More Discussion Than Action: Racial Justice on Campus

The latest Student Voice survey shows what college students think about their institutions’ actions in the aftermath and year since George Floyd was killed last May -- and what campus leaders can do now to take bolder steps toward racial justice and equality.

May 6, 2021
 
Dominican University of California
In November 2020, Dominican University of California’s Black Student Union painted this #BLM mural on Acacia Avenue in San Rafael.
 

When George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis last May, COVID-19 closures forced college students who might have marched in outrage with their campus peers to join protests elsewhere. That left most college leaders out of the action and, aside from releasing obligatory statements denouncing racism, somewhat off the hook on participation.

In contrast, consider Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University, a public historically Black land-grant university. Hearing about his students’ planned involvement in community protests, he attended to affirm his support. “I said to myself, ‘Now is the moment to show up and shut up,’” says Allen, who had only been leading the institution for a few months at the time.

While HBCU leaders don’t feel the same kind of burden as the typical white president to prove that antiracist messages are heartfelt, they do get student requests for action. Delaware State’s newly elected student government association leaders called for three steps last spring: 1) creation of a Black Lives Matter Boulevard by the time campus reopened, 2) a review of vendors and subcontractors to ensure a commitment to equity, and 3) ongoing engagement with university police.

Allen agreed immediately to the first request, as long as it could be supported by fundraising and students led the project. The second request, also driven by student involvement, made sense to Allen, and a review is in progress. The third ask resulted in an informal BBQ for students and campus police once it was safe. “In going to an HBCU, they thought Delaware State should be leading by example,” he says.

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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Additional actions included a June 2 virtual forum featuring the chief of campus police, two law enforcement leaders from throughout the state, a professor and two students. One student expressed a sentiment familiar to other Black Americans: “In very elementary words, we’re afraid.”

A new Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, finds that many students were underwhelmed by their colleges’ responses to Floyd’s death.

Of the 2,000 college students surveyed between April 5 and 15, nearly half recall getting an email from their institution, and about three in 10 remember a statement expressing support for BLM. Colleges were much less likely to have taken bold steps, such as developing a comprehensive racial justice action plan.

“That’s exactly what presidents do -- we issue a statement,” says Lori White, president of DePauw University in Indiana. “We organize conversation circles. We offer counseling. We activate a task force. Or we respond to demands students have provided to us. But we all know that none of that is moving the needle.”

White saw national higher ed organizations including racial justice as an issue, but none were entirely focused on it. So she took the lead on founding the Liberal Arts College Racial Equity Leadership Alliance. Established in late 2020 through the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, the group now has nearly 70 member colleges.

The Student Voice survey also asked about individual actions taken this past year, how campus conversations about race have evolved, and the role of higher ed in racial justice and equality. In many cases, students over all were not heavily involved in these issues this year, but they are noticing a changing campus climate. The survey includes perspective from more than 1,100 white students and about 800 people of color (the remaining did not select any of the races listed). More key findings:

  • Twenty percent of students participated in a protest (16 percent off campus), but COVID-19 doesn’t appear to have been a big deterrent; 22 percent say they would have participated in a protest if they were on campus, but 32 percent say they would not have done so.
  • Thirty-six percent agree at least somewhat that the BLM movement has resulted in a curriculum that’s more inclusive of diverse voices, and 39 percent report having been more intentional this year about race-related discussion.
  • Fifty-seven percent agree at least somewhat that race is now discussed more frequently across campus, and even more students, 60 percent, say it comes up more in discussion with peers.
  • About two-thirds of respondents agree at least somewhat that U.S. higher education has a role to play in racial justice and equality.

“BLM brought other people into awareness of the challenges that members of the African American community face,” says White. “Students of color don’t feel fully valued and affirmed, and they don’t feel they can be their true authentic selves.”

Read on for more results and insights on what higher ed leaders might expect as students return to campuses more widely.

Leadership Actions and Inactions

Thinking back, about half of students simply recall seeing an email from campus officials after Floyd’s death. And only about one-third say their colleges released a statement of commitment to BLM. One in five colleges offered events on racial justice issues, but only 8 percent of respondents participated in such an event.

Maiya Tate of New Orleans, who commutes to Tulane University and has written for its student newspaper on the Black student experience at the predominantly white institution, remembers seeing an email to the effect of “what happened was horrible, and we’re going to try to do better.”

When asked to grade their college’s handling of Floyd’s death, the most common response, with 37 percent, was “I’m not sure.” This doesn’t surprise Tate, who says her peers tend to ignore the president’s emails. “A lot of people have it marked for junk mail.”

Since 2018, Tulane has required a class covering race and inclusion, but from Tate’s perspective, most students don’t view the experience as an opportunity to truly learn.

Students at community colleges (250 of the 2,000 sample) were even more likely to be unsure about assigning a grade (52 percent). Asian Americans were the most likely racial demographic to grade their college an A or B, as were students who identify as weak Democrats or weak Republicans.

“People who aren’t as affected negatively by the system might have less criticism of it,” says Kmt Shockley, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University who co-edited the 2020 book Campus Uprisings: How Student Activists and Collegiate Leaders Resist Racism and Create Hope. “Those who feel the system is on their back might grade more harshly.” Student respondents may also have been trying to cut their universities a little slack, knowing they could only do so much while operating online only.

