The late, great sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote eloquently of what he called “the sociological imagination,” which involved the ability to connect our own biographies to the wider currents of history, to understand the various social and cultural components of who we become. That was a major corrective to the highly individualistic worldview of Americans -- our strong tendency to view ourselves in a historical vacuum, as if our goals, beliefs and attitudes are not powerfully shaped by the social groups of which we are a part.
His invitation to a broader, more sophisticated view of ourselves was extended midway through the last century, at a time when Americans had a compelling need to come to terms with recent chaos and violence on a world scale, along with major ongoing evils in our own society -- racism prominently among them.
While we can consider some of the more extreme ills of racism a thing of our national past, others are very much still with us. Some forms of racial inequality have, in fact, been growing worse in recent years -- for example, the level of racial segregation in many of our public school systems, which is linked to the growing inequality of income and wealth in our society. Such inequality plays out at our colleges and universities in a number of ways, including admissions statistics, the daily experiences of students on our campuses and graduation rates.
As we think about which aspects of racism higher education institutions can most effectively address and how the sociological imagination fits into such a project, we might begin by noting that the word “racism” is often used rhetorically, particularly by college students, as a cover term for a range of things that differ significantly in their level of seriousness. Consider the following, for example:
Some white college students dress in racially insensitive costumes for Halloween.
The white presidential candidate of a major political party asserts that a Mexican-American judge cannot fulfill the professional and ethical standards of his vocation.
White police officers kill black men in incidents that are unlikely to have occurred if all parties were white.
Lumping these situations together under the general category of racism is hardly helpful in terms of what it will take to address each of them.
Institutions of higher education have sought to address racial inequality in a number of ways, including efforts to diversify their faculties, student bodies and staff. Their strongest suit would seem to be their potential for fostering robust communication across the racial and ethnic boundaries that divide members of what should be a community. For those who have not suffered from racism themselves, that will probably involve the risk of revealing some unattractive opinions or replacing denials of racism with the intention of making the racist unconscious conscious. For those who have suffered, it will involve forbearance and perhaps a taste for irony. It presupposes intellectual curiosity and emotional openness on the part of all.
A major obstacle to that has been a growing tendency toward what we might call “identity fetishism,” or seeing a specific dimension of social identity -- race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity -- as a terminus rather than a point of departure. American colleges and universities thus risk becoming places where the sociological imagination has gone to die.
The “safe space” movement, together with an it-takes-one-to-know-one mind-set, can operate to create barriers where there should be bridges. To be sure, it is good to spend comfortable, supportive times with those who are close fellow travelers through life. And achieving a deep understanding of those whose experience has been different in significant ways is a task to be approached with humility. But moving out from the familiar is a core goal of higher education.
Barriers between racial/ethnic groups in campus social life have had a curricular side as well. Separate departments or programs in African-American, Asian-American or Latin American studies, while offering belated, much-needed perspectives on groups that have long been hidden from historical research and teaching, have had the downside of not forcing a fuller, multiperspective approach to American studies itself. The use of the label “ethnic studies” as a cover term for these more group-specific programs, moreover, has been an unfortunate choice: are some people “ethnic” and others not? Was not the upshot to leave European-Americans an unmarked category of just plain folks? Some have sought to correct that with proposals of white studies programs -- hardly the best solution.
Ethnic studies programs are understandably of special interest to the respective members of the groups themselves; they have thus had something of a self-segregating effect in terms not only of students but also, to some extent, of faculty members -- an effect amplified by a tendency to merge the goals of faculty diversity with those of curricular diversity. The result can be a typecasting of faculty members of particular ethnic-racial groups. While an African-American historian can make distinguished contributions to scholarship and teaching in the field of African-American history, another can certainly make distinguished contributions to the field of medieval European history.
And, speaking of faculty, a general question is where have they been in the increasing diversity-related troubles we see playing out on our campuses? Some have been constructively engaged. For example, in the aforementioned Halloween costume example, faculty colleagues came to the public defense of a lecturer who found herself in the eye of a student activist storm by suggesting that we should not overreact to such behavior -- an episode that attracted an extraordinary amount of news media attention. Others have been part of the problem rather than part of the solution -- for example, by making ill-considered, even trollish statements in online media. Fortunately, that will sometimes be an occasion for pushback from their colleagues.
For the most part, however, faculty members have simply been missing in action when it comes to dealing with campus upheavals around race and racism. Students seem to be stepping into a leadership vacuum that pits them directly against administrators.
