The University of York, in Britain, has apologized for a press release announcing that it would celebrate "International Men's Day" this week. Manycritics said that the university's support for the day suggested a lack of awareness of the many inequities facing women in academe. The university's apology said that "the main focus of gender equality work should continue to be on the inequalities faced by women, and in particular the underrepresentation of women in the professoriate and senior management."
The long-simmering tensions related to race, ethnicity, inclusion and diversity in higher education have reached the boiling point nationally. The headlines regarding protests and demands, not only by students but also by faculty and staff members, at Claremont McKenna College, Ithaca College, the University of Missouri, Yale University and elsewhere have put such issues firmly on the agendas of boards of trustees everywhere, if they were not there already.
And those recent controversies probably have added a sense of urgency to the conversations. While some boards have been giving these matters some attention forsome time, we have now reached a tipping point where all boards must step up to partner in leadership with the president.
Regardless of trustees’ personal or political views on affirmative action and other policies, boards have an important role to play in their fiduciary as well as strategic roles with respect to race and inclusion at their institutions and within the state systems that they govern. The following are some specific steps that boards should consider. They should:
Ask for numbers and climate data. Boards should request meaningful data related to race, ethnicity and socioeconomic diversity; discuss the data and trends over the past three to five years; and understand the implications of what they learn.
Beyond the data on enrollment, retention and graduation rates by race and ethnicity, Pell eligibility, and gender, boards should ask for more granular data to identify meaningful trends. In what degree programs are students of different races and ethnicities enrolling? How well are different demographics of students progressing across these various degree programs?
For instance, are white students succeeding in STEM at different rates than minority students? Does a higher percentage of minority students leave after junior year as compared to other types of students? Or do those students not return as sophomores at different rates than majority students? What about admissions and yield patterns by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status?
Another type of data to collect relates to campus climate, which differs from asking for information that the institution already has. The methodologies often include surveys, focus groups and interviews. Climate studies may be a significant undertaking, yet they can yield keen insights because they allow personal stories to emerge. They help leaders understand the actual experience of students, faculty and staff in ways that numbers alone cannot.
Ensure a comprehensive diversity plan. In addition to the need to understand current and emerging issues, boards should ensure that the institution has an intentional plan to encourage campus diversity and equity for students, faculty and staff. Such questions include: Is the plan appropriate? Does it address the right elements? Is it consistent with other institutional goals and priorities, such as those outlined in the strategic plan? Are the milestones and metrics sensible? How realistic is the timeline? Does it clarify who is responsible for what?
Hold the president accountable. A primary responsibility of boards is to ensure progress on institutional milestones and goals, and they do this by holding the president accountable. In turn, the board should be assured that the president is holding his or her staff and the faculty accountable for progress, as well. By being explicit about their expectations, the board sends an important signal that it too cares about equity in a sustained and systematic manner.
That said, any new goals must work in concert with other presidential priorities. Unrealistic goals and a constantly changing set of priorities do little to advance the institution or provide an effective North Star for progress.
Support the president. When the institution faces difficult and challenging issues -- as those involving race, diversity and inclusivity frequently are -- a board will also often need to counsel and support the president. Many presidents have and will come under fire for lack of perceived progress on objectives related to diversity and equity. While some deserve the criticisms they receive, others are and have been working diligently on this agenda.
Given the sense of frustration on many campuses, the way forward is often unclear, with no road map. There are no simple, proven strategies or silver-bullet solutions. If progress on diversity were easy, higher education -- and the nation -- would be farther along on these lasting challenges.
Acknowledge complexity. Change in the academy can be difficult and seem slow, much to the frustration of some trustees. The complex and often contentious issues of diversity and inclusion are adaptive challenges, not technical problems with quick fixes or clear answers. In fact, treating these issues as technical problems in order to apply a tried solution may only exacerbate them.
Instead, boards must work with the president, staff, faculty and students to examine the issues, acknowledge the complexity of views of multiple stakeholders, think critically about them, define what can be done and take steps forward -- in some cases boldly, and in others more incrementally.
Make sure a campus protest plan is in place. Headline-grabbing protests have occurred at a handful of campuses and are likely to unfold at others. It is impossible to say which institutions might face significant protests. Boards should help ensure that their campuses are prepared for possible protests and know their role if such protests emerge. Intentional conversations with campus leaders can help articulate a strategy and minimize any risks to people, property and reputations.
Develop a media strategy specifically for the board. An effective approach includes clarifying questions with the board such as: Who speaks for the board? Who crafts the talking points? What do rank-and-file board members say or not say if they are approached by the media?
