At American University, a private university in Washington, D.C., the commitment to cultural diversity is an integral part of its marketing and outreach to prospective students. And for Janelle Gray, a black freshman from Northern Virginia, such advertising worked. Information sessions and campus visits emphasized that AU valued racial and ethnic diversity, a feature that Gray said drew her to the school.
In the spring of 2017, two days after accepting AU’s admission offer, Gray learned that bananas hung on rope fashioned into nooses—a symbol of racial terror and intimidation against black Americans—were found in several spots on AU’s campus. The incident coincided with the university’s first black woman student-government president taking office. Gray never reconsidered her decision to attend AU because she was equally drawn to its international-relations program. But she admits she arrived on campus last summer with a lot of uncertainty and fear. Then last month, it happened again: Ten confederate-flag posters with cotton stalks were pinned to AU’s campus bulletin boards. This time Gray was devastated. “I went to sleep that night, feeling like this situation is just so surreal,” she said. “We come here to learn, and we shouldn't have to deal with things like this.”
Gray’s experience, and the racist acts on her campus, is neither rare nor random. The episodes correspond with what the Anti-Defamation League identifies as an unprecedented increase in white supremacist activity on college grounds that began in fall 2016. Since the start of this academic year, black college students have been targeted in a rash of attacks—at an Ivy League university in New York, at a public college in Illinois, at a Catholic college in Pennsylvania, and at a flagship state university in Michigan. With another college-application season starting and a new crop of black students finalizing their selections, an overarching question persists: To what degree will racist incidents on college campuses—and colleges' response to those incidents—affect black-student enrollment? At risk are colleges’ and universities’ reputations as champions of diversity, as well as black students’ academic success.
According to data provided by American University, the percentage of black freshmen accepting AU’s offers of admission increased from 33 percent last year to 38 percent this year, continuing an upward trend for the third consecutive enrollment cycle. Notably, the banana and noose incident occurred in May after many high-school seniors, like Gray, had finalized which college to attend. To date, AU reports applications from black students for the fall 2018 semester are up 6.5 percent from that for the current semester. However, the full impact of last month’s event on black students’ decision to enroll has yet to crystallize.
In a prepared statement, Teresa Flannery, AU’s vice president of communication, said the university sought to address last spring’s racist episode “directly and promptly” with current and prospective students. Among the actions taken were a schoolwide community meeting and a webinar the first week of May for new students and families to address their worries. AU similarly held a town hall meeting after the confederate posters appeared in late September. “Though we have not found the effects of these events to be reflected in enrollment and retention, that does not mean we believe there were no negative effects,” Flannery wrote. “Certainly, we are concerned about the effects on students’ sense of belonging … and on their sense of safety and wellness.” While it’s hard to say whether AU has, compared to other universities, witnessed unusually high rates of racism on campus, the fact that it’s experienced particularly high-profile incidents makes it a case study worth analyzing.
In Gray’s observation, AU’s challenge is in translating the concern for black students into substantive action. “The administration did a really good job [at September’s town hall] … acting empathetic towards our situation,” Gray noted. But for her, too little has changed in the days since: “All I've seen are I give you my condolences, I feel bad for you, but what I want to see is … [visible change on] these issues of racism on campus.”
Others share her frustration. Sarah Pascarella, a Boston-based writer and editor who graduated from AU in 2000, points to racism at AU dating back two decades. During the 1996-97 school year, the school’s student newspaper was accused of racism against a black student-government candidate after it cited a “fear” that she would only cater to certain students in its endorsement of her opponent. When the young woman protested, her letter-to-the-editor was published above a comic containing monkeys. Pascarella, like Gray, was a freshman at the time. “As an alumna, I'm appalled at what black students are experiencing at American University,” said Pascarella, who’s white. “Same as in the late ‘90s, the university has much work to do to ensure these incidents are not tolerated, and that all students feel safe and welcome.”
Still, the degree to which racist acts adversely affect student enrollment remains an open question. A historic look at dramatic, high-profile events on and near college campuses offers an interesting point of comparison. The May 1970 Kent State University shootings—in which members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd killing students protesting the Vietnam War—caused a “tremendous blow to the reputation of the school,” according to an article on a student-news website, and that fall’s enrollment declined.