Racism

Lecturing disadvantages underrepresented minority and low-income students (opinion)

On college campuses right now, the talk is all about antiracism, equity and inclusion. These are good conversations, and long overdue. But to actually achieve these goals, one of the most effective actions will be for professors to stop talking so much -- at least in their classrooms.

For almost a millennium, the gold standard in college teaching has been a well-organized lecture, preferably delivered with dramatic flair or sprinkled with witticisms and anecdotes, delivered by a highly respected domain expert. Professors who read their own text or spoke extemporaneously from notes were a major advance from medieval norms, when instructors simply read aloud from books -- although some contemporary faculty give that tradition a modern twist by reading aloud from PowerPoint slides.

Unfortunately, the data backing the use of lecture have almost always devolved to personal empiricism: “It worked for me.”

An observation like that might be convincing, except that faculty members aren’t representative of today’s learners, and data show that what worked for them does not work for the vast majority of their students. In fact, recent evidence indicates that lecturing actively harms underrepresented minority and low-income students. But alternative teaching methods can give these students a disproportionate boost.

What evidence backs these claims? Our research group recently analyzed achievement gaps that impact four types of students who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers: 1) women, 2) racial and ethnic minorities other than Asian Americans, 3) students who will be the first in their family to complete a four-year degree, and 4) low-income individuals. We focused on general chemistry, because it is a multiterm course sequence taken by almost all freshmen interested in STEM majors and professions, and we examined data from over 25,000 students who took the courses at the same institution between 2001 and 2016.

The results were heartbreaking. In the first course of the general chemistry series, underrepresented minority (URM) and low-income students averaged final grades that were more than half a point lower than students from overrepresented or higher-income groups. Those achievement gaps meant that URM and low-income students were failing and leaving the chemistry series at much, much higher rates than their peers.

Even more telling, significant grade gaps remained when we controlled for SAT scores and high school GPAs as indices of academic preparation and ability. For example, first-generation students with the same academic credentials as continuing-generation students averaged final grades in the first general chemistry course that were over a tenth of a point lower. None of the four minoritized groups were performing to their ability. Something about such courses was not only perpetuating gaps that arose from students’ circumstances at birth but also exacerbating them.

That something, the evidence suggests, is the lecture.

Chemistry classes at the university we studied, like most chemistry and indeed STEM courses in North America, are dominated by lectures. But in a study published just this March, we showed that on average and across many STEM courses and institutions, achievement gaps for URM and low-income students shrink dramatically when lectures are replaced by the innovative approaches to teaching collectively known as active learning.

Earlier work from our group shows that all students do better with active learning. The news in the new data was that underrepresented groups get an extra bump -- a disproportionate benefit. Changes in difficulty don’t explain these patterns, either. The active-learning courses in our studies were just as rigorous as lectures; we only looked at comparisons where students were taking identical or equivalent exams in the lecture and active learning versions of the same course.

Using evidence-based approaches to shrink achievement gaps could have profound consequences for representation in STEM degrees, which are associated with many or most of the highest-paying careers in our economy. For example, one of the analyses in our chemistry study showed that if students from underrepresented groups got a C or below, they dropped out of the STEM track at much higher rates than their overrepresented peers with the same grade. But if women, URM or low-income students got a C-plus or better, they persisted at much higher rates. They hyperpersisted, even if their grades were only at the class median.

Closing achievement gaps with active learning, then, means that more underrepresented students pass critically important introductory courses, which means that more move into the hyperpersistent zone and stay in STEM majors, which means that more become doctors, dentists, technicians, computer scientists, engineers, research scientists, entrepreneurs and problem solvers.

Antiracism? Equity? Inclusion? The data say they can happen in college classrooms, and happen right now.

