat dissenters like plague carriers,” Leef said.
Others in the world of admission also share the view that schools should think twice before revoking offers.
“I do not think universities should rescind offers for students that have expressed racist ideas,” said Georgette Small, director of college counseling at Maumee Valley Country Day School (OH), a private P-12 school. “In my view, having these students on campus would present an excellent opportunity to ‘keep your enemy close,’” she said. “On an individual basis, the university could determine how teachable a student is. We would require [them] to participate in sensitivity courses.”
Others suggested having students who have expressed racist views take courses in ethnic studies, but Nolan L. Cabrera, associate professor of educational policy and practice at the University of Arizona, sees a problem with requiring ethnic studies as a form of punishment or to take advantage of “teachable moments. That strategy has been tried over the past couple of decades, and it usually does not work,” he said.
More effective, Cabrera said, is just taking away a student’s offer. “Rescinding offers sends a public message that this type of behavior is not acceptable,” Cabrera said. “It has its flaws and is not perfect, but a lot of other options are less effective.”
Cabrera questioned whether a student with racist views would actually get anything out of an ethnic studies course. “Usually, when a punishment is being handed down like this, the restorative part is aggressively resisted by the perpetrator,” he said. “Within this context, would their presence in an ethnic studies class be developmental or disruptive to the learning environment? I’ve seen it happen more often than not that it is disruptive, which means the people wanting to take the ethnic studies course are having their learning opportunities interrupted.”
“By disruptive and resistant, I mean challenging the authority of the professor in ways that would never fly in a different discipline,” Cabrera continued. For example, Cabrera said he’s never heard of a case in which a student complains that their physics teacher failed to convince them of the formula for gravity.
“When teaching ethnic studies and diversity classes, we receive that type of resistance all the time,” Cabrera said. “Students, frequently white students, will continually interject, ‘You didn’t convince me that racism is systemic.’ These persistent demands disrupt the flow of the class and make it difficult for other students to learn.”
Brandon Mack, associate director of admission at Rice University (TX), said colleges and universities should make space for students to have opportunities to “educate themselves on racism and challenging racist ideas.”
“That is why we need more classes devoted to the subject, rather than cutting in classes devoted to African American, LatinX, Asian, LGBTQ+ and other cultural and ethnic studies,” Mack said. “Those courses and opportunities should be present at every institution. If those courses are not offered or if the institution has made the decision to cut those departments, the question should be: Is the institution devoted towards the education on racism and the dismantling of racism?”
Mack said there appears to be growing support for cultural and ethnic studies courses, but he questioned whether that support was merely in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. “Many of these programs are being strengthened because of the current moment, but still that needs to be higher education wide and not just responsive to the moment,” he said.
Beyond issues of what to do with students who purvey racist views, there are questions about whether rescinding their admission offers will really do anything to protect students who hail from groups that have been the targets of racism.
Julie J. Park, associate professor in the department of counseling, higher education and special education at the University of Maryland, College Park, said decisions to rescind a student’s admission should be made on a case-by-case basis.
“There are going to be plenty of students who attend who have views that are problematic,” Park said. “The difference is how people act on them. So, you might have one student who has viewpoints that I deeply abhor, but who attempts to express them in a way that reflects at least some minimum standard of civility and reasoning. I see that as being very different from the student who is throwing out racial slurs on social media,” she explained.
Park continued, noting the difference between an opportunity to enlighten and what crosses the line. “We want students with divergent viewpoints to engage one another, but we do not necessarily want students who act in a way that reflects a total lack of disregard for their peers or an inability to reflect on their actions,” she said.
Cabrera, however, said students who hold racist views are different from students who hold unpopular views—and that there is a need to protect students of color by keeping racist students out. “This is important for students of color because when it comes to racism, we are not having a basic debate with diverging views,” he said. “The expression of racism in effect attacks the very humanity of students of color, and this is a far cry from discussing the relative merits and liabilities of a Green New Deal.
Racism on campus should only been seen as detrimental—not practice for adult life. “There are some who say, ‘Won’t the workplace have a lot of racism these students will have to deal with?’ I agree…” Cabrera said, “…but I also say these students already have to navigate racism. They don’t need an institution of higher education to make them aware of this reality.”
Mack said colleges and universities should take an anti-racism stance. “Institutions of higher education primarily were not built with minority and marginalized students in mind, but they now have commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he said. “In order to live up to those statements and values, that means they need to ensure that all students are welcomed and that the environment is as supportive and welcoming as best as they can make it. Allowing known racists to come into a space runs counter to that commitment.”
However, Mack also sees a need for colleges to have more options to deal with students who express racist views than just rescinding an offer. Like Park, he said each case should be judged individually. “If the act is so egregious and the person who committed it is not showing signs of contrition or a willingness to be educated, then I think the institution should make the decision that is best that reflects their values,” he said. “I think requiring ethnic studies courses or forgoing merit scholarships is also another option, but those options have to be present. You can’t require an ethnic studies course if one doesn’t exist.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a journalist living in Washington, DC.
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