‘Intersectionality and Higher Education’

Editors discuss new volume of essays on the ways higher education is changing because of issues of race, gender and sexuality -- and how they think higher ed needs to change even more.

April 30, 2019

Diversity and inclusion are topics of conversation at most American colleges and universities. So are reports of frustrations of many students, faculty members and others who feel colleges are still designed for people of privilege -- generally those who are white and are middle or upper class. And so are reports of frustrations that many college leaders have a hard time understanding that issues are not just about black people or women or gay people, but that issues relate to many people in multiple groups and with multiple identities and needs.

That is central to intersectionality, the frame for the essays in Intersectionality and Higher Education: Identity and Inequality on College Campuses (Rutgers University Press). The editors of the collection are W. Carson Byrd, associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville; Rachelle Brunn-Bevel, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Fairfield University; and Sarah Ovink, associate professor of sociology at Virginia Tech.

They responded via email to questions about the new book.

Q: Do you think race relations in American higher education are getting better or worse these days?

A: More campuses are engaging the concerns of historically underrepresented students than in the past, but as always, more work needs to be done. Similar to institutions around the nation, our campuses have announced plans to dramatically increase the proportion of the undergraduate student body that identifies as first generation or as members of minoritized groups. At the same time, there is a tense pushback from those trying to bring hate speech (in the guise of “free speech” and “dialogue”) onto campus.

In response to student demands, administrators are working with students using the powerful example set by students at the University of Missouri to reform policies for accountability and acknowledge that racism is an institutional reality and not limited to what one person may do on campus. That said, institutions of higher education are small-c conservative; they are slow to change, and they often rely on tradition as a bulwark of their prestige. Most university administrations are still predominantly white and male as they have been in the past. We still have racial disparities in hiring and promotion of faculty.

Students are still battling for more curricular offerings and resources that recognize and support marginalized communities. It is important for researchers and those who care about the future of higher education in general to take note of when campuses are making full-faith efforts toward actions that can have real benefits for race relations -- or as we would prefer to think of it, reducing oppression and increasing inclusion -- such as improving racial and ethnic diversity in faculty hiring, slowing the tide of adjunct positions that do not pay a living wage, and taking action when campus community members report bias and discrimination. In the short term, this may look like “worse” relations, because these can be painful topics. But we won’t get to “better” without putting in that difficult work.

Q: In terms of linking race and gender, many colleges have noted that their black enrollments are majority (in some cases overwhelmingly) female. This seems true at historically black colleges and majority white institutions. How might colleges deal with the particular issues facing black men?

A: Most undergraduate populations at colleges and universities in the United States are majority female. This is true for all racial and ethnic groups. However, this is particularly true for black undergraduates and it has been true for a long time, in fact. Some institutions now have mentoring groups targeted toward black men or men of color where junior and senior students, faculty and staff help first-year and sophomore students get acclimated to life on campus …

Reaffirming their experiences in academia, supporting their degree pursuits and assisting with exploring career options after college, providing support networks and resources to help students navigate difficult circumstances on campus as well as off, and other extensions of this work are vital to supporting black men and other men of color historically excluded from many institutions across the nation. It’s also important to note that “majority female” does not mean that women no longer experience discrimination or sexist treatment in higher education. We should continue to pay attention to institutional features that were built without people of color including women in mind as we move toward a more equitable vision of institutional support for students, staff and faculty that takes into account how racial and gender disparities intertwine to inform future initiatives and efforts.

Q: At many campuses, Latinx and Asian populations are growing at faster rate than are black students, and colleges boast about growing minority enrollments. What do you make of this?

A: We have seen many changes in enrollments for students of color, and it’s important to not “run with the numbers” without critically examining what they may mean for issues of access and inclusion. Many institutions post enrollment numbers for students of color without disaggregating by racial and ethnic groups, or without pointing out what proportion are made up of international students, who tend to be wealthier than U.S.-born students. For example, people often lump all Asian and Pacific Islander students together, which can hide disparities that affect certain ethnic groups and can shift perspectives of where campuses should improve their support for students or not.

Also, rates vary for groups depending on the type of postsecondary institution (private liberal arts college, research-intensive university, community college, Hispanic-serving institution, etc.) and geographically. That said, getting more students of color through the college gates does not equate to being more supportive and a racism-free campus. If institutions want to boast about their increasing racial and ethnic diversity as a key aspect of marketing, then these institutions have to seriously consider how such a marketing approach speaks more to using students for money-generating purposes rather than showing their support for these students.

As the recent American Council on Education report on race and ethnicity in higher education poignantly describes, increases in student representation on campuses does not mean these institutions assist students toward graduation or avoiding mounds of student loan debt. There are many efforts that administrators must pursue to support students who are historically excluded and underrepresented at their institutions. These efforts are dependent upon the context of the specific institution and cannot be easily fixed by seeking universal solutions that seem to work at other institutions, even if they have similar contexts, because each institution must reflect on its own needs and goals to build a more holistic approach to supporting students, not just increasing diversity.

Q: Your book includes faculty experiences -- particularly those of adjuncts, who on many campuses include many minority academics. Many books about diversity in higher education focus either just on students or just on faculty members. You have both (plus staff members and grad students). Why is it important to consider all of these groups?

A: We aimed to provide readers with a broad discussion of how people in different positions experience higher education, and highlight groups who may not be fully included in conversations about the inequalities on our campuses. What is sometimes overwhelming is to consider that all of these experiences are happening simultaneously at the same institution, and putting this volume together can move discussions forward about how multiple experiences with inequalities are related to explore possible solutions.

For example, the conversations about graduate student experiences are vital for identifying ways to be more supportive of the next generation of faculty and limit reproducing the same issues of marginalization and alienation in our departments. Colleges and universities increasingly rely on adjunct faculty members, who are more susceptible to institutional changes such as budget cuts and face less supportive working conditions than tenure-stream faculty. Staff members are often placed in difficult positions to support students with disabilities and tackling STEM disparities that are often glossed over because they are viewed as “supporting” particular aspects of university missions and initiatives and not being integral actors for institutions. All of these groups have important experiences we must consider if we aim to create a more equitable and inclusive environment for people to live, work and study … In the end, using a more intersectional lens for higher education shows how inequality is as much of a lived experience as an outcome that our institutions need to take seriously.

Q: Your book also notes issues facing LGBTQ populations. In higher ed, there is more support for these groups on many campuses, but some politicians are moving against their rights. How do you see the trends in higher education for these groups?

A: The increasing support for LGBTQ faculty, staff and students in higher education is important on many fronts, but the targeting of these campus community members by politicians and other political groups should have administrators concerned about how far their support extends including with regards to legal protections. The Supreme Court is set to hear a group of three cases to decide whether federal antidiscrimination law extends to sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. Two of the cases have plaintiffs arguing they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, while the third case explores if discrimination law applies to transgender workers. These cases will have obvious impacts on higher education employment practices, but can also signal the extent to which diversity and inclusion efforts at institutions will go to create more equitable places to work and study for LGBTQ community members.

Institutions have increased their accessibility with the adoption of trans* policies in admissions and creating more inclusive efforts on campus with new campus organizations, resources and policies, but the persistent targeting of LGBTQ community members and possible rulings on these and future Supreme Court cases will bring additional tests to higher education.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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