But will they? The data on achievement gaps are recent, but researchers have known for a long time that active learning and other forms of evidence-based teaching lead to better student outcomes over all. Even though they are supposed to be trained as evidence-based decision makers, faculty still trot out a long list of reasons why they cannot or should not change the way they teach. Lecturing is comfortable. It’s familiar. “It worked for me.” And besides, at most institutions, money and prestige flow to top researchers -- not to teachers who create learning environments where all students can thrive.

Colleges and universities are designed to resist change. This trait has helped them endure plagues, world wars, crippling economic crises and massive political dislocations. In response to the national reckoning on race, institutions are releasing statements and forming committees -- the academic equivalent of “extending our thoughts and prayers.” However well intentioned, statements and committees won’t solve the racism, equity and inclusion issues in our classrooms. To make real progress, we have to change the way we teach. Now.

Scott Freeman is principal lecturer emeritus, and Elli Theobald is assistant teaching professor, in the biology department at the University of Washington.

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Some academic institutions use ideologies and strategies from the past to control and surveil Black people (opinion)

Dian D. Squire, Bianca C. Williams and Frank Tuitt explore how some academic institutions use ideologies and strategies from the past to control, repress and surveil Black people.

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How college leaders can give more than lip service to the need to dismantle systemic racism (opinion)

The commercials are notable. The statements of support are well crafted and comforting. The town halls and open forums provide much needed relief. Your sentiments are very much appreciated.

At this moment, our nation and the world are slowly waking up to hear us, see us and witness our anguish, pain and rage. Let’s work to respond to one question: Where do we go from here?

For centuries, Black people have experienced racialized terrorism and dehumanization in the United States. Every day, we carry the weight that accompanies the acknowledgment that our lives, being and existence are not protected or valued. The workplace, where we spend and dedicate most of our time, is an institution that perpetuates systemic oppression and reminds us of the breadth and depth of anti-Blackness in work culture and climate. Specifically, the academy devalues the work (in and out of the classroom), creativity, research and commitment of Black faculty.

As poignantly expressed by a music industry veteran, “What the movement needs is meaningful change, not window dressing. Address the elephant in the room.” This movement will require more than diversity councils and committees, events and guest speakers, sporadic trainings on antiracist pedagogy, and tokenizing of a few Black faculty, graduate students and staff. Instead, it will be necessary for the academy to act with intention and prioritize their commitment through continued attention, contemplation and the allocation of extensive resources to the decolonization of higher education learning.

First and foremost, do not place the grave and insurmountable responsibility of dismantling this 400-year structure on Black and brown faculty. It is unfair labor added to our existing mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. Remember, we internalize the consequences of racism that demand we prove our humanity on a daily basis and continue to cope with the grief of seeing Black and brown men, women and children murdered without ramification. These images live with us.

Now that the elephant has been revealed, let’s be explicit, clear and direct in the articulation of what racial justice looks like and how to actuate intentional, meaningful change. It starts with the leadership of our colleges and universities. Racism is systemic, yet we know the system includes individual people who perpetuate biases. Institutional leaders need to take the important step of acknowledging their privilege, place and role in this system and identify the ways in which the structure serves to benefit them.

Here are some other ways, definitely not exhaustive, that higher education can do more than simply give lip service to the need to dismantle systemic racism and instead use this movement to begin to create an equitable, fair and just system. I recommend that college and universities examine:

