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A wave of Black students takes presidencies at top-tier universities

Black student body presidents at predominantly white colleges incorporated Covid-19, social justice, anti-Trump positions into their winning platforms
Noah Harris is the first Black male elected student body president of Harvard University.
Noah Harris is the first Black male elected student body president of Harvard University.L. Kasimu Harris / for NBC News

Harvard University undergrad Noah Harris arrived at a Black Lives Matter protest in June in his home state of Mississippi bearing sunglasses, a bandana mask and a “say their names” sign. By summer’s end, he led his classmates in raising $300,000 for Black advocacy and civil rights organizations.

His work grabbed the attention of his fellow Harvard undergrads, who elected him as their first Black male student body president last month. Harris, 20, is a part of a wave of Black student body presidents recently elected at top-tier academic institutions where Black students have been historically underrepresented.

The uptick coincides with the racial and political interlockings of Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and a surge of political polarization on and off college campuses, the Black student presidents said. They added that these issues either influenced how they campaigned or reprioritized their goals once elected.

Harris said he knew that he and his vice president, Jenny Gan, would have to meet this “unprecedented time.” They ran on “building tomorrow’s Harvard” with an emphasis on “diversity, inclusion, health, wellness and student life” aimed at holding “Harvard accountable to its commitment to anti-racism” work and making the most of remote learning.

When they first put together their platform, they planned to advocate for “normal, in-person stuff,” Harris said. But now, getting Harvard to use its influence has become the priority: “When Harvard gets involved, they normally get the outcome they want,” he said, which would include pushing to eradicate chokeholds by police or holding police officers accountable for lethal actions.

He pointed to how Harvard successfully sued the federal government when it attempted to deny international students entrance into the country as an example of what the school’s involvement can accomplish.

Noah Harris is part of a wave of Black student body presidents at major universities.L. Kasimu Harris / for NBC News

Harris said he also wants to tackle creating a remote environment that is as close to the in-person campus community experience as possible. His plans include a program to help students store their dorm room items while they continue school from home, and “closing the gaps in student experiences and advocating to the administration when it needs to be better from an academic standpoint, a student life standpoint and a mental health standpoint.”

Harris is part of a cohort of Black student body presidents at predominantly white institutions across the country. Jason Carroll of Brown University, Danielle Geathers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Naomi Riley of the University of California, Los Angeles all took office in May. Midshipman Sydney Barber is the first Black woman to become brigade commander, the U.S. Naval Academy’s version of a student body president.

“The entire state of America was different when I was running,” Carroll said. “My campaign was before Covid, before George Floyd. The Trump presidency has galvanized people, myself included. It’s all forced and allowed me to put things like housing conditions and general student life stuff on the back burner because that’s not the moment we’re in right now.”

Jason Carroll, student body president of Brown University.Courtesy Jason Carroll

Universities often create “forums and committees and working groups without actually having to listen to Black students. My effort and attention has shifted to how the university interacts with Black students, the Black community in Providence as a whole, and ensuring Black voices are not pushed to the side” Carroll said.

Geathers is the first Black woman to become student body president at MIT.

Geathers and her running mate Yu Jing Chen’s platform was “unity, equity and authenticity,” by boosting the “diverse perspectives and experiences” as a student body.

“I was always focused on diversity and inclusion issues,” Geathers said. “After the summer being really focused on anti-Black racism, I was able to be more unapologetic about now being the time. Most of my efforts go towards one of the biggest initiatives I took on: getting MIT to use one or more Black owned banks.”

Her proposal asks MIT to use OneUnited Bank, the nation’s largest Black-owned, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.-insured bank, to conduct at least 10 percent of its cash deposits.

“If not for the summer and thinking-bigger picture, this wouldn’t have been on my radar. I wouldn’t have adopted the mentality of pushing MIT to take more action.”

Danielle Geathers, student body president of MIT.Courtesy Danielle Geathers

Riley ran on “community, accountability, affordability and accessibility” to mitigate the adverse effect the coronavirus has had on students. Her platform included giving “a seat at the table, and advocating for student needs through policy,” according to her campaign materials.

She said policing is a big issue on UCLA’s campus and Black Lives Matter activity over the summer provided an opportune opening to resurface concerns to the university’s administration.

Riley said that when student leaders previously brought up issues of policing to the administration regarding “overpolicing and a disproportionate targeting of Black and brown students,” their concerns were dismissed or downplayed.

“We used protests during the summer to show this problem was happening here on our campus,” she said. “It helped us get more meetings with the chancellor.”

Naomi Riley, student body president of UCLA.Sidney Cattouse

Riley added that protests across the country pressured the university to provide more resources for Black students.

“The African Student Union accomplished getting a Black resource center. Something we’d been fighting for, for five years was — at the blink of an eye — accomplished,” she said. If UCLA had “the resources to do this all along, why did it take this momentous time?” she added, expressing frustration.

The Black presidents have a group chat and often work together, bonded by their shared experiences of leading their respective student bodies. “It’s the best network to have,” Geathers said. “It’s incredibly supportive. Dealing with Covid and all the racial reckonings of the summer, not too many people — especially people who are not Black student body presidents — can feel that push and pull of wanting to represent your whole student body while acknowledging your identity and being truthful in these hard moments.”

“There’s times when I have no idea how I’m going to write a statement and appease everyone, but we’re all in the same boat. We hop on a Zoom call and are really just there for each other without having to sympathize or empathize because we’re walking in the same shoes,” she added.

Undergraduate presidencies typically last one academic term. But the impact of these presidencies could go beyond their tenure.

“The importance of our elections is the same as having Black leadership anywhere in America,” Kahlil Greene, Yale College’s first Black student body president who left office in September, said. “Having young, gifted Black students leading institutions that, in some cases, are older than the United States is extremely inspiring and symbolic of the Black community’s progress.”

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