diversity

College leaders often deny racial tensions at their own institutions (essay)

A recent survey by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup of college and university presidents reveals that while 84 percent of university leaders believe race relations on their own campuses are either “excellent” or “good,” less than 25 percent thought so about race relations on other campuses in 2015-16. The percentage of presidents who assessed their own campus racial climate as “good” or “excellent” and elsewhere as not, increased from the previous 2014-15 survey.

Yet this past academic year was marked by numerous high-profile protests at colleges and universities across the country. At the University of Mississippi, for example, students demanded and won the removal of the Mississippi state flag from campus grounds. At the University of Missouri, student protesters helped force the resignation of both the system president and chancellor of the main campus. Student protests at Brown University led to the president’s promise to devote more than $100 million to diversity and inclusion efforts on her campus.

How is it possible that in a period increasingly defined by the resurgence of nationwide protests across campuses, college and university leaders can deny or minimize racism at their own institutions?

In late December 2015, we asked colleagues across the country to send us their institution’s responses to nationwide student protests against racism and discrimination. We sought publicly available messages posted to university websites, shared through campuswide email distributions or statements to local, state and national press. We were interested in what we have coined the post-Mizzou effect, believing that the high-profile case at the University of Missouri would provide an opportunity for college and university leaders to confirm what the aforementioned survey found: that while other campuses are embroiled in racial conflict, their own communities were safe. All told, we collected nearly 70 responses from leaders of institutions that ranged from small liberal arts colleges to large research institutions.

An analysis of those responses reveals that while college and university campuses may each be distinct spaces, they rely upon familiar tropes, or frames, to communicate beliefs about their own campus racial climate as it compares to others. For example, nearly every person who responded declared that race relations on their campus are good, much improved compared to previous years, or that the institution is taking significant steps to make things better. No response made mention of failed efforts or existing racial conflict.

On the one hand, that is not surprising. University leaders are often asked to help fund-raise and need to be adept at convincing private citizens, public officials and certainly alumni that their campus is a good investment. On the other, given the sheer number of campus protests nationwide, as well as the enormous news media coverage that followed them, we find it hard to believe that every institution we sampled is a utopia for race relations.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has a crowdsourced list of more than 100 campus racial incidents dating back to 2011, and FBI data shows that more than 780 hate crimes took place on college and university campuses in 2013. Meanwhile, by the end of 2015, student protesters had issued written or verbal demands at nearly 80 colleges and universities.

Nevertheless, nearly half of our sample contained explicit commitments from college and university leaders to “diversity,” “inclusion” or “equity.” Some marked their efforts as enduring, woven into the fabric of their institution. Brandeis University, for example, claimed its commitment is “lasting,” while Virginia Commonwealth University declared its commitment is “unrelenting.” Other institutional leaders promised their communities that the events across the nation would produce new commitments. At Duke University, for example, leadership declared that “continued campus dialogue” would occur in 2016, sparked by the “national debate about issues around race, diversity and inclusion.” Still other college and university leaders chose to downplay or minimize any potential racial conflict at their institutions. At Georgia State University, for example, leadership touted its national recognition in “The Washington Post for our commitment to diversity.”

Yet a deeper analysis of the various responses reveals that, in many cases, commitment functioned as a way for institutions to distance themselves from the racial conflict taking place elsewhere and/or deny racial tension on their own campus. For example, the same day that hundreds of students gathered to raise awareness about experiences of racism at Columbia University, its president declared in an email to the campus community that the university's commitment to addressing racial inclusion there and elsewhere was “deep.” Likewise, four days after students rallied against a “climate of antiblackness” at the University of California, Irvine, the institution's leadership proclaimed that that the continuing diversity activities and dialogues on that campus reinforced its “commitment to sustaining and supporting a diverse community.” Moreover, the Black Student Union had filed a letter with a number of demands for improving the campus racial climate earlier in the year.

As scholars who study race and racism, we are concerned that the public messaging of campus racial climates by college and university leaders is deeply entrenched within the larger ideologies of colorblindness and diversity. In the 21st century, racism has been caricatured as extreme bigotry, often directed at an individual or group of individuals, by another. Yet a significant body of sociological research shows that contemporary racism is much less overt and often comes in the form of downplaying or minimizing existing racial disparities. Colleges and universities, for example, will often tout their creation of an Office for Diversity and Inclusion as evidence of their deep commitment to promoting racial inclusion, while their leadership and senior faculty ranks remain overwhelmingly white (and male).