Any communication strategies also need to attend to social media. How are the institution and the board monitoring it? What are the means of communication that the board should pursue or try to minimize? What are the priority outlets where the board and institution should focus their attention? How agile can such media strategies be if the platforms shift, from, say, Twitter to Instagram?
Discuss lessons learned from other industries, fields or sectors. Many trustees are highly effective leaders in their own industries and fields. They may have lessons and insights to share from outside of higher education that can help campus leaders.
For instance, many corporations and nonprofit organizations have made tremendous strides related to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Others may have lessons to share from failed efforts that can also be illuminating. Boards should not shy away from serving as counselors when they have insights to share.
At the same time, savvy boards know that not all ideas from corporate or other settings transfer smoothly into higher education. Discovering what applies well or not can only happen through a candid dialogue between the board and the administration.
Look in the mirror. Most boards themselves have a lot of work to do regarding their own diversity. According to the most recent survey of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, the racial and ethnic diversity of boards has not increased significantly over many years. Thus, boards should consider the ways in which issues of diversity, inclusion, voice, power and perspective play out in their own boardrooms.
Key questions to ask include: How diverse is the board? To what extent does it mirror the campus or larger community? What are the experiences of minority board members? Do they feel their voices matter consistently? How well has the board retained minority members? Do they hold positions of board leadership?
Such conversations can be difficult to frame and hold, much like what is occurring on college campuses -- yet they are essential for the board to have. People on the campus must know the board is as serious about addressing such issues within itself as it is within the institution.
Build the campus culture by design, not default. Values matter greatly in the academy. In their dialogues with key stakeholders, boards should always think about the campus culture they want to build and the values they hold most dear and want to perpetuate. Those values should be pervasive throughout the campus -- so embedded in the culture (part of the ethos of the place) that they define all interactions and are defended at all costs. Boards should spend time learning how students experience the climate and culture, what shapes the student experience, and whether that differs across diverse groups and individuals.
Listen to students, faculty and staff. Trustees often are most comfortable in a problem-solving mode. But what may better serve their institutions is simply to be able to listen and empathize with students, withholding immediate judgment. Boards must remember that the heart of the matter is about students, their experience and their success. Moving too fast to solutions without understanding the nuance of the issues may provide a short-term sense of progress but create more significant challenges in the future. Building bridges between the board and students and other groups on the campus may be more important now than it has been in the last decade.
In sum, the challenges of race/ethnicity and equity are longstanding in the academy. Ten years ago, the American Council on Education released a report aimed at new presidents about leadership strategies for campus diversity,Leadership Strategies for Advancing Campus Diversity. The insights still resonate today, because unfortunately the challenges remain even if the stakes are higher now. In addition to the work of administrators, faculty and staff, board members have the potential to add value in creating a campus culture that is truly open, welcoming, respectful, diverse and inclusive.
The College of New Rochelle, which has an undergraduate liberal arts college for women and graduate and professional programs that serve women and men, is considering going completely coeducational. The college sent a letter and an FAQ to alumnae, seeking input. The materials make points similar to those offered by other women's colleges that have decided to admit men, with an emphasis on the very small proportion of high school girls who will consider women's colleges.
Such shifts at some women's colleges have led to major protests. Alumnae have created a Facebook page, and it is clear many of them are disappointed by the shift, but also that many fear for the financial future of the college as currently operated.
This past Friday morning on Facebook, an English professor at the University of Missouri and former doctoral student of mine, John Evelev, made what he says will be his last post about the protests against racism at the University of Missouri. Those protests culminated in the resignation of the system president and the Columbia campus chancellor -- and then led to a horrible number of overtly racist counterprotests and threats of violence against black students, faculty members and even ROTC members.
Evelev has written before about the climate of racism that the students detected and that now pervades the campus. In this post, he extrapolates from their concerns and their protests about racism to the very idea of protest itself, to the concept of participation and civic action in a democracy.
What Evelev wrote is so important to the future of democracy and of higher education that everyone needs to take it in. He has given me permission to quote him here: “While most people see this as simply or exclusively a protest against racism, the proper way to see this is as a pro-democracy movement. Universities and public universities in particular used to be democratic spaces, spaces of civic representation in American life. Faced with decreased public funding, they are being run more like businesses with leaders who are unresponsive or downright dismissive of students and faculty. The student protesters, along with the faculty and administrators who worked to remove Tim Wolfe, UM system president, and R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the Columbia campus, were not just fighting racism, but fighting for university leadership that was democratic, responsive to the community, that recognized the university is not just an institution with a really bad profit stream. It is easy enough for the right-wing to dismiss the goals of the students as ‘getting rid of racism,’ but what they really don't want is an American population that actually seeks representation in their institutions, whether education or political. If faculty want shared governance, they are ‘living in an ivory tower.’ We should all want more involvement, more stake-ownership in the important public institutions of our society, not less.”