  • Institutional practices, process and structures. For example, review the salaries of faculty, specifically faculty of color and those who identify as women compared to those of similarly situated white men. Ensure that pay parity exists and that the institution does not perpetuate systemic racism and contribute to the expansion of the wealth gap. On this front, consider the additional work that faculty of color take on that is supplemental to and beyond the scope of scholarship and teaching, such as student counseling, mentorship, problem solving and hosting events and guest speakers meaningful to communities of color. Recognize that the standards of the academy have undervalued such direct service activities and either 1) change those standards by acknowledging those efforts in tenure and promotion or 2) require non-Black faculty to step up and do their share.
  • Recruitment. Employ creative recruitment strategies to attract Black faculty and graduate students. Data reveal that historically Black colleges and universities have higher completion rates for Black students and many Black doctoral recipients earned a bachelor’s degree from an HBCU. Revisit the mechanisms used to recruit faculty, administrators and graduate students, including job posting language and platforms.
  • Senior positions. Ensure that people of color are represented on decision-making committees and in leadership roles. For colleges with leadership training initiatives, consider how you recruit candidates for participation in these initiatives and similar programs. Recognize and limit the influence of department chairpersons in the selection process, as nepotism and cultural matching can run rampant in many institutions.
  • Committees. Be careful not to make committee participation simply additional uncompensated work for faculty members, specifically faculty of color. Reimagine the purpose of various committees and ensure they are action-oriented spaces meant to share and shift practices, not just meetings where people engage in circular conversations and nothing important gets accomplished.
  • Institutional climate surveys. Conduct climate surveys led by an external organization on a continual basis. Hold frequent town hall meetings and open forums that allow for honest, difficult conversations on dismantling racism.
  • Events. Yes, events help to bring theory, practice and policy to life. But if you host such forums, town hall meetings, guest speakers and the like, be intentional about the purpose of the event. Furthermore, events should be met with expected outcomes or deliverables grounded in forms of evaluation beyond standard surveys. To note, just hosting events does not equate to transforming systems.
  • Antiracist curricula and trainings. Develop faculty members’ skills in antiracist and trauma-informed pedagogies and methodologies that can be integrated and serve as a foundation of curriculum development. (For more on abolitionist teaching, antiracist pedagogy and decolonization of the academy, start here: Ibram X. Kendi and Bettina Love.) That said, do not burden Black and brown faculty with leading those efforts.
  • Also, while ongoing and intensive faculty training in antiracist pedagogy would, of course, help to advance racial justice, such trainings have to reach everyone, not simply those who know a problem exists. For example, I attended a faculty development conference on culturally responsive and sustaining engagement at my institution. In one of the breakout sessions, a colleague confidently expressed that he does not see color nor a need for such additional consideration in his courses.
  • Campus safety. Reimagine and redesign the way you think about safety and security. Integrate restorative and/or transformative justice approaches.
  • Research. Acknowledge, support and encourage the research and work of Black scholars, even if it differs from the traditional, colonized academic training that solely values and respects quantitative outcomes. Qualitative research that explores and examines the lived experiences of people and groups is important and imperative to our field(s).
  • Publications. This topic deserves substantial attention and dialogue, but I would be remiss in not at least highlighting the significance of peer-reviewed, scholarly publications in the hiring and tenure process. Black scholars engage in relevant and vital work that should be valued and esteemed -- not excluded from prestigious journals and other well-regarded publications.
  • Academic and professional associations. Even though more associations are diversifying leadership roles and committees, our participation as Black scholars in these capacities is at times merely symbolic. In 2019, I attended a fairly progressive academic conference. A conference panel designed by Black women for Black women featured well-known scholars, authors and thought leaders. The session was placed in one of the smallest conference rooms, able to accommodate maybe 40 people, yet more than 70 Black women were in attendance. We had to scope out additional seating, stand and sit on the floor. Don’t minimize the impact of the work or presence of Black scholars.

Once the academy demonstrates that it is thoughtfully examining the ways in which it perpetuates systemic and institutional racist practices, then it will be easier to build trust and recruit and retain Black faculty members, administrators and students. This is the time for the academy to show up.

And right now, your Black faculty need time to breathe. This is your job, not ours.

Shenique S. Thomas-Davis is an assistant professor of criminal justice at the City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College.

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Some red flags related to people's experiences working in institutions that suffer from toxic whiteness (opinion)

Zachary S. Ritter and Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt highlight some red flags related to people's experiences working in institutions that are suffering from toxic whiteness.