On college campuses, as in every corner of our society, pretending that race, racial inequality and racism do not exist is not the same thing as working actively to effect social change in these spaces. As faculty members at three different universities, when we embarked on this project, we did so because the race-related communications and responses coming from our own institutions were, given our experience, quite out of the ordinary from administrations -- rare indeed are communiqués that even come close to discussing race and racism.

Colleges and universities, the vast majority which are historically white, are spaces that are rife with racial conflict, but not typically discussed -- whether in the dorm, the classroom, the department or the halls of administration. We believe the events at institutions like the University of Missouri represent the tip of an iceberg and reveal only a small part of the racial animosity that has pervaded campuses for generations of students, faculty members, staff members and administrators. What encouraged this collective administrative response across dozens of colleges and universities to the tip of that iceberg is unclear. What is clear from our initial research is that this response, in its institutional inertia, appears to quickly wish to push the tip back underwater.

David L. Brunsma is a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech University. His Twitter handle is @brunsma. David G. Embrick is an associate professor of sociology at the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. His Twitter handle is @dgembrick. James M. Thomas is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi. His Twitter handle is @Insurgent_Prof.

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Average ACT scores drop as more people take the test

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Large gaps remain evident when looking at average scores by racial and ethnic group.

Court's decision on U.S. transgender policy could threaten other Title IX rules

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Federal court ruling on Obama administration guidance on use of school facilities by transgender students could clear the way for a challenge to the Education Department's 2011 letter on campus sexual assault.

Sorority Video Criticized for Lack of Diversity

It's common for sorority recruitment videos, with their increasingly lavish production values and imagery, to go viral. One widely shared video -- featuring hot air balloon rides, members performing yoga on rocks and soaring drone footage -- drew attention earlier this month after some estimated that it could have cost as much as $400,000 to produce (the sorority says it only cost "a few thousand dollars").

The latest video to gain such notoriety is quaint in comparison, consisting only of Alpha Delta Pi members at the University of Texas at Austin gathered in their house's doorway and singing the sorority's chant. But it has led to criticism familiar to sororities and their recruitment videos: there appears to be little diversity among its members.

The original video has since been removed.

Sara Kennedy, a spokeswoman for UT, said in a statement that while sororities are independent organizations, the university is committed to diversity. "All our staff are directly and actively engaged in promoting and creating a welcoming and inclusive environment, working with our students through development and leadership programming, advising, and organizational support," Kennedy said.

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Advocacy Groups Seek Data on Student Debt, Racial Inequality

The National Consumer Law Center sent a letter to Education Secretary John King today asking the Department of Education to track the relationship between student loan debt and racial inequality. The letter follows efforts by the group to obtain the release of data on how federal debt collection practices are affecting minority student borrowers in particular.

It was signed by 39 other legal aid, civil rights and public advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Institute for College Access and Success, and the Center for Responsible Lending.

“It is unacceptable that, for nearly a decade, the department has known that student loan debt disproportionately harms borrowers of color, and despite this knowledge, has failed to even track this problem, let alone address the issue,” said Persis Yu, director of National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project.

Under King, the department has taken steps to add more consumer protections for student loan borrowers, including the creation of a Student Aid Enforcement unit. But the groups who signed on to the letter say having data on race and student debt is needed to be sure that new protections are benefiting all borrowers.

The NCLC earlier this year filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit along with the ACLU and the Massachusetts ACLU seeking data on racial impacts of firms collecting federal student debt. The department said in response to a FOIA request that it was not keeping data responsive to the issue.

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Anger at Southern Maine in Response to Racist Slurs

A student at the University of Southern Maine, Nimco M. Mohamed, has attracted considerable attention on Facebook with posts describing an interaction at the university library. She wrote of being called racial slurs and insults suggesting that she "return to my country," which she said were directed at her as a black Muslim woman. In particular, however, she faulted the response of the university when she called the campus police. She described being asked if she had done anything to "provoke" the man -- a question she characterized as "victim blaming." Many on Facebook have praised her, although she notes she has also received racist emails since speaking out.

The university responded with its own statement on Facebook, saying the university deeply regrets the harassment Mohamed experienced. But the statement also defended the university's response. "Please know in this particular incident, USM acted in a manner singly focused on protecting the safety and security of our student," the statement said.

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Vanderbilt pays back donation from Daughters of Confederacy so it can remove "Confederate" from building name

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In 2005, a court barred Vanderbilt from removing "Confederate" from the facade of a building, citing the terms of a gift. The university is returning the gift at today's value -- and will now remove the word.