As we know, faculty members have more than enough problems of their own these days, what with increasing adjunctification and presidents who come to their jobs without understanding the business they are in -- to name just a couple of the most obvious misfortunes. But intellectual leadership is an essential faculty responsibility.
For openers, faculty members can bring the intellectual capital of their respective fields to bear on current debates. Those of us who are anthropologists, for example, have chosen a vocation based on moving beyond the stance that it takes one to know one. Though requiring a self-critical perspective on how well one can know an “other,” it centers on a quest to understand as much about others as we possibly can. Moreover, what we might call the anthropological imagination also presumes that an outsider’s perspective offers its own advantages; at the same time, a detour through another world is a path toward better understanding dimensions of our own, which would otherwise remain below our self-conscious reflection.
Beyond our own particular disciplines, departments and programs, faculty members are also part of a wider academic community with a shared dedication to core educational values. Those of us who believe that diversity is not just about social justice, as important as that is, but is also tied to the intrinsic goals of a liberal -- and liberating -- education have our work cut out for us. Outlines of that work can be found, for example, in the contributions of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, especially through its LEAP initiative (Liberal Arts and America’s Promise). Essential learning outcomes associated with that initiative include cross-cultural sophistication and civic responsibility.
In brief, we need to help make our colleges and universities ideal places for cultivating the sociological imagination. That means exploring with our students not only where we have come from but also where we might be going.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and president and professor of anthropology emerita of Barnard College.
I’ve been asked for years why I start many of my higher education talks with equity. Today, the word is trending, even among those who advised me against using it. While that is progress, we have to be careful not to confuse talk with change.
Historically, we in higher education have been really good at producing reports on inequality and explaining these inequalities away, but really bad at making equity a priority. And we haven’t made changes in the classroom that are necessary to really make a difference.
The fact that unequal outcomes are such an enduring characteristic of higher education -- especially for Latino, black, Native American and underserved Asian-American students -- is evidence of our poor record of both talking about andproducing equity.
In California, for example, we tend to view numbers that show fewer black and Latino students admitted to public flagship universities like the University of California campuses in Los Angeles and Berkeley, and fewer blacks and Latinos earning a degree, as unfortunate but inevitable. Between 2007 and 2015, the higher education attainment gap between whites and Latinos actually grew by 2.2 percentage points, from a 22.1 percentage point gap to a 24.3 percentage point gap. The gap for blacks grew by 0.3 percentage points.
Closing that gap is not going to be easy. Most of these students are poor and the first in their families to attend college. They were deprived of opportunities to be ready for college. But when they don’t do well, they are blamed for being underprepared, for not seeking help and for not taking advantage of faculty office hours. Despite having been failed by segregated and underresourced schools, such students are seen as the authors of their unequal outcomes.
Some states seem to get the scope of the challenge and are beginning to show the nation how to move from talking about equity to making it a priority. For instance, California’s last three state budgets have included significant financial support for community colleges to help diminish the equity gaps in student success. Those funds are part of a plan to close equity gaps in five indicators of student success: access, basic skills, course completion, degree attainment and transfer. The budget for this equity work has increased from $70 million in 2014-15 to $155 million this year -- and the same funding level has been proposed for 2016-17. Community colleges are using these funds in a variety of ways that increase support to students of color. For example, East Los Angeles Community College is using a portion of the money to create the Latina Completion and Transfer Academy Program. San Diego Mesa College is sponsoring professional development for all faculty members on training and teaching college men of color.
Colorado’s higher education master plan offers another example. Goal No. 3 of the plan is “Enhance access to, and through, postsecondary education to ensure that the system reflects the changing demographics of the state while reducing attainment gaps among students from underserved communities.”
But here’s the truth: just as plants in an untended garden will fail to take root and then wither and die, so, too, will these policies.
I don’t say this to be cynical. Nor do I think higher education leaders and practitioners are willfully ineffective or don’t want to do the right thing. But these polices will fail unless we engage faculty members and administrators in changing themselves and their own institutions. They must ask why their practices or teaching methods work better for white students than for students of color.
To me, this is the untold story of “first-generation equity practitioners” teaching in higher education. For example, I view the 62 percent of California community college faculty who are white as first-generation equity practitioners who need to learn how to be equity minded. Nationally, 79 percent of full-time faculty members are white, while 6 percent are black, 5 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are Asian/Pacific Islanders.
Higher education faculty members everywhere must recognize and concede that their practices are failing to create success for too many students. They need to see that their implicit biases about race and ethnicity often prevent them from viewing students who are not like themselves as college material.
