On February 24, 2014, The New York Times ran a story titled “Colorblind Notion Aside: Colleges Grapple with Racial Tension,” detailing myriad racial incidents on college campuses. However, according to a new survey by Inside Higher Ed, most college and university presidents don’t think this kind of racial tension is happening on their campuses. According to the IHE survey: “Most presidents (90 percent) say that, generally speaking, the state of race relations on their campus is good.” I was shocked to hear presidents answer in this way. How could this happen?
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Consider these incidents that have taken place on college campuses in the past year:
A student at San Jose State University was tormented and ridiculed with racial slurs and the posting of the Confederate Flag by three students for months.
Black students at Harvard University launched a Tumblr campaign called “I, Too, Am Harvard” to elevate the voices of Black students on campus because they are “unheard.”
Black males at UCLA created a YouTube video titled The Black Bruins detailing the dismal statistics surrounding Black men on the Southern California campus. Likewise, law school students at UCLA have been bringing attention to the discrimination that they face on a daily basis through a social media campaign.
The chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an Asian American woman, experienced racist slurs when she didn’t cancel classes during inclement weather.
Black students at the University of Michigan are protesting the racial climate on campus through both traditional means and social media.
A fraternity at Arizona State University held a party at which white students dressed in "gangsta wear" and drank from hollowed-out watermelons. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to delete an erroneous reference to McDaniel College.)
Given these blatant incidents taking place regularly throughout the nation, let’s run through some possible reasons that college presidents remain positive about the situation on their own campuses:
First, the presidents answering the survey, although responding anonymously, could have been worried about bringing negative attention to their campus if they answered anything less than good. Typically, when racial tensions are high on college campuses, presidents are in damage control mode, tempering how the story is played out in media outlets. Moreover, presidents claim that it is harder to recruit students of color after negative media stories surface.
Second, some of the presidents might actually believe the myth that since the election of Barack Obama (twice) to the presidency of the United States, we live in a postracial world in which people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds get along famously and have set aside their differences and misunderstandings.
Third, some presidents are not fully aware of what is happening on their campuses – in classrooms, students organizations, fraternity and sorority houses, and in the residence halls. Midlevel staff members don’t always report the day-to-day interactions among students, and deans don’t want to bring bad news related to faculty members to presidents. For instance, at San Jose State University, mentioned above, it took the midlevel management considerable time to report the horrific incidents to the president. Perhaps presidents are kept in the dark as to the minor racial incidents and race relations on their campuses; only those that draw media investigation get their attention.
Fourth, many campuses have all of the “signs” of healthy race relations – diversity offices, diversity-related administrators, cultural centers, and diversity programs infused in orientation and student affairs activities – giving the impression that race relations on campus are "good" even when they are not.
Fifth, presidents might assume that demographic diversity on campus, which is on the increase, is equal to positive interactions among students, faculty, and staff. Research shows us that oftentimes demographic diversity doesn’t lead to interaction and in fact, campuses need to be purposeful about engendering positive race relations.
Sixth, and I think the most likely reason for the presidents’ understanding of campus race relations; the majority of college and university presidents are white. Oftentimes, even well-meaning whites are oblivious to the daily microaggressions felt by people of color because they do not experience environments in the same way. More importantly, oftentimes whites create and sustain systems within academe that reinforce racism. These systems are most common in the areas of admission, faculty hiring and senior administration. For example, admission policies often privilege legacy status over the contents of the student application. Faculty member hiring systems sometimes hire candidates based on the recommendation of prominent white male professors rather than looking at the candidates that are actually in hiring pools. And upper administration, which is mainly white on most campuses, fail to notice their whiteness (intentionally or unintentionally) and the effect it has on the operations and race relations on campus.
From my own experience in academe at several colleges and universities, I have found that race relations are sometimes good depending on the circles in which I travel and they are sometimes strained. Students come to campus with varying degrees of exposure to difference; faculty members are sometimes uncomfortable "talking about diversity" and oftentimes will go to great lengths to protect white privilege and the systems that are in place that uphold this privilege; and administrative ranks at most colleges and universities are overwhelmingly white, making it more difficult to have an accurate understanding of race relations on college campuses.
I do believe that our college campuses have people who care deeply about being inclusive, promoting true diversity, and engendering honest racial dialogue. However, there are still many individuals who do not feel this way; these people occupy the faculty ranks, the study body, the administration and staff, and even the presidency. Unless these individuals push themselves (or are pushed) to see the world through another set of eyes and place themselves in situations that are different from their everyday norm, they will not be able to catch a glimpse into what people of color experience on campus. An acknowledgement of the challenges that we still have in the area of race relations on campus is the pathway to bettering these relations; top down leadership is essential.
Susan Patton set off an uproar and became known as "Princeton Mom" when she last year urged women at Princeton University to focus on landing a husband, lest they be left out by graduating without one. She earned a book deal and is now promoting that book with appearances in which she discusses her controversial views. The Daily Princetonian recently ran a question-and-answer interview with Patton that featured this exchange:
Daily Princetonian: You wrote: "Please spare me your ‘blaming the victim’ outrage," saying that a provocatively dressed drunk woman "must bear accountability for what may happen." Why does the woman hold the responsibility in the case of rape or sexual assault?
