Each year I do a list (like everyone else in the world) to recapture some memorable moments from the past year as I begin to shift thinking to what needs to be done for 2017. 2016 was another great year at Dillard University, with new milestones reached and new lessons learned. In fact, notable #7 marks one of the lessons learned.

#7: Politics and Protest

USA Today picture that features NO Dillard students!

We made national news this fall when a former Klansman somehow qualified for a televised debate. We hold all kinds of debates all of the time, and actually hosted a debate that featured senate candidates (that no one attended by the way). But the Trump effect included a rise in racial tension so when the news broke that Duke would be at an HBCU, the news wrote itself.

The easy decision would be to cancel. That would have been the wrong decision, because it would have added to the trend of people policing areas of inquiry based on personal biases. This was in fact a debate, and I found it hard to believe that 5 people on the stage weren’t capable of neutralizing his rhetoric.

So cancelling the event due to ONE person is just as wrong as the state legislators in Wisconsin threatening to pull funding for the University of Wisconsin because ONE professor teaches a class (and with academic freedom he has the right to do so) on “The Problem of Whiteness.”

One of the main lessons though mirrored what happened with the national election. We live in a fact free society. The picture above from USA Today is a great example. None of those students are Dillard students (one even wearing her XU shirt), and most of the protestors were not Dillard students. I mean I wish we were more diverse but if you look at pictures from that night and the sizeable number of white students there. They are not Dillard students.

So people made up facts. They said we invited Duke (“Wrong!”) They said we asked for the audience to be empty (“Wrong!”) In fact, when Kennedy and Campbell tried to schedule a run-off debate, one of the sticking points was that Kennedy wanted no audience and Campbell wanted one. In fact, empty audiences are actually common in Louisiana. People ignored that Duke spoke at Dillard before- to Dillard students at the height of his role with the Klan and during the Black Power Movement.

We tried to tell people Duke was in this for publicity, and that to protest was what he wanted (he actually used the media push to launch a publishing company). One of our professors wrote a great piece explaining this was his goal. I felt it was strange that the ONLY poll where he met the 5% threshold to even participate was the one before the election. On the day of the election? He got 3%.

March to the polls

But we came back together, and a week later we marched to the polls. One of the untold stories is that student chapter of the Andrew Goodman Foundation registered over 550 people to vote this year! And then the election that no one predicted actually happened. In Louisiana, Trump trounced by 20 points.

Post-election forum

The next day we had a great faculty forum to analyze the presidential election and what it might mean for Dillard students. It was outstanding in all aspects, and hopefully inspired many of us to engage in lots of local issues. As I tried to argue, unsuccessfully, was that focusing on Duke was a mistake when there were much more important issues that we need to address.

Our event was just the beginning. Other events at places like West Virginia University and Texas A&M had intolerant speakers on the campus. Texas A&M actually had more national coverage (and Richard Spencer is about to make the rounds- one to watch in 2017). But the interesting thing was that I read at least 4 editorials praising them for defending free speech even with speech that most detested. We were left hanging except for WDSU which indicated that Raycom owed us an apology. But the issue of free speech on campuses will be huge in 2017.

I have also been unsuccessful getting that kind of energy directed at something with real consequences- the loss of over $1,400 for 10% of our student body due to changes in the TOPS program. There have been no protests at the Capitol directed at elected officials to protect this program, especially for those whom it was created for- low income and students of color.

Dillard is one of few schools in the state to FULLY FUND TOPS for spring! This is due to our alumni and friends who understand the big picture. In fact, we raised money for TOPS after the Duke debate debacle, which for me proved that the masses understood why we hosted the debate, and then doubled down on their support for Dillard and her students.

So my prayer for 2017 is that the activism stirred by the Duke event will continue, but it needs to be focused on issues with real consequences. TOPS for Dillard impacted over 150 students to the tune of about a quarter of a million dollars. This is hard work and won’t be done with a one shot protest or hashtag activism. This is one of many real fights.

In the end, these tweets from HBCU alum and journalist Terrell Starr says it all.

Written by

7th president of Dillard University

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