And it can be done. With the right training and support, faculty members engaged in this work take actions to identify and reverse patterns of failure -- their students’ and their own. We are seeing progress firsthand in our own work, which focuses on remediating colleges so they are able to educate Latinos and blacks as well as they educate white and more economically privileged students.
James Gray, the chair of the math department at the Community College of Aurora in Colorado, for instance, changed practices after looking at math data by course and instructor, disaggregated by race and ethnicity. It was clear that some faculty members were successful and others were not. With guided support to help him observe instructor-student interaction, he saw how faculty members talked to and greeted students, whom they paid attention to and whom they ignored, and whether feedback to students was supportive or alienating.
Through peer-to-peer conversations, math instructors became collectively conscious that their behaviors, particularly toward students of color, conveyed indifference, lack of caring and even fear. On seeing the contradictions between their behaviors and their professional values as educators, all but one faculty member made changes to be more responsive to students of color. Instead of being color-blind they became more color conscious; rather than waiting for students of color to seek help they developed help-giving practices.
Those small changes helped faculty members forge validating relationships with students of color. For example, using our Equity Scorecard’s Syllabus Review protocol, faculty members became aware that their syllabi, rather than supporting students’ success, taxed their self-worth by screaming rules and telling them all the ways in which they could fail the class. The review of syllabi was a catalyst for deeper discussions about teaching and reflection on how instructors’ language and everyday behaviors influence classroom racial climates.
Gray, in his role as department chair, now looks at mathematics course-level data, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and by instructor, discussing results with faculty individually to come up with strategies to resolve disparities of up to 35 percentage points. Instructors have adopted equity goals and they know how many more students by race and ethnicity need to succeed to close the gaps. After the implementation of the Equity Scorecard that we at the Center for Urban Education use to track progress, the college algebra pass rates for blacks improved from 66 percent in 2014 to 77 percent in 2015 and from 66 percent to 83 percent among Hispanics.
He also realized that in 10 years as department chair, he had never hired an African-American to teach a college-level math course. He even realized his recruiting strategies put candidates of color at a disadvantage. He now asks job candidates how they would explain their course syllabus on day one of class in order to see if that candidate’s approach is conducive to an equity-focused classroom.
The Community College of Aurora is part of a growing effort to translate high-level policy goals into campus- and faculty-level goals that can be implemented and measured by race and ethnicity to improve retention and graduation results. The improvements achieved at Aurora suggest that structural changes such as course redesign or acceleration are necessary but insufficient. The success of such efforts depends greatly on the motivation of faculty to take action. The Aurora story makes clear that math faculty who engage in a structured race-conscious examination of data that is close to their instructional practices can develop agency for change.
The combination of underprepared students and underprepared faculty members is the perfect storm. When campuses change the way they serve students of color, however, a fundamental shift in thinking and approach occurs that moves us beyond talk and closer to real equity.
Estela Mara Bensimon is a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California Rossier School Of Education. Her Twitter handle is @ebensimon.
An alarm is sounding: campuses have become asylums controlled by the inmates, professors are afraid of their students and everyone faces punishment for crimes of thought and speech. Yet other observers rebut such terrifying tales with their own stories, which suggest the landscape of higher education is multifaceted, with an array of institutional contexts and voices. As alluring as it can be to view campus protests merely as confrontations between hypersensitive students and fearful campus employees, that perspective elides crucial historical understandings that can help us to navigate these challenges in the months ahead and forge alliances in the work of justice in higher education.
Yet those examples represent just a fraction of American campuses and thus present a selective -- and perhaps intentionally exaggerated -- picture of what is in actuality a diverse landscape of institutions, people and concerns. Students at San Jose State, for example, recently organized in response to a racial harassment incident involving student roommates and racist remarks about Latinas made by a university philanthropy board member. However, those incidents garnered little attention compared to the ones we cited above.
The protesters at SJSU, like the campus’s larger student population, included a high percentage of commuters, transferees, first-generation college students, members of the working class and immigrants. Many work to pay for school and living expenses, and a startling number struggle with unstable housing and food insecurity. In addition, SJSU students routinely face delaying graduation due to rising fees and limited course offerings -- both outcomes of severe state funding cuts. Thus, far from being coddled youngsters who expect the world to bend to their feelings, these students juggle course work, extracurricular activities, employment and family responsibilities, and yet find the wherewithal to speak up against the injustices around them.
