As many have taken to the streets in months of protests in response to the deaths of Black people at the hands of police, Columbia professors and students participated in an informal strike across higher education to draw attention to racial violence and police brutality.
Conceived by Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania professor, the Scholar Strike was inspired by players in the NBA and WNBA, as well as football player Colin Kaepernick—all of whom have engaged in wildcat strikes most recently following the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Although the University has not released a statement addressing the strike, select professors and students have chosen to participate. While many acknowledged the importance of its message, some pointed out the institutional changes that are yet to be made and that the strike does not directly affect.
The strike fell on the first and second days of Columbia’s fall semester, and was explicitly “designed to raise awareness of and prompt action against racism, policing, mass incarceration and other symptoms of racism’s toll in America,” according to the Scholar Strike website. Over 600 professors across the country have chosen to participate, with many using class time to discuss the issues of racial injustice that have reinvigorated in the American public over the last several months.
Kathryn Johnston, professor of astronomy and chair of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Committee on Equity and Diversity, said that she participated in the Scholar Strike to acknowledge national calls for racial justice that predate even recent months of protests.
“[The strike] is about a call for discussion, a call for recognition, society is demanding that recognition, so it’s very timely but there are many people who have been making that call before,” Johnston said.
The strike aimed to disseminate information about and take a stance against systemic racism in all areas of society, while the movement has in particular interrogated how universities reinforce anti-Black structures. Samuel Roberts, a Columbia associate professor of history, noted that universities do not hold themselves to the same level of scrutiny as they do their academic work.
“Universities represent themselves as kind of these tabernacles of pure knowledge and where we teach students about how to live the good life, but then universities quite often don’t understand or choose to ignore how they are complicit in some of these systems of repression,” Roberts said.
Ultimately, Roberts said the two-day suspension of classes emphasizes the role that higher administration has in creating change, starting with campus policing. Public Safety, supported by the watchful eyes of student vigilantes, has been scrutinized for targeting Black students and residents and contributing to the overpolicing of West Harlem.
“Universities can and do play a role in this, you look at the issues of many campuses, the issue of campus policing–clearly universities like Columbia and Barnard have a role and responsibility in that,” Roberts said.
Amogha Sahu, a graduate student and teacher’s assistant in the philosophy department, said he took part in the Scholar Strike by using class to discuss issues of racial violence guided by texts from Black philosophers.
Sahu said the strike was open to interpretation, meaning instructors wishing to participate could discuss racial injustice in America in whichever way they chose. A drawback he recognized of the fluidity was how the strike’s lack of direct focus could impact its ability to make tangible differences in higher education.
“I can only imagine that for the strike as a whole, this kind of massive variety of responses and the level of discretions people have to respond how they want can’t be helpful for the achievement of very specific things because it does seem to dilute people’s time and energy,” Sahu said.
Roberts said that he ultimately agrees with those who chose to participate in the Scholar Strike, though he questions whether it can be considered a strike by definition.
“I’m not sure you can really call it a strike because it has a definitive end to it–--a strike means to withhold your labor until you get what you want or at least until some sort of resolution has been arrived at,” Roberts said. “That’s not what this is, precisely.”
While several professors of Fayola Fair, TC ’21, participated in the strike, Fair ultimately found that it was still out of touch with students' specific “on-the-ground” calls for changes within their universities.
“The Scholar Strike is only an entry point,” Fair said. “Awareness is only the beginning--we need to center tangible actions and changes that directly address racism and anti-Blackness.”