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A series of well-publicized studies in recent years have offered evidence that minority students, especially African-American males, and particularly in the South, are disproportionately likely to be punished and expelled in elementary and secondary school disciplinary processes. The findings have led many observers to suggest that institutional racism is at play.

No national data exist that might show whether minority students are equitably treated in college and university disciplinary processes. (A 2014 study did suggest that college faculty members were more inclined to offer help to prospective white male graduate students than to other students who reached out for guidance.)

But a new paper by two researchers at North Carolina State University employs an experiment they believe can at least partially answer the question of whether officials who oversee college and university disciplinary proceedings are likely to be influenced by race in judging disciplinary cases.

Their answer: the officials don't appear to exhibit any racial bias.

The researchers, Matt A. Starcke and Stephen R. Porter, a doctoral student and professor in North Carolina State's Department of Leadership, Policy and Adult & Higher Education, presented their paper last week at the annual conference of the Association for Education Finance and Policy.

Given the dearth of available data that might help answer the question, Starcke and Porter sought to craft another way of getting at the issue. Asking student affairs administrators about their views on race likely wouldn't work, as many survey respondents "gravitate toward what social norms dictate," Starcke said, giving the answers they think people will want to hear.

Instead, they opted to query student affairs administrators who recommend sanctions in disciplinary processes about how they would punish students for possessing various amounts of marijuana, with the stated aim of understanding "national marijuana sanctioning consistency." The campus officials were given vignettes about students involved in marijuana incidents whose names "were evocative of particular racial identities." Only after the survey was closed were respondents told that the real topic of the study was about race, and given a chance to withdraw their responses. Only a handful did. (The researchers' institutional review board approved of the use of deception in the survey.)

The respondents' answers suggested that they would give out harsher penalties based on how much marijuana students were caught with. But the researchers found no evidence that the student affairs administrators took race into account when meting out sanctions. "That was kind of surprising, given what we see in K-12," Starcke said.

The researchers said the lack of evidence of racial bias could be attributable to the training student affairs officials get on maintaining equity and the "integrity of the student conduct process."

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