Colleges should stop paying money to ignore racial problems (essay)

Each year, college presidents, provosts, deans and other senior administrators hire researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, where I serve as executive director, to spend three to four days on their campuses conducting what feels like nonstop focus groups with students of color and their white peers about the realities of race on campuses. Sometimes campus leaders ask us to focus our climate studies on faculty and staff. We also collect statistical reports from offices of institutional research that typically show racial disparities in enrollment, academic performance, graduation rates, promotions and salaries, and a range of other metrics.

Over the past decade, center researchers and I have done this work at dozens of predominantly white institutions across the United States, including community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, large public research universities and Ivy League universities. When their top administrators call us, we presume it is because they seriously want to know more about how people from different racial and ethnic groups experience their institutions -- and that they are going to use our findings and recommendations to finally deal with longstanding racial problems on their campuses. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that this assumption is at times erroneous.

For example, senior administrators at one university paid the center $25,000 to conduct a climate study two years ago. They didn’t like our findings. The person who commissioned the research wrote me an email in which she commented, “My colleagues and I think your findings are too harsh.”

My response was, “The findings are what they are.”

She replied by asking if I could somehow tone down what we found. I refused, as doing so would have been academically dishonest.

What she and her colleagues failed to realize is that several students cried uncontrollably in their interviews with us. As was the case at the University of Missouri and Yale University, black students, most especially, were tired of having white administrators ignore their concerns about the campus racial climate. They were frustrated that campus officials did nothing about the blackface party a predominantly white fraternity recently hosted. They were sick of being so underrepresented in their classes, having their white professors and peers so routinely stereotype them, finding so few courses taught by faculty of color, and encountering so little of their own racial histories and selves in the curriculum.

Yet these realities were too much for the administrators to handle. They were not ready to hear the truth. Hence, the report we furnished the institution was never publicly disseminated, as originally planned. Several students of color whom we interviewed contacted us months later asking where the report was because they never saw it.

The sad reality is that the administrators at this university paid us an enormous sum of money to remain in denial about its racial problems. This had happened to us before and has occurred again since.

In fact, students of color recently launched a protest that has garnered tremendous national news media attention at an institution where we did racial climate research this past spring. Campus leaders there did nothing with the report for which they paid my center $30,000. Perhaps they could have saved themselves from the public shame they are presently experiencing. We told them the truth and gave numerous recommendations for institutional change. They hired us to ultimately ignore us, a choice for which they are now paying a significantly higher price.

Eight years ago, prior to the launch of my center at Penn, the University of Missouri-Kansas City hired me to conduct a campus racial climate assessment. On the final day of my visit, I publicly presented my preliminary findings. The event was well publicized. People who had participated in focus groups over the three days of my study knew I would talk about what I heard across the interviews. Thus, almost all of them came to my presentation. One (or possibly more) of them alerted The Kansas City Star. Unbeknownst to me, a reporter was in my audience.

The next day, this headline appeared in the city’s major newspaper: “UMKC Gets Poor Racial Report Card.” Administrators here, unlike their counterparts at many other predominantly white institutions at which I have done climate assessments over the past 10 years, acted swiftly and aggressively -- most likely in large part because their university was publicly shamed. Top administrators there had no choice but to act on my report’s recommendations.

I really want campus leaders to stop wasting their money and our time on climate studies they will never use. Nine of my center’s 11 staff members are people of color; most of our 22 faculty affiliates are professors of color from across academic schools and departments at Penn who study race and education. For us, this work is deeply personal. We don’t want to spend our time doing research for leaders who aren’t seriously committed to equity, campus climate change and institutional transformation. We never exaggerate our findings; we instead commit ourselves to truthful representations of insights that people generously offer to us about the realities of race on campuses.

Choosing to ignore these realities won’t make them less real. Eventually, colleges and universities will have to pay a much higher price for racism should their leaders choose to ignore our findings, no matter how harsh they seem.

Students of color will continually drop out in higher numbers (lost tuition dollars), faculty and staff members of color will keep leaving through a revolving door (higher turnover costs), and alumni of color will be considerably less likely to contribute financially to an institution they know to be racist (forfeited donations for institutional advancement). At the University of Missouri, unresponsiveness cost the system president and chancellor of the flagship campus their jobs. Indeed, maintaining an institution’s good reputation, authentically enacting diversity-related commitments espoused in mission statements and elsewhere, and leading with integrity is priceless.

Shaun R. Harper is founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Harper is author of the forthcoming book Race Matters in College (Johns Hopkins University Press) and president-elect of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

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