Dr. Ellen Berrey studies the spread of student-led anti-racism protest

July 10, 2020 by Sherri Klassen

Professor Ellen Berrey’s newly SSHRC-funded research project, “Student Protests and University Responses in the United States and Canada, 2012-2018,” with Dr. Alex Hanna (Google, Inc.) examines where, when, why, and how students protest and how university administrations respond. Her goal is to identify patterns in protest mobilization, the diffusion (or spread) of protest, and universities’ management of protest in the United States and Canada between 2012 to 2018. The study also analyzes the competing rhetorical claims made by protesters and administrators, to understand how each side socially constructs the issues at hand.

Her study focuses in particular on student anti-racism protest, although it also investigates the full range of issues raised in campus protests, from fossil fuel divestment to labour strikes. Berrey first became interested in the diffusion of anti-racism student activism in 2015, when students mobilized a wave of anti-racism protests across at least 100 college and university campuses in the United States and Canada. Coinciding with the Black Lives Matter movement, these protests were led by students of colour and drew attention to their experiences of racism within higher education, such as interpersonal hostility from white students and administrators’ inaction. Like all social movements, those mobilizations shared broad goals across campuses and combined those goals with local interests and acts of activism shaped by their distinctive institutional contexts. University administrations reacted in a variety of ways, from bringing in campus and local police to initiating long-term policy changes. The presidential election of Donald Trump prompted another wave of student anti-racism activism, although issues of immigration and the “Muslim Ban” appeared to be at the forefront. Under his presidency, White supremacists organized a smaller number of campus mobilizations, which were opposed by student-led counterprotests. Professor Berrey’s project promises to provide a mapping of these complex dynamics and universities’ strategies of managing them.

Professor Berrey and Dr. Hanna received a SSHRC Insight Development grant in 2017 to begin the study and then, this summer, a SSHRC Insight Grant to complete it. With this funding, she will finish constructing the Student & Campus Protest Events Dataset, a dataset of student protests as reported in American and Canadian campus newspapers, and then will amalgamate it with five existing datasets that contain information on universities’ organizational characteristics, Black Lives Matter protests, and social media. Creating the dataset is a major undertaking, requiring a large team of undergraduate and graduate students. The process involves applying a machine learning system designed by Hanna to identify potentially relevant newspaper articles, then handcoding those articles to identify each protest and relevant details about it. Ultimately, Professor Berrey will use the data to provide a comprehensive overview of the locations, diversity, and diffusion of student protest and patterns in administrations’ reactions in the Black Lives Matter and early Trump eras.

Professor Berrey is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, with teaching responsibilities on the UT Mississauga (UTM) Campus. She is also an affiliated scholar of the American Bar Foundation. Her research focuses on race and diversity, inequality, organizations, social movements, and culture. She has published various scholarly articles in journals such as Sociological Science, Law & Society Review, and Theory & Society amongst many others. She is the author of two books, both published by the University of Chicago Press: The Enigma of Diversity: The Language of Race and the Limits of Racial Justice and Rights on Trial: How Workplace Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality. Her books have been recognized with numerous awards, including the prestigious Herbert Jacob Book Prize of the Law & Society Association and multiple awards from the American Sociological Association.

article written with input from Professor Berrey.