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Leading voice on welfare reform accused of racism

A leading voice on welfare reform is accused of racism after he publishes an article linking poverty to "culture." Journal faces calls for retraction.

Colleges should face the racism of the past as well as erase it (opinion)

“Rename Yale Now!” Who could ignore such a startling headline in The New York Times on July 2? It was part of a full-page service announcement sponsored by the Center for American Greatness featuring Roger Kimball’s treatise about Yale University’s colonial origins and historic monuments. Kimball, who is editor and publisher of The New Criterion, elaborated: “By all means, rename the Ivy League university founded on the riches of a slave trader. But replace it with a more honorable name.”

Kimball’s logic was that if Yale officials were going to remove alumnus John Calhoun’s name from a residential college, why not extend the purge to the institution’s namesake, Elihu Yale? I was left with two questions: Can one change the name of a historic university? And should one change it?

Changing the name of a historic college or university is unwieldy but possible. It has precedents. That is especially true for the Ivy League group that Roger Kimball singled out. Among the nine colonial colleges founded between 1636 and 1769, seven are members of the Ivy League. Most changed their names.

Yale, for example, was founded in 1701 as the Collegiate School and did not become Yale College until 1718. Harvard College, the oldest academic institution in the American colonies, was first called New College when it opened in 1636, changing its name to Harvard College in 1639. Columbia University was chartered as Kings College, but its affiliation with Tories made it a dangerous name during the American Revolutionary War. Princeton’s official charter of 1746 was for the College of New Jersey, and the name Princeton University was not officially approved until 1896.

Brown University was chartered in 1764 as the College of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. In 1804 it was changed to Brown University when Nicholas Brown Jr. gave a gift of $5,000 that included naming rights. The University of Pennsylvania started as the College of Philadelphia. Rutgers University, a colonial college that is not a member of the Ivy League, was founded in 1766 as Queen’s College and changed to its present name in 1826.

Despite this precedent, is changing a college’s name worth the effort today? What does it accomplish in terms of social justice as a part of educational mission? It should not overshadow other reconsiderations of race and institutional heritage. I am influenced by Senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, who wrote earlier this month in a New York Times op-ed about recent campaigns to remove George Washington from our monuments and memorials:

“But while I would risk my own safety to protect a statue of his [George Washington] from harm, I’ll fight to my last breath to defend every American’s freedom to have his or her own opinion about Washington’s flawed history. What some on the other side don’t seem to understand is that we can honor our founders while acknowledging their serious faults, including the undeniable fact that many of them enslaved Black Americans.”

Senator Duckworth’s perspective on icons and institutions prompts us to face the past rather than erase it. Why not keep the name and branding of Yale while using historical research to change Yale as an institution?

That’s a good resolution and reconciliation of past and present, because Senator Duckworth’s approach can be extended beyond statutes and the naming of buildings to historic American figures who were central to our antebellum colleges. As noted earlier, John Calhoun has been frequently criticized, whether at his alma mater, Yale, or at universities in his home state of South Carolina. In this essay, I want to focus on how colleges were transmitting his doctrines to college students. Who were the academic figures who provided a bully pulpit for Calhoun’s principles at college campuses?

One answer is Thomas Cooper, who became president of the University of South Carolina in 1820. He was teacher and mentor to several generations of students who would become governors and U.S. senators and congressmen from numerous states in the South. Cooper was magnetic in attracting to the institution the sons of planters who were preparing for state and national leadership in electoral politics as well as in appointed cabinet positions. Cooper’s teaching emphasized two things: first, the subject matter of political economy that advocated nullification theory and states’ rights, and second, the importance of oratory skills, which he insisted that his students hone in campus debating societies. His alumni were conspicuous in Congress for about 30 years. They had the legal, analytic and rhetorical tools that appealed to voters in the South and were persuasive in debates in Congress.