At Oberlin, where the snowflake archetype may resonate more deeply, it still benefits no one to paint an entire student body with so broad a brush or apply such dehumanizing stereotypes to individuals. Students here embody varying levels of wealth and privilege. And while for some acquiring an elite education is a means to maintain a socioeconomic position, for others, arriving on the campus is a disorienting introduction to social and economic mores and ways of interacting with others that they are totally unfamiliar with and did not necessarily seek out. Castigating “fragile snowflakes” may offer psychic relief in stressful times, but it gives outsize visibility to certain students and styles of engagement while rendering myriad others invisible.
By and large, the students we encounter at our respective institutions are resilient and hardworking; as young adults, they can also be self-doubting and anxious. The special snowflake archetype not only flattens the ethnic, racial and socioeconomic diversity of the college student population but also dismisses and silences students’ legitimate concerns, while shifting any blame onto them (albeit sometimes their parents). It is easier to bemoan the shortcomings of a generation of students than it is to critically examine systemic inequities and blind spots in higher education that might be producing the problems those students highlight.
A Disconnection From History
Although higher education’s present challenges seem unprecedented and intractable, it helps to situate them historically. One thread in the “what’s wrong with colleges today” conversation brings attention to the sources deemed responsible for indoctrinating activist students. These include feminist and minority professors, who wield strange concepts like intersectionality and microaggressions and whose presence stirs nostalgia for an ivory tower that was once objective and unburdened by identity politics.
As tenured minority women faculty members in ethnic studies, who are also first-generation college graduates, we are struck by such notions’ disconnection from history. Our paths were paved by developments including affirmative action, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, Pell Grants, the feminist and civil rights movements, and the San Francisco student strike of 1968 -- turning points that expanded the boundaries of belonging and legitimacy in America writ large and the academy writ small. In the latter, the assumed supremacy of Western thought and white male authority also came under intensified contestation, with (we believe) salutary effects. In ethnic studies, for instance, scholars examined “America” through previously unconsidered or explicitly excluded voices, while applying frameworks like racism and empire next to or in place of American exceptionalism. In turn, new opportunities and niches permitted a wider scope of participation in higher education and the life of the mind.
Seeing continuities between past and present, we note that student demands still invoke principles like inclusion and diversity. Their concerns go beyond race and gender, however, and encompass many more identity groups -- all in constant flux. As our understandings of how power works evolve, so do our expectations for reform.
It is not enough, for instance, to simply enroll more students from underrepresented groups. Calls are made to also adopt anti-oppression practices that touch every facet of interaction and axis of inequality. Some of those practices (say, using the nongender binary “Latinx” or introducing oneself with “preferred gender pronouns”) might seem silly in their novelty, impracticability or sense of proportion. But we should also recall some of the outlandish demands of earlier generations: radicalized youths in the 1960s rejecting “Oriental” for “Asian-American” or feminists fighting patriarchy with terms like “herstory.”
Not all of those gestures stuck, and we ought to debate efficacious and collaborative versus misguided and alienating strategies for effecting broad change. But this Pandora’s box was opened long before the current generation of college students. It behooves us then to seek them out in their discontent -- even when wrapped in petulance and youthful arrogance -- if it springs from a yearning for inclusion, dignity and fairness.
Mindful of a generational divide separating us from our students, their protests and expressions of alienation resonate with us. We were once in their shoes, seeking “safe spaces”-- to use today’s parlance -- in academe, uncertain but hopeful that we might eventually find them. Now as tenured faculty, we find ourselves navigating a crossroads, or duality of identity, with embattled colleagues and administrators on the one hand, and concerned students of color on the other.
Indeed, another important although largely overlooked discussion in higher education concerns faculty of color -- women of color, in particular -- shouldering a disproportionate share of emotional labor only to encounter an “ivory ceiling” that demoralizes the spirit and impedes advancement. It can be discouraging when our efforts to bring greater diversity and equity to the academy go unrecognized or are even deemed antagonistic. How we navigate our jobs as professors is guided by our histories, our professional responsibilities and ethics, and an abiding belief in the power of education. Usually that makes for a rewarding and exhilarating mix, and our present challenges call for more, not less, engagement. To opt for the latter will only leave us further adrift.
Wringing our hands over college students’ behavior and the state of higher education might appear unseemly against the backdrop of national tragedies: the nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the Dallas sniper attack. While the ivory tower seems removed from the real world, we see as our mission in it the production and dissemination of ideas to better understand and address the problems of our world today. In our work and teaching, issues of bigotry, inequality, injustice and racism are especially salient. Seen this way, campus tensions and the conversations about them are not a sideshow, but part of the broader social and political landscape and, indeed, efforts to create a better world.