Asian American students were the most likely racial group to report having participated in one or more racial justice-focused institutional activities. Also, along with Black students, they were most likely to say they would have protested in the aftermath of Floyd's murder if they had been on campus.

“Black Lives Matter has played a role in shaping the consciousness of Asian Americans,” says Nathan Reddy, a 2019 Cornell University graduate and current volunteer fellow at the Community Works Institute, which supports educators in offering community-centered learning. Many Asian students didn’t begin talking about race until college and then discovered “it’s a problem that’s very stubborn,” says Reddy, who is Indian American. As East Asian Americans got targeted because of the language around coronavirus, students felt less like “honorary whites” and more like people of color, he says. “We need to support Black Americans and also ourselves,” adds Reddy, who is beginning a master’s program in elementary education.

Aaron L. Austin of Wichita State University wonders if it’s too difficult for students to remember last spring and whether COVID-19 resulted in students not paying much attention. Plus, says Austin, who is associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students (and likely the highest-ranking Black man on campus), real action takes time.

Wichita State, for example, is working to build a more diverse faculty. “It’s hard to get a quick turnaround. It’s hard to say, ‘Tomorrow we’re doing to have 100 new faculty members.’ But hopefully when we send out a statement, the statement isn’t just the end,” Austin says.

Change might not happen as quickly as students would like. “Institutions are like that barge that was stuck in the canal. It took time to get that thing to turn and to move, and that’s how higher ed moves,” he says.

Student-led change involves an extra layer. “I’ve talked to some of my white colleagues about how the ability to listen is really important in these moments, not being defensive and engaging students in a different way, particularly those who don’t feel they have a voice,” says Allen.

A recent Inside Higher Ed survey of provosts indicates real work being done on diversity. Nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated, for example, they are re-examining the curriculum to assure it is inclusive and diverse. More than half are adopting new diversity goals around faculty and staff hiring.

At Howard, Shockley runs the Verizon Innovative Learning Program, which pre-COVID brought middle school students of color to campus and out in the community, with undergrads serving as mentors. “It really makes everything come together when you have a connection to the community,” he says. “It makes for a well-rounded experience and breaks down the barriers between the university and the community.”

One-quarter of Student Voice survey respondents participated in a discussion about race over social media in the past year, an indication of activism evolving. “We often conceptualize student activism as within institutions, but it’s part of a broader political movement,” says Charles H. F. Davis, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan. “These students are engaged in spaces outside of the context of the campus. The campus need not exist for these things to happen.”

Shockley says, “As much as we deride social media for its negative aspects, I see good social justice and racial activism content. If I want to learn how to be an antiracist, or what an antiracist even means, I don’t have to go to a lecture. I can google that.”

Students Talking, Students Learning

Student discussions about race happen formally with campus officials, informally with peers and in a facilitated way during classes. Such talk is happening more this year for the majority of students surveyed.

More than half of survey respondents agree there are more discussions of racial issues across campus because of BLM; 21 percent agree strongly and 36 percent somewhat. Results don’t vary much by race or political leaning.

In Reddy’s opinion, colleges need to be more proactive in discovering student needs and engaging them in creating policies. “You’ve got to give them a platform,” he says.

One related challenge: individuals at institutions tend to be status quo-minded, says Shockley. “They believe we shouldn’t change the status quo much because it’s working for them. Then you have people on campus who feel very differently. Trying to figure out what to do can put you into a pickle.”

Student activists may not even know what changes they need. “It’s sometimes hard to imagine what you should demand,” says Davis. “And you might get to senior year before you understand the complexity of what you’re actually dealing with.” For example, students on a campus might feel validated when a chief diversity office is established but then realize over time that it has no authority and no budget, he explains.

Or, as one survey respondent at a state university noted, “employees on diversity committees should never be white men.”

Students of color may hesitate to participate in discussions because they’re tired from having done so already without change happening, says Austin. “When we think about issues of race, and I use the lens because I identify as a Black man, it can be hard. There’s all of this constant barrage. One more email asking to talk about it one more time maybe just feels like too much.”

With peers, 60 percent of Student Voice survey respondents say race comes up more frequently in discussions. White students are more likely to agree than students of color, which Austin says is probably because of the high-profile, back-to-back violence against Black individuals last summer. “There is no escaping this. White-identified students faced that potentially for the very first time.”

Broken out by politics, strong Democrats agree more than strong Republicans do that race is a more frequent discussion topic, but not by much (65 percent compared to 50 percent, respectively).

“When consciousness [about race] has been cultivated, people are wary of committing microaggressions, afraid of insulting someone because of their race,” says Reddy. College may be considered a safe space, he adds, but “you need to express all the ‘right’ thoughts or you are wrong. There should be more openness to make mistakes and make candid statements.”

Some students feel the extra focus on race is polarizing. One online university survey respondent, for example, wrote, “I see friendships, families, communities and institutions cracking and crumbling on account of the insertion of race everywhere it can be shoved, and the colorblind are being forced to recognize color where it is irrelevant.”