A second academic figure in the antebellum South’s collegiate legacy was Thomas Roderick Dew, an alumnus and professor at the College of William & Mary who was named president of his alma mater in 1836. Starting around 1828, Dew gained prominence for his speeches and pamphlets on regional and public policies such as “internal improvements” and the primacy of state banking as ways to enhance Virginia’s place in the national economy and politics. His growing reputation as a public figure included his recognition as having provided the foremost intellectual defense of slavery.

Within the campus, a good example was his inaugural convocation address as president in October 1836. He greeted the student body by noting their special responsibilities and rights as “the sons of slaveholders” and devoted the heart of his remarks to outlining codes of conduct and politics commensurate with that leadership role in college and as alumni in public life. Dew reminded the students to be wary of “fanatics” who advocated the abolition of slavery.

Complex Legacies

College presidents like Thomas Cooper and Thomas Dew are illustrative, not exhaustive, when exploring the complex legacies of campuses in the history of race in America across several centuries. Today as colleges and their constituents show visible concern about coming to terms with the distant past, it’s useful to look at some wise leadership in the recent past. In 2003, for example, Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, initiated a model of institutional self-analysis about race and the campus. She established the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, leading to publication of a report and recommendations in 2007.

Numerous panels and presentations about the slave trade as part of local commerce and life, culminating with publication of a study about slavery and justice in Rhode Island, followed. The American colonial and college heritage were connected to the 200th anniversary observance of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. It is not an obvious or superficial history. For example, the wealth of the founding Brown family was based in part on the triangular slave trade. Yet within that same family were leading abolitionists who also were generous philanthropists to the university and local libraries.

Given the high priority today of confronting slavery and racism as part of higher education’s history, colleges and universities nationwide today can show that “history matters” by learning about and from the program that Simmons put into place at Brown more than 15 years ago. A campus could, for example, devote a permanent central place as a site for ongoing discussions, presentations and research as part of the formal course of studies and also integral to the extra-curriculum. And, although the examples I have noted thus far have dealt with the antebellum colleges, the scope of the proposed centers will gain in significance if they are extended and expanded over time and topics. An excellent model for this comes from the University of Minnesota archives, which in 2017 presented an exhibition and website devoted to the theme of “A Campus Divided,” dealing with exclusion and discrimination within the campus during the years 1930 to 1942.

For example, beyond slavery associated with the antebellum period, there is a less dramatic yet invidious American tradition that continued well into the 20th century. One incident that stands out was the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which the American public hailed Jesse Owens as a hero who, after all, defused the Nazis by his winning four gold medals in track and field. But another side to that story of Americans praising an African American as a national hero is that one year earlier, when Jesse Owens was an undergraduate at Ohio State University, he was allowed to compete on the track team but did not receive an athletic scholarship and couldn’t reside in campus dormitories or eat in campus dining halls.

Far beyond the slave-owning South, most colleges in all regions of the United States accommodated nominal racial desegregation by offering at best a partially opened door well into the 20th century. Many admitted African American students without genuine acceptance and full citizenship in the campus community.

The case of Jesse Owens was conspicuous but hardly exceptional. For example, on July 20, The New York Times featured a two-page article about Jack Trice, the first Black football player at Iowa State University, who was not allowed to live on campus. The challenges Trice faced there extended to the football stadium. In his first game for Iowa State in 1923, he died of brutal injuries alleged to have been caused by the deliberate violence of opposing players who resented the presence of a Black player on the field.

There were numerous variations on the theme of the discrimination and humiliation that Black students faced once they enrolled at a historically white college. Between 1930 and 1942, for example, presidents of the University of Minnesota actively prohibited Black students from living in campus dormitories.

Many desegregated colleges assigned a staff member to be an enforcer who made certain that seating in a student union cafeteria remained segregated or that lecture hall seating was marked off by race. In some campus towns, pioneering African American students found a welcoming community in private homes and neighborhoods when dormitories remained racially exclusive.