Why 'U.S. News' should rank colleges and universities according to diversity (essay)

U.S. News & World Report, that heavyweight of the college rankings game, recently hosted a conference focused partially on diversity in higher education. I did an interview for the publication prior to the forum and spoke on a panel at the event.

I was happy to do it. As dean of one of the country’s most diverse engineering schools, I am particularly invested in these issues. My panel focused on how to help women and underrepresented minority students succeed in STEM fields, and I’m grateful to U.S. News for leading the discussion.

But the publication, for all its noble intentions, could do more to follow through where it counts. Diversity is currently given no weight in the magazine's primary university and disciplinary rankings, and it’s time for that to change. As U.S. News goes, so goes higher education.

Universities love to bemoan rankings, but we can’t ignore them. Our public images are shaped in part by top 10 lists and glossy magazine features. At my university and others, we encourage prospective students to consider how well colleges fit their goals, yet we never hesitate to brag about our standings in the rankings.

Prospective freshmen, transfer students and graduate students examine them, of course, but so do parents, alumni, professors and members of the news media. At least one or two other organizations have tried to rank some universities along these lines. But U.S. News, perhaps the most influential among ranking entities, has not included diversity in its overall quality rankings, and it is missing an opportunity to use its powers for good.

Enhancing diversity is not about political correctness. Studies show diversity enriches students’ experiences and is an indicator of quality. A 2013 report from Princeton University cited research on the benefits of diverse environments, such as greater civic engagement. A diverse environment is consistent with the core mission of a university.

U.S. News rankings at the undergraduate level consider factors such as faculty compensation, class sizes and even alumni giving rates. Graduate rankings look at research expenditures, GRE scores and faculty quality. Diversity is not given any weight, which implies that a top-tier education doesn’t require it. If U.S. News and similar organizations started paying attention to diversity, universities would start paying attention, because -- rightly or wrongly -- these rankings drive behavior.

Almost a year ago, about 100 of my fellow engineering deans and I signed a letter pledging to enhance our commitments to diversity. Many of us signed because we believe diversity is important, enhances the quality of our programs, and is part of our educational missions.

Plenty of less-heralded colleges already boast racially diverse student bodies. Community colleges in particular are unsung heroes. Nearly two-thirds of California’s community college students are members of minorities, while about half of Texas’ and Florida’s are.

One U.S. News list, which earns less attention than others, grades institutions only on diversity, and it looks very different from the publication’s more famous rankings. Yet a separate diversity ranking is not sufficient. It must be part of the overall quality evaluation.

Some institutions might argue that the demographics that comprise their typical applicant pool would make this unfair. But diversity has many dimensions -- race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and more. Adding diversity to rankings criteria is an essential component to showing how well we value inclusive excellence in higher education.

No region has any particular advantage with regard to gender diversity, for example, and that is just as important as ethnic diversity, particularly in STEM. Already existing ratings criteria are filled with biases that benefit colleges and universities regionally (such as Silicon Valley institutions having advantages with research expenditures and private colleges with resources having advantages over publics). Why should we have to bend over backward to level the playing field with respect to diversity? If diversity is a national imperative (and it is), colleges and universities should just have to adjust, or they can focus their efforts on more achievable non-diversity-related ratings criteria.

The diversity metrics currently used by U.S. News offer a helpful start. Instead of focusing on which universities enroll the most minority students, they examine how likely students are to encounter members of different racial or ethnic groups. What U.S. News might do next is create more comprehensive composite scores that consider female and minority enrollment, retention and graduation rates, or even faculty diversity.

There are many ways to approach the issue, and organizations that rank programs should develop criteria to ensure fairness. Whatever rubric is used, though, factoring diversity into rankings will establish an imperative: attract and retain students from diverse backgrounds or risk university reputations.

If universities wish to remain relevant -- if they want to be more than job mills for the next class of white-collar workers -- they need to tackle the problems facing the wider world. We have to acknowledge the value of diversity and stake our reputations on it.

Some institutions already do this. But if U.S. News and others that rank us change the equation, plenty of other universities will start paying attention as well.

Gary S. May is dean of the college of engineering and the Southern Company Chair at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Studies show continued racial gaps in educational attainment and public ambivalence about the issue

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New study documents continuing gaps (and some progress) in educational attainment of black and Latino students compared to white and Asian students. Another study suggests most people aren’t that worried about the issue.

The sex-negativity mind-set in academe (essay)

The many interconnections of sexuality with life in and around universities should concern all of us, regardless of orientation, relationship status or gender identity, argues Jeana Jorgensen.

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