As we prepare to resume classes, we hope that all campus players -- students, faculty, staff members, administrators -- proceed with care and purpose about when to debate versus when to go to war, how to recognize allies, and the various ways that working for justice can manifest. We hope that more voices are considered and invited to the table.
And to our students, we have been long at work on many of the things you seek. Let’s find ways to work together.
Magdalena L. Barrera is an associate professor of Mexican American studies at San Jose State University. Shelley S. Lee is an associate professor of comparative American studies and history at Oberlin College.
One of the most perplexing features of the studies and reports on student success that have emerged in recent years in higher education is that many are dominated by discussion of student failure. Often, these documents included a section with a title like “Barriers to Persistence and Completion.” These narratives fixate on factors that identify students as “at-risk,” “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged.”
Chief among these factors is some variation of what I call the big three deficiencies: minority, low income, first generation. Maybe my sensitivity to them comes from the fact that I fit all three descriptions when I graduated high school.
More than ever before, colleges and universities are having to demonstrate their ability to ensure that students with big three labels achieve. Demographic trends indicate that the pool of prototypical college-ready students -- recent high school graduates from high-performing schools whose parents have had a successful college experience -- is shrinking. As the domino effect trickles through the system, all of our institutions will be competing at some level to enroll such students to fill our classes. The numbers as well as societal pressures have driven many schools to announce campaigns aimed at recruiting students of color. Public and private funders are insisting that once we get these students, we impel them to completion.
However, the deficit framework on which many of our efforts are built hardly seems an appropriate foundation for strategies aimed at success. As long as being a person of color or of modest economic means, or the child of parents who did not go to college, is deemed to be, first and foremost, an indicator of potential failure, the integrity of our proclaimed expectation of success is undermined. Certainly, many of these students face challenges that require intentional and thoughtful support. Yet our overwhelming reliance on deficit-laden labels -- or, more recently, the painfully impersonal acronym URM (underrepresented minority) -- to routinely describe these students is an indication that we do not portray them predominantly as being imminently successful or exceptionally attractive to us. If that is the case, our best efforts will be impaired.
My perspective on this comes from my community organizing work and experience with practices of asset-based community development in urban neighborhoods. The approach recognizes that marginalized communities that are defined mostly by their very real problems -- poverty-stricken, crime ridden, violent, distressed -- are equally filled with talented residents and community assets, formal and informal, that are largely ignored. Research by John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Cormac Russell of Nurture Development and others show that such communities all over the world experience transformative change when residents see themselves as being beyond needy, are affirmed in the strengths they have to contribute and work together to solve problems on behalf of their families and their neighbors. Meanwhile, in contrast, communities where residents are seen, or see themselves, mainly as clients and recipients of services struggle to improve.
For instance, McKnight and other asset-based proponents argue that the obstacles associated with poverty are debilitating not because they extinguish one’s gifts and talents, but because they limit the opportunity for them to be fully actualized. Too often these contributions go underappreciated by systems of assistance that, while providing essential services, categorize people based mostly on their placement on a needs assessment. As McKnight states in his book The Careless Society, “Communities depend upon capacities. Systems commodify deficiencies.”
Now, apply this thinking to higher education, where the overarching culture of college and university life for all students starts with the premise that “you need us.” The counterbalance that “you also bring great value to the institution” is assumed to be in place for those considered college ready. Students whose identities upon arrival are tied almost exclusively to their deficiencies start at an extreme disadvantage.
Adopting an asset-oriented view of all students, including the big three, can be accomplished by overtly acknowledging and articulating the assets that these students possess. This does not require wishful thinking or mind tricks. It is increasingly evident that minority, low-income and first-generation students possess experiences and characteristics that make them prime candidates for what a 21st-century college student needs to be. In an increasingly diverse, urbanized world, many of these students have firsthand knowledge of the challenges faced by the majority of people. Many have succeeded through challenging economic and social conditions with a measure of grit and tenacity that is beneficial in a highly competitive, fast-paced society. Often, driven by their own experiences, they bring a keen sensitivity and insight to issues of equity and justice, which are sorely needed at a time when seemingly intractable disparities within society are straining social and economic structures.
Many of these students also bring a high appreciation for familial and communal collaboration. A 2012 study by Northwestern University professor of management Nicole Stephens and her colleagues found that first-generation students, for example, were more likely to express motives of interdependence -- such as helping out family and being a role model -- than more affluent students. At a time when collective action is being lauded above individual heroism as vital to problem solving in civic or corporate arenas, such sensibilities would seem a welcome contribution to campuses fueled by the hyperindependence traditionally associated with going to college.
