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“They just don’t want us here.” These were the searing words of a young African American woman standing nearby, as I watched a rally from the back of a crowd gathered on my campus. Her words caught me off guard, and helped alter my understanding of race relations at Northeastern University, where I was president.

What had begun as a proposal to relocate our university’s African American Institute became a test of our readiness to create special facilities where students who might feel vulnerable on our majority-white campus could count on feeling welcome — “safe spaces,” as these entities are often called.

The difficult conversations that transpired at our urban university may represent more than a need for safe spaces. They provide a cautionary tale about how much work remains for us as a nation to fully embrace the cultural pluralism that has long been central to our identity.

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It was the late 1990s. Like many academic leaders at that time, my senior team and I were eager to increase the diversity of our campus community, especially by enrolling more students of color. In an effort to make Northeastern a more welcoming environment, my predecessors had created two cultural centers, an African American Institute and a Latino/a Cultural Center. Such entities existed at other universities where I had worked, and I thought of them as a fairly standard dimension of campus life in the late 2oth century. I also thought that, like affirmative action, they represented a transitional phenomenon that ought to become less necessary as diverse campus communities became the norm.

Despite my support for our African American Institute, it became my job to propose the demolition of the antiquated facility in which it was housed to make way for badly needed residential construction. We had no intention of eliminating the Institute. On the contrary, our plan was to provide a new and much more attractive facility. Still, our proposal produced a storm of protest. There were rallies and petitions.

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Flyers were circulated, accusing me of racism. Political activists from the neighboring African American community of Roxbury joined the action. So, too, did African American students from other universities in Boston. My assurances that our goal was a better facility were dismissed. Student-leaders were sure we just wanted to get rid of the Institute. Almost no one from the university’s African American community defended our plan.

What I learned from the Institute episode was how easy it is to underestimate the depth of distrust that still exists in our society between the majority-white community and communities of color — and, indeed, between historically dominant white males and multiple groups that have often felt marginalized and diminished.

The issue was not merely the existence of the African American Institute. I used the occasion to suggest that, rather than replicating a culturally specific center in our new buildings — a safe space for one group within our student body — we might better demonstrate our commitment to inclusivity by creating a single, multicultural center that would welcome students from a variety of backgrounds, including international students as well as domestic students of color. This idea, too, was deemed totally unacceptable.

I was not unfamiliar with protests of the kind stirred by our plan to relocate the African American Institute. My entire professional life had been linked to urban issues and urban communities, beginning with work in a model cities program right after graduate school. Still, I was not fully prepared for the level of distrust I encountered from African American students at Northeastern.

That young woman’s comment — “They just don’t want us here” — was uttered more in sadness than in anger, and it rang in my ears. It did not take me long to conclude that promoting the idea of a multicultural institute would only reinforce the belief that our real goal was abolishing the African American Institute altogether.

What I learned from the Institute episode was how easy it is to underestimate the depth of distrust that still exists in our society between the majority-white community and communities of color — and, indeed, between historically dominant white males and multiple groups that have often felt marginalized and diminished. This conclusion was reinforced by “campus climate” surveys showing that students who might be subject to harassment or discrimination in the world beyond the university might also experience something similar at Northeastern.

It became clear that if my goal was to advance the cause of diversity, the only sensible way forward was to build a new center for the African American Institute while continuing to support the Latino/a Cultural Center. Indeed, I also endorsed the creation of a culturally specific center for Asian American students, a similar safe space for LGBT students, and programs specifically for women and for Jewish students. I want to emphasize that these initiatives were not exclusionary; organizers always went out of their ways to welcome students from different backgrounds.

I continue to hope that the kinds of safe spaces we created at Northeastern will one day seem unnecessary. Culturally specific centers may not be helpful now on majority-minority campuses. In fact, some of our students of color had no interest in these facilities. But many did, and the daily news continues to remind us that broad acceptance of diversity remains a work in progress. Perhaps most importantly, the centers helped embolden students to play active roles in campus life and to speak out on issues of special concern from positions of strength — as was clearly the case in the controversy I have described. In my view, these safe spaces not only helped us model the society our country aspires to be but also helped make that aspiration a reality.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

A senior consultant at Maguire Associates, Richard M. Freeland is president emeritus of Northeastern University and a former Massachusetts commissioner of higher education.

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