The students were protesting against racism, a climate of racism, and specific racist acts. They were also protesting against being silenced, being rendered invisible -- which, of course, is one of the most devastating, debilitating and definitional features of racism. The students were also advocating for the ability to have a voice, to make oneself heard. If anyone is silenced in a democracy, we no longer have democracy. That is true particularly of race, especially at this historical moment, as these students have shown us.
It is also true about democracy in general. What I believe John Evelev is saying here is that, in their protest, these students represent the highest aspirations of all education, higher education and public education. Indeed, they represent, as he so beautifully states it, the aspirations of a public in democracy itself.
We have seen so many attempts to suppress democracy and participation in public life -- from voting rights being curtailed to Supreme Court rulings making corporations into “people,” thus allowing businesses and the vastly wealthy to have inordinate power in shaping democracy. President Jimmy Carter has said we are no longer a democracy but an oligarchy, and many social scientists have said that, by definition, he is correct. Is this the society we want?
We cannot, as a nation, allow this to happen. We must reverse this terrible tendency. And the university is the place where this re-energizing of an idea of a “public” must begin. The university is where young people who are minors learn to become full active adults. If universities were only about vocational training, learning how to participate in a democracy would be a secondary factor. And for the vast numbers of full adults returning for skills redevelopment, this certainly may be true.
But we in America have opted to make higher education the place where we send those who are just reaching their majority: these are our children, our nation's future. And we hope that, when they graduate, they will not only know more about a subject, field, discipline and vocation. We also hope and believe that they will be ready to be fully responsible adults, productive members of a society.
In a democracy, that means participation. That means standing up for one's beliefs -- in a way that is civil, responsible, meaningful and true. That means learning to think clearly and articulate one's ideas. It means being able to write eloquently and express one's opinions persuasively. It means knowing not just a subject matter but why that subject matters in the world.
And sometimes it means protests -- especially when an open car, in which the president of your university rides, drives into a stadium in an official capacity and moves forward into a group of protesters, possibly even, according to one accusation, clipping one. Throughout this, the president sits in the car silently. These are his students, at his university. And they are black students. In Missouri, a state already riven by the racial incidents in Ferguson.
There is a lot of talk about whether or not the president should have resigned. It is his prerogative to resign. No one forced that decision. I don't know enough to comment.
What I do know for sure, about any university president, is that he or she must set the moral compass of the institution. Silence, in the car and in the aftermath, is not setting an example, is not modeling public discourse, is not addressing a problem. In view of that, it is not a surprise that Wolfe resigned. Not because of protesters, but because their protest threw into such vivid light what he himself had not addressed for over a month of a silence.
He isn't just anyone. He is the president, the leader. His actions and his words represent the university. He embodies, in actual and symbolic power, what higher education and democracy are for.
Was he afraid to speak? We don't know.
In some ways, the resignation is as baffling as the silence leading up to it. Open, public, intelligent discourse -- from the beginning and with wise and attentive and concerned leadership of the president -- might have been far better for everyone. Now two senior leaders will be replaced with two other senior leaders. What does that solve? Replacing one president with another does not change the conditions of the university. Replacing one administrator with another does not redress the problem of racism.
Leadership change changes leadership. Period. Open, strategic, participatory democratic attention is required to identify, address and solve a systemic problem. Change will only happen if whoever comes into the positions is committed to a better way. Such commitment is hardly a foregone conclusion.
That leads to a larger issue, one that Evelev is pointing to because it is a condition of higher education throughout the United States now. University presidents everywhere are under tremendous pressures these days, especially at public universities, to speak certain kinds of carefully guarded and protective and screened truths or be faced with trustees who want their resignation. More and more presidents are being chosen by such boards, sometimes without real support from the faculty members, students, staff, alumni or other administrators. The case of the University of Iowa is especially pertinent here.
But it is a pattern, an alarming one. President after president is being pressured to respond to politics, not to the mission and the calling of higher education. And I don't mean the small-p politics of student protests but the larger party politics of governors, trustees and funders who have ideological motivations and corporate ones, too.