Moreover, we think of college sports as being an equalizer based on talent, but often it was not. Even though universities in the Southeastern Conference had started to admit African American students to undergraduate programs by 1954, no Black student was allowed to play in a conference varsity basketball game until the 1967-68 season.

College and university presidents often were selective and pragmatic in their decisions to desegregate a campus. Why, for example, did some formerly all-white institutions admit African Americans into graduate programs but not undergraduate ones? These are the interesting, important nuances of higher education’s history that call for a new generation of scholars and students to explore and decode.

John R. Thelin is a University Research Professor at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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Colleges should develop guidelines for using the N-word in classes (opinion)

Amid the many extraordinary protests against anti-Black racism after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery during spring 2020, one long-standing debate in higher education has come to the fore again: Who can say the N-word in classrooms? Inside Higher Ed most recently reported on this ongoing controversy here.

This spring at Stanford University, two non-Black professors read aloud the N-word in class from a lyric and a historic text. Those two events highlighted several important questions: Is reading a text with the N-word genuinely necessary for historical veracity and educational purposes? What is the best way to teach the history that surrounds the N-word? Who can use the N-word in class? Who should choose not to say it?

In a letter of admirable rhetorical force, a group of Black students at Stanford made the case that given the history of violence associated with the N-word, “non-Black people do not have license to use the word.” Let’s be clear here: the students weren’t requesting original texts be suppressed or expurgated, or for history to be told in some light euphemistic version. Rather, they were asking for non-Black professors to consider a more thoughtful and respectful approach.

Some college instructors and administrators have disagreed. Detractors have accused these students of censorship and privileging Black people.

The three main objections to any restriction on saying the N-word involve concerns about:

  • Contravening the First Amendment and academic freedom;
  • The loss of historical or textual authenticity; and
  • Creating a slippery slope to a “cancel culture” and the privileging of certain groups.

To address those concerns, college and university guidelines for faculty members and students might help. Guidelines are not legally binding prohibitions. Rather, they offer ethical, social and civil approaches to offensive language in the classroom. Institutions can write them in ways to encourage prosocial behavior without curtailing free speech and academic freedom or devolving into accusations and shaming.

Legally, people can use slurs in a university setting. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of free speech specifically with regard to anti-Black slurs or actions. In R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, the Court unanimously struck down the city of St. Paul's Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance and reversed the conviction of a teenager for burning a cross on the lawn of an African American family, arguing that the First Amendment protects cross burning as freedom of speech. Such legal protection was widely discussed in 2016 when a football fan at the University of Wisconsin at Madison wore a costume of President Barack Obama with a noose around his neck. University police officers asked the fan to remove the noose, and the University of Wisconsin issued the following statement: “The costume, while repugnant and counter to the values of the university and athletic department, was an exercise of the individual's right to free speech.”

One can challenge the Supreme Court decision of 1992, and one can show the gap between theories of free speech and actual experiences and access to free speech, but as far as the law is concerned, free speech activists need not fear legal incursions into their rights. Virginia v. Black essentially affirmed the Court’s position on free speech and anti-Black racism in 2003.

Yet while one is free to use the N-word, one can also choose to avoid the word precisely in order to promote better learning. Indeed, classroom guidelines that promote respect and civility have proven pedagogically effective. Students retain more in classrooms that are civil, and refraining from using the N-word is an exercise in civility.

Respect and civility are common terms in guidelines in nursing and medical school programs, as well as in many professional associations. Some observers may object however that “respect” and especially “civility” are ambiguous, historically burdened categories. The former is a normative Kantian term. And people have criticized the latter, “civility,” as a diversion or cudgel that can be misused. Those who are uncomfortable with these terms may find “inclusivity” and “empathy” more appealing. In fact, many faculty members already use “inclusivity” and “empathy” in their classroom and syllabi to ensure that a diversity of identities and opinions can be shared in class. Whichever words one prefers, inclusivity and empathy serve the same semantic principle as respect and civility, despite leaning more toward a Humean rather than a Kantian framework.