In order to develop the discipline to value and amplify the strengths and capacities the big three bring, however, I am convinced that higher education administrators and faculty members desperately need a new language to characterize these students that frees us from our dependence on labels such as “disadvantaged” or the dreaded URM designation.
Such a tactic is not trivial. Consider how new terminology has invigorated the efforts of those who work with some of the most marginalized individuals in our society: men and women who have served time in prison and have been released back into society. Long stigmatized as “ex-offenders” or “ex-cons” or “felons,” they are now routinely referred to as “returning citizens.” The term has been advanced by policy makers, criminal justice experts and community leaders who have come to recognize that these individuals’ productive transition back into neighborhood life is essential to community well-being and stability. The term has become so universally accepted that the city of Philadelphia in 2013 officially amended its city code to abolish the term “ex-offender” in favor of “returning citizen.”
A similar reorientation is needed in higher education. I suggest we adopt a term such as “rising scholars” to refer to big three students. It would force us to articulate our expectations for success in students who typically are characterized for their likelihood of failure. It would remind those of us who seek to assist them to recognize first their gifts, talents and contributions, rather than their deficits. Perhaps it would help us chart a surer path to success among students for whom failure is no longer an option.
Byron P. White is vice president for university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University.
Student outrage erupted at Yale University recently when the Intercultural Affairs Committee’s call for students to be thoughtful in their choice of Halloween costume was denigrated by the faculty leaders of one of Yale’s residential colleges. Tensions were further exacerbated by reports of racist behavior at a fraternity party on campus during Halloween weekend.
Having spent 2013-14 at Yale as an American Council on Education Fellow, I know how deeply President Peter Salovey, Provost Benjamin Polak and Dean Jonathan Holloway care about equity and inclusion. It was especially disheartening to see this story in the national news just when Yale is launching an initiative to increase faculty diversity.
The IAC sought to remind students to be sensitive in their choice of attire; its message stressed that wearing costumes embodying stereotypes of racial or ethnic groups indicates to peers from those demographics that they are neither welcome nor respected.
Responding that “we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween,” Yale faculty member and Silliman College associate master Erika Christakis objected that it was not educators’ place to judge a student’s costume, that costumes are protected free speech, that college should be “a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience” and that it is up to students offended by a costume to start a discussion with their peers.
Her email to the college’s students quoted her husband, Nicholas Christakis, also a Yale faculty member and Silliman’s master, as advising that “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended.”
These objections are fallacious, especially coming from faculty members who co-lead a residential college community and are therefore “charged with setting the intellectual, social and ethical tone of the college.” The original letter from the IAC called for students to be more thoughtful in judging their own attire; it is incumbent on each of us to consider how our free speech may impact another’s life; so-called transgressive actions that attack other members of the community do not create a "safe space" for intellectual maturation; and a university should help all students recognize when a situation raises issues worthy of reflection and debate.
Moreover, the topic was not simply costumes that an individual might not find to their taste, but costumes that are overtly hostile to entire racial or ethnic groups. As I discuss below, faculty and academic leaders should help students learn to apply the rigorous analytical tools they learn in our classrooms to complex societal issues they will encounter outside of academe; we do this best when we model this behavior ourselves.
It is good to see reports that Erika and Nicholas Christakis have since offered an apology, acknowledged that “many students feel voiceless in diverse ways,” and invited students to come discuss their concerns. When we cause others pain (regardless of our intention), taking responsibility and seeking dialogue are appropriate steps. I hope that the leaders of Silliman will be able to use this painful incident as an impetus to make their college, and the university, more truly welcoming of all students.
But the episode goes far beyond a single campus on a single holiday weekend. Indeed, it reminds us of the university faculty’s unique role in supporting free intellectual inquiry and teaching students how to take part.
The essential responsibility of a university educator is to teach students to gather information, analyze it critically, reflect upon its larger meaning and use it to make a difference in the world. Our special role is to help students consider how they will navigate society as adults and to help them acquire the intellectual tools needed for that journey. This involves teaching students how to have tough conversations about sensitive issues in a spirit of respectful inquiry -- including discussions with those whose views they neither understand nor share.
To this end, we must show our students how to discern when a situation raises challenging intellectual or societal questions worthy of their consideration. While it is not our job to tell them what conclusions to draw about a particular Halloween costume, it is precisely our job to help them understand that they should give the matter serious thought.
