‘Rethinking Diversity Frameworks in Higher Education’

Authors discuss their new book on race relations in higher education.

November 22, 2019

At a time when many American universities and colleges are struggling with strained race relations on campus, administrators looking for a new approach to address the problems may consider a new book, Rethinking Diversity Frameworks in Higher Education (Routledge). The authors are Edna B. Chun, chief learning officer for HigherEd Talent, a national diversity and human resources consulting firm, and Joe R. Feagin, a Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University.

They responded via email to questions about their book.

Q: How would you characterize race relations on U.S. campuses today?

A: Our book points out that racial issues have always been central on U.S. college campuses, in one form or another. It does vary by campus, but two generalizations seem clear from our data: students of color on historically white campuses can encounter isolation, racial exclusion, differential support and even forms of harassment during the course of their college and graduate school years. And it can often affect their achievements, self-esteem and progress.

Secondly, the data show that in the higher education workplace, women and men of color, as well as white women, still face far more hostility, mistreatment and process-based inequality than their white male counterparts. These experiences can take place in everyday situations and culminate in substantial macroaggressions. We share specific examples and confidential in-person interviews in the book that reveal how the reality and impact of exclusionary practices and process-based exclusion can affect career outcomes and exact a substantial cognitive and emotional toll on the targets of discrimination. And with few exceptions, university administrations in historically white institutions have not made sustained and aggressive progress in addressing persistent and deeply rooted patterns of inequality in processes and practices.

One of our faculty acquaintances, a woman of color at a historically white college, contacted us recently about open, in-class hostility a few white students exhibited to her in a social science course dealing with racial-ethnic issues. They challenged her and claimed she was not creating a welcoming climate for the class’s white student minority (an unusual situation for white students), despite her diligent efforts to create a positive environment for all students. In contrast, in Joe Feagin’s 54 years of teaching racial-ethnic courses to thousands of white students, he has never been challenged in that way. This is but one everyday example of the need to move higher education forward to create a welcoming culture that ensures equitable treatment of faculty and students of nondominant groups.

Q: How do colleges' attempts to deal with racial problems work?

A: Mostly not well, since many such attempts tend to be sporadic, symbolic and not sustained over the long term. As we share in our book, official responses to racial incidents are sometimes carefully worded and cautious, without explicitly naming the problem or even what actually occurred. And diversity training is not linked enough to the transfer of research learning and theoretical perspectives to educational settings.

Furthermore, considerable campus conflict and pushback can occur when diversity facilitators move outside of the boundaries of celebratory types of diversity training sessions. Such pushback can happen when diversity training efforts pay serious and detailed attention to how behavioral and process-based forms of exclusion actually unfold, such as in recruitment, hiring and promotion, as well as in acts of academic closure such as tenure denial. Many powerful decision makers in historically white educational institutions have been reluctant to probe deeply into how racially and gender-based exclusionary processes actually transpire daily on their campuses. And few institutions have introduced substantive and recurring antiracist training that addresses the systemic social conditions that have given rise to discrimination in this country. In fact, even the terms “social justice” or “racial justice” can be viewed on some campuses as controversial.

Q: Would you please discuss the issue of hate speech on campuses?

A: In regard to campus racial matters, “hate speech” is usually defined as overt acts of really blatant racism. Blatantly racist “hate crime” attacks on students and faculty of color are much less common than the everyday forms of racial harassment noted previously. We found little commitment to dealing with either type of campus racism, especially over long periods of time. On every campus where we spoke to faculty or students of color for this book and for previous studies, there is considerable administrative talk about the need for diversity change, but little actual evidence of it.

Q: How are microaggressions affecting students?

A: That term is itself very problematical, as most behaviors and actions listed under that that construct are really macroaggressions with lasting, damaging effects on students (and faculty), as we show from many studies cited in our book. In fact, they are usually macroaggressions from the perspective of individuals from nondominant groups.

Q: What is the new framework you seek for promoting diversity and inclusion in higher education?

A: The racially charged and divisive rhetoric now dominating our national landscape signal the urgent need to replace the understated “implicit bias” and “microaggressions” language with a more direct and frank terminology that addresses the long-term material, social, familial and career consequences of what are intentional macroaggressions and macroinequalities. Within the structures and context of higher education, we see a continuum of racial and gender discrimination (macroaggressions) that ranges from various forms of subtle mistreatment to covert forms of institutionalized process-based discrimination that reflect racial and sexist/heterosexist framing to more overt hostility, exclusion and violence such as that of those of white nationalists and “incel” activists inside and outside of institutional contexts. Another important difference in our framework compared with the terminology of unconscious bias: we do not relegate discrimination and inequities to the realm of the unconscious, but rather argue that serious discriminatory behaviors and actions along this continuum may contain a mixture of elements including imbedded sociocultural norms, learned racist and sexist framing, and half-conscious or fully conscious discriminatory actions.

In offering this framework, we detail a number of specific policy-based recommendations such as committing substantial funding to admissions processes and financial aid that addresses the underrepresentation of diverse students, critically evaluating two-tiered tenured and contingent faculty workforce models, and making concrete progress in remedying widespread nondominant faculty underrepresentation; in-depth monitoring of institutional processes for equitable outcomes; and investing in sustained diversity education for faculty, administrators, staff and students.

For example, we need examples and courses like this one: in 1995 Noel Cazenave, a brave black assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, decided to teach a sociology course titled White Racism, the first in the U.S. His department approved the course, but the college curriculum committee tabled it because white faculty were upset at the “derogatory” name and argued that the course was “offensive to whites because it implies that whites are morally defective.” After intensive opposition, the course was barely approved.

On and off campus, newspaper editors and politicians tried to end it. Even the head of a prominent research institute said he had a “racial agenda so strongly implanted in his psyche that you want to jump across the faculty lounge and strangle him.” Bravely, the untenured Cazenave pressed on, wrote research articles for local papers, gave professional/community lectures and described the course as necessary for U.S. “social health.” In the end, the support of his students in this rigorous course and of sociology faculty colleagues was important. In 1997 a permanent White Racism course was approved. This successful antiracism strategy involved courageous scholarship and teaching and unwavering commitment to racial and social justice. That is the new and old framework we need. But there are relatively few such courses still today, and most college students do not take those that are there, as they are usually not required.


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