Were a college or university to offer guidelines in classrooms regarding the N-word, they could be written as recommendations open to further discussions. For example, let’s say one such recommendation might be:

"Out of respect for African American faculty members and students, non-Black members of the community should consider refraining from reading or writing the N-word in any of its unmitigated variations in the classroom. Black instructors, however, whose ancestors were subjugated under the N-word and whose community continues to endure racist enunciations of the slur, may consider whether they want to use the term in their classroom and, if so, they are encouraged to reflect carefully on their usage of the word with students."

Allowing a Black instructor to decide whether or not to say the N-word promotes liberty as well respect and civility. Similarly, a non-Black faculty member retains the legal right and personal choice to say the offending word or words, but why would they insist? What pedagogical end would such a demand serve? It is pedagogically possible to teach history in all of its violent, cruel realities associated with this word without actually saying it. There is no moment where a brute historical or textual positivism is essential to learning. Nor is pouncing on a teacher who missteps an opportunity for better understanding. Indeed, the latter is too often a misplaced effort to showcase one’s own allyship and antiracist credentials.

Here are some recent examples of what faculty members can do to avoid such collisions. Are students reading “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.? Consider the tone-deafness of a non-Black teacher reading aloud the N-word from such a letter, especially in that famous passage of anaphoric “whens” as King invites others to empathize with the Black experience. Such a teacher need not be fired -- just be more thoughtful and respectful. Are students reading Huckleberry Finn? None of this book’s historical or literary veracity will be lost if a faculty member invites discussions about Mark Twain’s use of the N-word while abbreviating it.

Imagine the spellings “N-word” or “n****a” as analogous rhetorical strategies to ones some students and teachers deploy for religious reasons when they abbreviate the word “G-d.” When people explain the abbreviation, nonreligious audiences grasp the word’s meaning, no biblical or communal or personal imperatives are contravened, and everyone enjoys the opportunity to be civil, inclusive and empathetic. Even someone who is uncomfortable with such an abbreviation would not feel their rights diminished if they merely avoided saying the word in class out of respect for others. Good manners, civility, religious liberty -- these are all solid American traditions.

Now visualize John Stuart Mill rolling over in his 19th-century British grave. For this Industrial-era English philosopher, adulthood required being willing to hear slurs and take the name of one’s own or others’ deities in vain. But the fact is that neither the 21st-century world nor a university is perfectly Millian, and that’s a good thing. In the examples above, Black teachers and students retain sovereignty over their history, and religious people their faith, as well. Both inclusive measures are essential to the pedagogical mission of a college or university.

Our classrooms and other institutional units already have guidelines that are not legally enforced but shape the parameters for discussion, just as all debate forums have their own guidelines. Guidelines can be written to promote choice, enable better communication and become a helpful discussion tool for instructors and students in tense situations.

Beyond the social unrest of this spring, we now live in culturally volatile times, which is all the more reason to equip participants for a mutually respectful conversation that avoids shaming battles in class. Students, like faculty members, have their own legal right to free speech and to speak out in class, but they also have a choice to employ civil and empathetic practices. Guidelines, however they might be written to encourage participants to choose such practices, will benefit both instructors and students.

Ruth A. Starkman teaches writing, biomedical and computing ethics at Stanford University.

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Fraternity chapter suspended for statement on ties to Confederacy

Kappa Alpha Order chapter at Southwestern University suspended for releasing a statement denouncing the organization's historical ties to the Confederacy.

Editors discuss their book on campus protest movement

Editors discuss their new book on campus protest movements against racism and their views of the protest movement after the killing of George Floyd.

College governing boards must weigh in meaningfully on race

In the face of the nation’s current civil unrest in response to historic racial injustice and the continuing murder of black men and women at the hands of police, responsible institutional leadership of our colleges and universities should become directly engaged.