Students at private nonprofit colleges were more likely to have participated in a discussion about race with peers informally or within a class than those at public colleges. Class discussions about race are very or somewhat difficult, say more than one-quarter of the full survey sample; only 9 percent say race is very easy to talk about.

White attributes the college type differences to private institutions generally being smaller. “The nature of the students’ experience at a residential college may be different than at a big institution,” she says. “They’re more likely to feel like they can engage, and they can’t disengage. At a large university, it may not be in your face every day. In a small residential community, race is harder to avoid.”

Tate has noticed white peers’ discomfort during discussions about race at Tulane. However, as a Black woman pointing out a microaggression, she has felt fellow students do listen and better understand why their words weren’t the best choice.

The survey also asked whether faculty members are more inclusive of diverse voices in the curriculum because of BLM, with more than one-third agreeing at least somewhat. Black and white students are about equally likely to agree, but Asian American students are the most likely to agree.

Austin sees white Wichita State faculty members learning more about diversity “to be better equipped for conversations that may take place in our classrooms,” he says. Even at an HBCU like Howard, this can be challenging, explains Shockley. “A person has to be willing to step outside of their comfort zone to diversify in any kind of way. It takes courage and it takes extra work.”

When making such decisions, Davis says the current climate around racism “demands us to not simply see these as additive courses.” Students would see the content as less important and within such a class might never have “to confront their position in the hierarchy.”

From the faculty perspective, officials should be cautious that efforts to increase curricular diversity don’t result in already marginalized educators putting in most of the work. “That creates a sense of taxation and burden,” he says.

Movement on the Movement

Students are torn on whether BLM has resulted in their institutions being a better place, with the highest percentage of survey respondents (33 percent) neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Only 6 percent strongly agree, and 15 percent strongly disagree. Broken out by race, results are similar, except with Native American students, who are far more likely to agree at least somewhat (56 percent), compared to 22 percent of students over all (the survey’s margin of error for Native Americans is plus or minus 18 percent).

“Our Indigenous siblings have probably felt neglected for a long time,” says Austin, and they may be noticing BLM has brought about awareness of all marginalized groups.

BLM is seen by some as an organization and by others as a concept, so that may have influenced responses, he adds.

“The symbol of Black Lives Matter has been more impactful than the results of the movement itself,” says Allen. “Organizers chose those words carefully, and they resonate. This recognition that Black lives matter and have not always historically mattered is important to say out loud.”

Becoming an antiracist university involves fundamental change, notes Davis. “We can’t Band-Aid our way out of this. Colleges are committed to productivity, prestige and profit. All of those things institutions will pursue at the expense of the people.”

One honest conversation he’d like to see is about the role of campus police. Students may have been emotionally and psychologically traumatized by past interactions with law enforcement and uncomfortable with armed police on campus.

When asked how much they agree “higher ed has a role to play in racial justice and racial equality in the U.S.,” two-thirds of Student Voice respondents say at least somewhat.

While that is one of the strongest survey percentages, Allen says he wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than 100 percent. “How we interact with each other in any setting, particularly in a setting of higher learning, is critical.”

Davis, meanwhile, notes that agreement may be inflated because “it’s a question about what’s ideal. Sure, that sounds reasonable and the noble thing that institutions should do. But beyond that, I don’t know people would actually agree with it in practice.” Students may be thinking it wouldn’t necessarily involve their own work and participation.

No one has a crystal ball to glimpse the campus climate this fall, when students at many colleges will be returning to campus or to in-person classes for the first time since spring 2020.

While Delaware State brought back 75 percent of its students this past fall, Allen suspects students who have been virtual this whole time are feeling pent-up frustration. “I think you’re going to see more activated students on campuses.”

Even if racial unrest has cooled down by fall, Tulane University student Maiya Tate implores higher ed leaders not to forget. “This is important and ongoing and not just something that’s going to stop.”

Shockley predicts that after a year of seeing injustice and acting on it, students will be “taking a harder look at what the place they’re paying the bills at is doing” to combat problems.

And Austin imagines a return involving student activists speaking up to campus leaders and seeking results, saying, “You made a commitment to do this. OK, where is it?”

Even if racial unrest has cooled down by fall, Tate implores higher ed leaders not to forget. “This is important and ongoing and not just something that’s going to stop.”

As one survey respondent at an Ivy League university noted, emails from the president about how it’s a “difficult time for all of us” every time a person of color dies should also include actual steps that will be taken to “do good for people of color … Right now, these emails do nothing except make us mad.”

Austin suggests that white presidents in particular seek out perspective and insight about what it’s like to be a person of color “so we don’t just get ‘thoughts and prayers.’ You may be a really woke president engaged in social justice, but if you’re not, I hope you’re finding those resources. I don’t think you can ever truly be competent in a culture you’re not a member of.”

In communicating with students, presidents must find out what they feel they need, particularly those in marginalized populations, he says. The ask: “What do you need to make this college a better place for you, and for your brothers and sisters at home seeing you in college?”

In White’s view, none of this can be a “side thing that we do. It has to be part and parcel of how we think of ourselves as institutions.”

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