Higher education must be about the free circulation of ideas, about genuine and responsible expression of ideas, about public discourse at its highest and its most urgent, about debate and dissent conducted in public as well. If there is no room for democratic discourse at a university, then our society is, quite simply, sunk.
Indeed, since John Evelev’s original Facebook posting, the terrible violence in Paris has given new meaning to the call for sane, rational, informed discourse in a democratic society. Innocent people have been murdered. And one reason they have been murdered is because terrorists do not want sane, democratic discourse. They seek to feed blind, uninformed panic. Such panic can lead to retribution not just against the guilty (who deserve it) but also against innocent people who can seem (to outsiders) to share characteristics of ethnicity, race or immigrant status with the perpetrators of violence.
Feeding a cycle of unthinking blame laid against the innocent is exactly what terrorists want. We are hearing far too much of this xenophobia already in the tragic response to a terrible tragedy.
And that brings us back, again, to the issue of racism. Attributing guilt to an entire group is, of course, one attribute of racism.
We have bequeathed to this generation the legacy of a frightening, complex world where the solutions are as difficult to understand as the problems. It will be their job, in the future, to solve these problems. There is no more profound mission of the university than to help prepare them for a future where informed democratic discourse and deep and substantive critical thinking are in constant danger of being drowned out by the forces of ignorance, prejudice and violence. It is a formidable challenge. The least we can do is respect the seriousness of the struggle.
Cathy N. Davidson is a distinguished professor and director of the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.
Brown University officials are investigating and apologizing for an incident that took place early Saturday morning in which one of its police officers restrained and put in handcuffs a student from another college who was attending a meeting of Ivy League Latino student leaders. The university has promised to pay for a new gathering of Latino student leaders since the one that was to have taken place was called off amid considerable anger over what happened to the student (identified in local press reports as being from Dartmouth College). Many at Brown say there was no reason he should have been restrained.
A memo to the campus by Russell C. Carey, executive vice president for planning and policy, said, "I deeply regret that this incident occurred," and that the altercation was "heated and physical."
Christina Paxson, president of Brown, sent an email to the campus promising a full investigation. She also said she would "send a letter of apology tonight to the presidents of the institutions who sent delegates to this weekend’s conference, letting them know I am sorry for the pain their students experienced, and of Brown’s commitment to fund another conference for their delegates."
Grand Canyon University, a Christian for-profit institution, announced Friday that it will extend spousal benefits to same-sex partners of employees. A statement announcing the shift stressed that the university continues to believe "that the Bible is clear about marriage being a sacred union between a man and a woman." But the university said that "in this specific instance, GCU is making a conscious choice to maintain its religious beliefs, while respecting and honoring its neighbors, as well as the system of government and laws that exist today, by extending employee benefits to spouses of lawfully married same-sex couples." The statement stressed that Grand Canyon was making the decision itself, and not being forced to change policies. But the American Civil Liberties Union recently threatened to sue Grand Canyon if it did not treat employees in same-sex marriages the same as employees in opposite-sex marriages.
Thursday was also the day for the Million Student March, which led to rallies at many campuses to call for free public higher education, the cancellation of current student debt and a $15 minimum wage.
James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville, has been much criticized (and through a spokeswoman apologized two weeks ago) for posing with his staff wearing stereotypical Mexican clothing and sombreros for a party last month (right). But on Thursday, in a time of heightened scrutiny of college leaders on inclusiveness, he issued a new, personal apology to students and faculty members. He pledged -- by raising new money, not by reallocating -- to provide more funds for financial aid for Latino students and to recruit more Latino faculty members.
He pledged to use his mistake to change the university to be more committed to diversity. "I deeply regret the Halloween costumes worn by my staff and me. We made a mistake wearing a costume that misrepresents the culture of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and does not foster the inclusion and diversity efforts that we have worked hard to build over the past 13 years on our campus," he wrote. "I, and I alone, take full responsibility for this incident. I have prayed for God’s forgiveness, and I ask for your forgiveness as well. We now have an opportunity to use this incident to bring about meaningful changes that will strengthen us as a campus."
Clarion University was forced to call off a student production of the play Jesus in India because of the student actors' racial backgrounds, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Three of the five characters in the play are Indian, but they were to be portrayed in Clarion's production by two white students and a mixed-race student. When Lloyd Suh, the playwright, found out about the casting, he asked the university to assure him that the parts of Indians would be performed only by those of Asian descent. When Clarion said it couldn't make such a commitment, Suh revoked the university's right to perform his work.