It is time for college and university governing boards to demonstrate their appropriate leadership by seizing this moment of public and political turmoil and assuming an appropriate role in affecting systemic change. The 50,000 men and women who serve on the governing bodies of colleges and universities should assert their ultimate authority as fiduciaries and leverage their individual and combined influence to strengthen the mandate for social progress. Faculty members and students at campuses across the country are engaged on the issues of racial justice. The voices of college and university presidents have become a growing force for change.

Unfortunately, higher education has had a checkered past when it comes to the rights of Black citizens. Some of our most historic institutions have, themselves, contributed to and benefited from racial injustice throughout their history and have helped to maintain the systemic societal racism that has been anathema to the nation since its founding. Institutions of higher education have at times engaged in and allowed many of the social, educational and economic practices that have actually perpetuated racism.

Our nation’s college and university campuses, which enroll some 19 million students (14 percent of whom are African Americans), must actively engage in this national reckoning. Importantly, difficult national debates have in fact emanated across campuses throughout the country. America’s colleges and universities have also been engines of positive change and pathways to progress for our citizens and the world. Yet the absence of the voice of governing boards has too often dulled the full voice of institutions and limited the capacity of others to effect significant change.

Now it is time for the governing boards of our 3,000 campuses to be heard and to exercise their authority to spur action. The men and women who serve as board members are people of distinguished reputation and influence; they are respected and successful community and national leaders. As board members they hold ultimate authority for the policy decisions made by the institutions they serve. However, too often we have witnessed college and university governing board passivity when fundamental challenges, issues and risks confront their institutions and the society of which they are part. Passivity is neither leadership nor an acceptable strategy during this historic moment. It is time for sound and supportive leadership that only a fiduciary body can provide. It’s not too late for these guardians of the nation’s colleges and universities to demonstrate moral leadership in the midst of this national crisis.

Governing boards should develop, ensure implementation of and advocate on behalf of a formal board policy statement on racial inclusion and opposition to systemic racism. They need to address public safety and policing reform. And they should demonstrate a consistent commitment to an environment of trust and safety. Governing boards should leverage their unique position as a bridge between the institutions they lead and their states and communities.

A governing board policy statement on racial equity and justice might include some of the following to demonstrate an authentic voice and a commitment for change:

  • The board will look at its own makeup and advocate for greater balance in its overall diversity and leadership.
  • The board will ensure that meeting agendas include opportunities for learning and listening on issues of campus inclusion and implicit racial bias in the classroom and across the campus.
  • The board will commit to strengthening their institution’s relationship with external stakeholders in their community with the goal of creating a more just society.
  • The board will require a periodic audit of all institutional policies and practices that impact diversity, inclusion and racial equity.
  • The board will oversee a review of the institution’s past history, policies, practices and specific instances in which the institution has been complicit in racial inequities, and commit to a transparent airing of those situations and correcting policies that enabled past injustices.
  • The board will instruct its institution’s academic leadership to review curriculum associated with law enforcement and other professional academic programs that are related to service to society, with an emphasis on developing training and education strategies that will contribute to a more just 21st-century model of policing and community support.
  • The board will request that an assessment of the institution’s relationship with local and area police departments be undertaken and refreshed.
  • And members of the governing board will commit to demonstrating racial and social justice policies and initiatives in their own businesses, including C-suites and corporate boardrooms, and their other voluntary engagements.

Martin Luther King said that “in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Now is the time for higher education’s governing boards to break their silence, elevate their role and lead.

Carlton Brown was president of Clark-Atlanta University and Savannah State University and is now a senior fellow of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Richard Legon was president and CEO of AGB and is on the board of Spelman College. Terrence MacTaggart has been a university president and governing board chair and is author of the forthcoming Crisis Leadership: A Guide for Boards and Presidents in an Era of Pandemic, Crisis and Disruption.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2020
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