Patton: The reason is, she is the one most likely to be harmed, so she is the one that needs to take control of the situation. She is that one that needs to take responsibility for herself and for her own safety, and simply not allow herself to come to a point where she is no longer capable of protecting her physical self. The analogy that I would give you is: If you cross the street without looking both ways and a car jumps the light or isn’t paying attention, and you get hit by a car — as a woman or as anybody — and you say, "Well I had a green light," well yes you did have a green light but that wasn’t enough. So in the same way, a woman who is going to say, "Well the man should have recognized that I was drunk and not pushed me beyond the level at which I was happy to engage with him," well, you didn’t look both ways. I mean yes, you’re right, a man should act better, men should be more respectful of women, but in the absence of that, and regardless of whether they are or are not, women must take care of themselves.
The comments so angered Princeton faculty members that scores of them signed a joint letter denouncing Patton's views. "In light of statements made in a news article in this paper, we wish to inform the students on this campus that we do not believe that their manner of dress or drinking behavior makes them responsible for unwanted sexual contact," the letter said. "It is extremely important that individuals of all genders on a college campus feel comfortable reaching out for help. We, the undersigned faculty, stand behind victims of sexual assault and want them to know that our campus is a place where they have a voice, where they will not be made to feel responsible and where they can find support and justice."
Two members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights sent a letter last month warning lawyers at about 75 universities that "few, if any, college and university diversity admissions programs" would meet the test set by the Supreme Court in its ruling in Fisher v. Texas last June on affirmative action. The authors of the letter, Gail Heriot and Peter Kirsanow, are in a clear minority on the panel: they are an independent and Republican, respectively, while the other four current members are all Democrats, and President Obama has two remaining spots to fill.
The views they express in the letter -- which they made clear were delivered in their "capacity as individual commissioners" -- are consistent with what they have often said before in criticizing colleges' consideration of race in admissions, arguing both that it is illegal and that racial preferences "hurt, rather than help, their intended beneficiaries."
College officials questioned the approach taken by the letter writers. “A letter on Civil Rights Commission stationery from a couple members sharing their personal legal interpretation of the Fisher decision does nothing to help campuses deal with these thorny issues but it can easily confuse and mislead those officials who receive it about the Commission’s views," Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, said via email.
The civil rights commission had a discussion more than two years ago over whether it was appropriate for individual members of the panel to send correspondence on commission letterhead. The panel's members concluded that it was permitted as long as the letter writers made it clear they were not speaking on behalf of the panel.
The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether Florida's Bright Futures scholarship program illegally discriminates against black and Latino students, The Miami Herald reported. The state scholarship program is based in part on SAT or ACT scores, and state lawmakers recently raised those score requirements. While legislators say that the standards are based on quality, critics note that, on average, black and Latino students' scores lag those of white and Asian students. OCR officials declined to discuss specifics, but said that the agency is “investigating allegations that the state of Florida utilizes criteria for determining eligibility for college scholarships that have the effect of discriminating against Latino and African-American students on the basis of national origin and race.”
The board of the College of Charleston on Saturday named Glenn McConnell, a career politician currently serving as lieutenant governor, as the college's next president. The choice is a controversial one. Many faculty and students have questioned McConnell's lack of a background working in academe. In his legislative career, he was a strong supporter of flying the Confederate flag on state grounds, and photos of him posing as a Confederate general in war re-enactments (with one photo in particular showing him with people playing the part of black slaves) have offended many black people in the state. The NAACP in the state urged that the board pick someone other than McConnell. He has pledged to build legislative support for the college and, in particular, its economic development role. But many at the college fear that at a time that some legislators want to turn the college into a research university, McConnell will not defend its current mission. The college has a strong reputation as a liberal arts institution.
Authorities who have been investigating the alleged racial harassment of a student at Grand Valley State University now believe that the alleged victim is the one who wrote slurs and racist images on a whiteboard, MLive.com reported. The student has been referred to campus officials for violating the code of conduct. A statement from the campus police chief says that the false report “had a disruptive impact on the community.”
The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa has for much of this academic year debated the segregation of much of its Greek system, although an all-white sorority system -- following nationwide attention -- pledged several black women. But controversy has returned with the decision of student government leaders not to vote on a resolution endorsing the idea that all Greek houses should be integrated. AL.com reported that student government leaders said that they were just following procedure in referring the resolution to a committee (in which it will die this academic year because the end of the term is approaching). But supporters of the resolution said that some student government leaders didn't want to endorse the resolution or be public in opposing it.
A leader of the Parti Québécois, which is the governing party in Quebec but has just started a tough re-election campaign, has proposed that college and university students be barred from wearing burkas, Maclean's reported. Bernard Drainville, the official who proposed the idea, is also behind the proposed "values charter" that would bar public employees (including those in higher education) from wearing any religious attire. In proposing the burka ban, he said he was concerned that students in burkas attend classes at a number of universities in the province.
The black student who authorities say was the victim of months of racial harassment by his suitemates at San Jose State University has filed a $5 million claim against the institution, The San Jose Mercury News reported. The claim says that a resident adviser was aware of the situation and didn't intervene as needed. This contrasts with the university's commissioned investigation, which found that there was no knowledge of the harassment by those who could have stopped it.
A statement from the university said that San Jose State officials believe the claim was filed with the wrong state agency for such matters, and that the university does not comment on such claims.