A clear vision of justice by students at Western Kentucky University

Americans have short memories, which is a blessing when it saves us from being torn apart like some cultures by ancient grudges, but also a curse when we’re oblivious to injustices that have long and tangled roots.

The Student Government Association of Western Kentucky University earns an A-plus for its clear vision of how this country’s history of racial oppression still shackles and enslaves. The student leaders are calling on their university to make education even more of an equalizing force. We hope their plea is heard beyond the Hilltop and throughout higher education.

While national media have seized on the students’ call for racial reparations in the form of free tuition, the resolution, approved by a 19-10 vote earlier this month, addresses several trends that are pulling public universities away from their original democratizing mission and instead reinforcing race and class privilege.

For example, “the ‘arms race’ for merit aid” puts low-income and minority students at a disadvantage, according to the resolution, which asks for a task force to consider “test-optional admissions and geographically-weighted admissions.” Also, at a time when student financial aid no longer covers basic needs, “the marginalized student population” needs more help.

Many universities are rethinking the role of standardized tests in admissions and aid; after all, affluent families pay for expensive test prep courses to boost scores which many students can’t afford. The University of Kentucky is in the process of shifting its institutional financial aid from merit-based to need-based, in hopes more students will be able to afford to stay long enough to graduate. And New York recently approved free college tuition for students from middle-class families.

The WKU students say the underrepresentation of people of color in the tenured faculty and administration sends a message to black students that they are undervalued and teaches white students that people of color belong in the lowest levels of white-led organizations. Another good point. None of Kentucky’s public universities, other than the traditionally black Kentucky State, have ever been led by a black president.

Student leaders who backed the resolution say they knew free tuition would be a non-starter but they wanted to spark a conversation. In that they have succeeded. Here’s hoping that conversation sparks real change.