Moreover, to prepare our students to take up the mantle of free speech and engage in vigorous public discourse on the issues of the day (including the impact of racist Halloween costumes on a community), we must teach them how do so in a manner that respects the right of others to join the debate. We need to set standards in our classrooms and on our campuses that let those from marginalized populations know their voices are welcomed.
Until those students are invited to share their perspectives and questions, until their words are heard and accorded reflective (not reflexive) responses, they are not truly being afforded the education they enrolled to obtain. Until classmates from majority populations comprehend that their own understanding will be enriched by listening deeply to those peers, their educations are also being compromised.
Academic leaders have additional responsibilities in this arena because of the authority conferred by their roles. As the Yale incident demonstrates, communiqués from the campus’s cultural diversity center or inclusion committee are not always accorded the respect they deserve. The very fact that the group is formally charged with speaking out on topics related to inclusion can erode their messages’ perceived legitimacy and impact.
Conversely, when other university leaders stand up for the principles of equity and diversity, this is received as a more neutrally grounded and less biased expression of support for these themes. Given this, we who are officers of the university must publicly support the importance of paying attention to (and openly discussing) civility and community. Our doing so fosters the very sense of safety and trust that is essential for broad-based public conversations about sensitive issues.
Similarly, faculty members who are accorded privilege by their race, gender, ability or other personal characteristics should make an effort to model inclusive principles for students, rather than relying on our colleagues from underrepresented groups to do so. We should show publicly that we are open to becoming more aware of the unearned benefits our majority status confers and to better understanding the ramifications for other community members. We can do this, for example, by reading some of the many books and blogs on these topics and by listening attentively when members of marginalized communities raise concerns -- even when the subject matter is painful to face.
We can examine relevant evidence in our classrooms, to show that these topics merit the investment of precious course hours and warrant intellectual discussion by all students, regardless of personal background. When we see a questionable Halloween costume, we can express our concerns and ask others what they think, rather than making it the responsibility of the person whose ancestry the costume mocks to open the topic.
Some critics claim that campus diversity centers are trying to cocoon students of color, students with disabilities or students on the LGBTQ spectrum, to shield them from the rough-and-tumble world of free speech.
I firmly disagree. Based on what I have read, observed and heard from my own family and friends, individuals from marginalized populations in our country do not generally have the luxury of living in a safe, sanitized bubble. Like it or not, issues of race, power, gender and ability confront them daily -- often quite literally, in the form of microaggressions, slurs or threats hurled without provocation. Indeed, it is only those of us in the majority who have the luxury of remaining oblivious to these considerations as we choose our Halloween costumes.
The university is intended to be a safe space for intellectual growth, a place to test ideas against the best available evidence, a place to deduce the concrete implications of theoretical visions, a place to examine unfamiliar or uncomfortable issues. Clearly, even such a plebeian topic as the choice of holiday attire offers rich opportunities for applying tools acquired in the history, sociology or philosophy classroom.
Through our daily work, professors and university leaders should show students how to be responsible members of a diverse community who listen carefully to opposing views and reflect upon the impact of their actions. If the university is to truly become an academic haven for all our students, we are the ones who must make it so.
Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and University Distinguished Professor of Physics at Michigan State University.
This week, in response to concerns expressed by student activists, Washington and Lee University announced changes to the display of Confederate flags on its campus. Northwestern University recently studied the involvement of one of its founders with a massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, while Duke University removed the name of a segregationist politician from a dormitory.
And many Northern and Southern colleges are considering evidence that they benefited from the colonial slave economy, as documented in Craig Steven Wilder's book Ebony and Ivy (2013). Inevitably, the older a college or university, the greater the likelihood it has some history of which it is not proud.
The question for those of us who work on complicit campuses is how to respond to this knowledge. When institutional identity collides with identity politics, the result is a microcosm of our national culture wars: debates over the meaning of contested events and people; questions about apologies and restitution; and demands by some to jettison traditions that others cherish.
What should a modern, multicultural institution do about history and symbols tainted by exclusion or discrimination?
First, we must boldly research and acknowledge the past, and then we need to think hard about how – or whether – our institutional identity should be recast. A principled response may mean changing the stories that we tell about ourselves. It may mean altering or recontextualizing the names, iconography, and traditions of our campus. In short, we owe it to our students to interpret any uncomfortable facts in light of our current values.
