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“Achieving racial equity” is a goal of many campus leaders. But it's a goal few say they have achieved. In Behind the Diversity Numbers: Achieving Racial Equity on Campus (Harvard Education Press), W. Carson Byrd argues that to achieve true racial equity, colleges must talk honestly about their histories and values. Byrd is director of research initiatives at the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan.

He responded to questions about his book via email.

Q: You write, "Contrary to popular belief, universities are not color-blind, race-neutral, meritocratic educational organizations; nor were they ever founded to be that way." Why is this important? Why do people prefer to think those things are true?

A: Thank you for calling attention to this foundational point of the book. The history of higher education contains a steady trajectory of infusing race and supporting racism in and through colleges and universities without necessarily calling attention to the everyday reality of these perspectives and operations. For example, the histories of early college life show that while white men from well-connected families were trained to take over family business, enter medicine or pursue a life as clergymen, higher education was also weaponized to perpetuate the slave economy and promote genocide of Indigenous communities. Since these early days, race has been a central feature of how universities form policies, procedures and what is taught in classrooms and laboratories across historical eras.

Confronting this history that our beloved alma maters assisted in the facilitation of such atrocities is difficult for some people to grapple with. These histories and how they connect to what we see on campuses today also challenges the rosy narrative that universities are uniformly progressive organizations that value the purported “merit” that people hold; that is, people who academically succeed or are rewarded with tenure have shown their ideas, work and general capabilities are valued by their universities and those around them.

If this view of universities operating as meritocratic organizations was true, we wouldn’t have the many racial disparities notable across higher education from who is admitted to certain institutions, what fields they pursue degrees in, who’s likely to earn a degree at different levels, who is offered an opportunity to interview for a coveted tenure-track position and whose work is valued by promotion and tenure committees. An integral piece of this conversation is that universities are a part of society, not separate from it. If we are to confront that racism is part of how other organizations operate, then we must better confront how universities are part of that reality as well. That can influence how we understand common statistics about representation, opportunity and support, and outcomes that guide campus decision making.

Q: How do the faculty play a role in racial inequality? Particularly, can you discuss research on minority faculty and service?

A: If we focus on faculty service, the importance of why framing universities as race-neutral can be detrimental to understanding how a policy can perpetuate racial inequality becomes more apparent. A growing literature that includes the two Presumed Incompetent volumes and the work of Joya Misra shows how faculty service work is highly racialized and gendered. Faculty of color, especially women, are often tapped to do much more service than their white colleagues. Because service is framed as a race-neutral feature of faculty work and is also less valued in hiring and promotion considerations, faculty members engaged more in service work are viewed as less productive or moving the field forward.

These perspectives can have obvious influence on the racial and gender disparities we see across higher education in who persists in tenure-track positions, if they’re given a chance to be in such a position at all, and the explanation for why such disparities continue year after year. Yet the need for this service work is more important than ever, especially in the context of universities stating their commitments to racial equity over the past year. Contributions to fields of study do not have to be in the form of articles and books -- they can take the form of increasing the representation and success of students and faculty of color in disciplines such as physics, engineering and my own field of sociology that shape future directions of research, teaching and leadership. Without changing policies, compensation and the general culture around faculty service, we will continue to view the best solutions to these disparities in service work to include telling faculty members to simply “say no” more often or focus more on their research and teaching. The burden will continue to be for individuals to make changes, not the organization.

Q: Does "holistic admissions" help diversity?

A: Versions of holistic admissions can assist in diversifying student bodies. If we consider the work of Michael Bastedo, Mitchell Stevens and many other scholars who have examined how college admissions operates, considering the many facets of a person’s life can provide admissions staff with additional context for how an applicant succeeded in more ways than traditionally focusing on or overemphasizing grades and test scores. Students are not simply going to school, they are navigating an unequal society that affords some families more material advantages than others, even in the same schools. Amanda Lewis and John Diamond describe how students attending well-resourced and diverse high schools end up with segregated opportunities and are viewed differently by teachers and school staff that can influence their opportunities for pursuing a college education. Without considering this broader context, the default of privileging white students from middle-class and wealthy backgrounds who have always been better positioned for college attendance would continue because of the inequity of the pre-K-12 school system.

Q: Can we have diversity (among races and ethnicities) and not consider race and ethnicity in admissions?

A: In general, race-neutral approaches to college admissions can contribute to racial and ethnic representation among students. When considering the racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. across age groups, particularly among students who are graduating from high school today, universities operating admissions with race-neutral approaches will end up having some racial and ethnic representation among admitted students. However, these admissions approaches are shown not to aid in substantially increasing racial and ethnic diversity as much as approaches that are race-conscious.

Often the conversation turns to socioeconomic status, which has the dangerous tendency to conflate race and socioeconomic status together, meaning people will take common statistics that Black and Latinx communities are on average less wealthy than white communities, for example, to argue against considering the impact of race and associated structural inequalities in admissions reviews. But what Sean Reardon and Julie Park highlight is how race-neutral approaches simultaneously undercut the racial and socioeconomic representation of students. It’s the common flattening of discussions to binary, either-or thinking that ends up lessening the impact of admissions policies that can promote both racial and socioeconomic diversity.

Also, as more calls for confronting racial inequity and injustice echo throughout society, our conversations about college admissions continue down the road of transforming into race-neutral approaches because of the anti-affirmative action cases over the years. Our political landscape around college admissions, specifically at the most selective universities, has shifted many conversations to making comparisons and seeking approaches that could provide comparable levels of diversity. That is, the focus is on if a race-neutral approach is utilized, does the admitted class have similar representation compared to using holistic admissions approaches that are race-conscious? What ends up occurring is the framing of these diversity numbers changes from trying to increase racial and ethnic diversity on campus, that for many colleges and universities is already paltry, to trying to maintain current levels of student representation. Attempting to get comparable diversity is implicitly accepting underrepresentation as long as it can be done without including conversations about race in admissions. Taken together, not considering how and why race matters in applicants’ lives hampers universities’ missions of providing equitable opportunities to learn on their campuses.

Q: What makes a university, as you say, "too white"?

A: The core discussion of the book is to help people reconsider how we view universities and interpret data that influence our conversations about racial equity in higher education. Quantitative data are important for monitoring racial equity on campuses, but like other areas of society, these data are privileged in shaping conversations and decisions, and can also be misused and misinterpreted as the sole set of measures for whether a university is becoming more equitable or not. By focusing on whether an institution is “too white” through mostly demographic data, the conversation falls back on analyzing student numbers without engaging with broader aspects of organizational inequalities.

Representation absolutely matters, but reductionist and essentialist perspectives about why it matters can gloss over the complexity of universities operating as a form of what Victor Ray identifies as racialized organizations, which reflect a university’s policies, procedures and everyday, unwritten rules or logics guiding people’s interactions and perspectives for how and why universities operate the way they do, and why racial inequalities related to student, faculty and staff outcomes persist. Student diversity alone does not indicate that a campus is necessarily more or less equitable or racism-free in the end, and seriously considering how these situations are not mutually exclusive must move beyond limited uses and interpretations of common statistics about our campuses.

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