Confronted with a history that is contested, troubled, or downright shameful, there is no need for embarrassment. Rather, we should gather as many facts as possible, acting proactively and pursuing this research with rigor and candor. In the words of Brown University’s Slavery and Justice Commission, which explored Brown's ties to the slave trade, “Universities are dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. They are conservators of humanity’s past.... If an institution professing these principles cannot squarely face its own history, it is hard to imagine how any other institution, let alone our nation, might do so.” The fearless embrace of scholarship and analysis is a powerful way of demonstrating institutional ideals.
In undertaking this work, we must be prepared for the possibility of dissent. Brown's review of its connections to slavery attracted the attention of both advocates and opponents of reparations, as well as demonstrations by white supremacists and the Nation of Islam.
But we cannot use the risk of conflict as an excuse to minimize the relevance of such “ancient” history. As Wilder says, this would be to “misunderstand the role that history should be playing in the modern academy. It reflects a sense that there is a problem to be managed rather than a history that has to be embraced and woven into the narrative of the institution. Every act of evasion only empowers those who actually are using the history politically.”
For colleges and universities, the past that we do not explain becomes the arena where others reveal the difficult truths we have avoided or, less constructively, project myths and agendas that contradict our institutional cultures.
Exposing the facts is only the first step. It is not usually the historical record that poses the problem; the hard choices arise in the interpretation of and response to that history.
Debate over the necessity for apologies or restitution is one common area of contention. These are decisions that institutions must make for themselves, but in the context of a contemporary college or university, acknowledgment is usually more important than apology, particularly when historical responsibility is murky or the recipient of the apology is not immediately identifiable.
At Brown, where the university was primarily a beneficiary of slavery rather than a perpetrator, President Ruth Simmons decided against a formal apology but committed the university to "restorative justice" activities, including the establishment of a scholarly center and creation of a traveling exhibit. In contrast, in June 2013, Babson College President Lewis Schlesinger chose to formally apologize to Brandeis University for the anti-Semitic behavior of Babson students at a soccer game in 1978 – an incident that took place within living memory under college auspices.
A second challenge arises from the messages embedded in campus iconography, names, and traditions. We are the present-day custodians of these symbols, and inaction on our part suggests an implicit or even explicit endorsement of such messages. At the very least, controversial symbols must be identified and explained, and in some cases the best response may be to abandon them.
Key factors for consideration are the level of connection between the problematic individual or event and the institution, and the existence of any relevant contractual requirements. Because the offensiveness of a name or tradition may be debated, colleges and universities must clearly explain their decisions to either retain or alter symbols.
At Northwestern, for example, significant honor has been given to the university founder John Evans, whose name appears on the alumni center and several professorships (as well as the town of Evanston, where the university is located). After a thorough review of the factual record, Northwestern’s John Evans Study Committee cleared Evans of direct involvement in an 1864 massacre of Native Americans but deplored his justification of it and noted that the university has benefited from Evans’ positive reputation. The committee recommended that Evans’s name remain in its honorific positions but that Northwestern also increase access for Native American students and enhance the study of Native American cultures.
At Duke University, following a similar review, President Richard H. Brodhead made a different decision, which was to strip the name of a segregationist politician from a campus dormitory. In Duke’s case, the eponymous man had minimal involvement with the university, and in the future the building will contain an explanation of the name change. Both of these differing approaches are appropriate to the circumstances, expressing a commitment to factual transparency while reframing the universities’ institutional narratives and reaffirming their modern values.
The situation currently unfolding at Washington and Lee University illustrates many of these considerations. Student activists demanded an apology for the university’s participation in slavery and a denunciation of Robert E. Lee’s participation; the removal of Confederate flags from the campus chapel; and an end to allowing the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an unaffiliated group, to hold an annual program on campus.
In his response this week, President Kenneth P. Ruscio announced plans to modify the display of Confederate flags and provide more historical and educational context designed to clarify their ambiguous message. While acknowledging the complexity of Lee’s legacy, Ruscio chose not to apologize for Lee’s actions prior to his affiliation with the university.
I agree that an apology is unnecessary. Far more meaningful will be a thorough airing of Washington and Lee’s institutional ties to slavery, which Ruscio has already launched. I question the wisdom of allowing outside groups to use the campus to promote their own interpretive agendas, but thoughtful disagreement about such complex topics is to be expected.
Washington and Lee cannot change its history, but it is doing the hard work of engaging with its past to shape its current and future culture. All colleges and universities must be prepared to do the same. As the historian Wilder states, “We can’t evade the consequences of the past or shift the responsibility of research to others. This is something we have to wrestle with.”
Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.