Submitted by Anonymous on August 25, 2016 - 3:00am
A recent survey by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup of college and university presidents reveals that while 84 percent of university leaders believe race relations on their own campuses are either “excellent” or “good,” less than 25 percent thought so about race relations on other campuses in 2015-16. The percentage of presidents who assessed their own campus racial climate as “good” or “excellent” and elsewhere as not, increased from the previous 2014-15 survey.
How is it possible that in a period increasingly defined by the resurgence of nationwide protests across campuses, college and university leaders can deny or minimize racism at their own institutions?
In late December 2015, we asked colleagues across the country to send us their institution’s responses to nationwide student protests against racism and discrimination. We sought publicly available messages posted to university websites, shared through campuswide email distributions or statements to local, state and national press. We were interested in what we have coined the post-Mizzou effect, believing that the high-profile case at the University of Missouri would provide an opportunity for college and university leaders to confirm what the aforementioned survey found: that while other campuses are embroiled in racial conflict, their own communities were safe. All told, we collected nearly 70 responses from leaders of institutions that ranged from small liberal arts colleges to large research institutions.
An analysis of those responses reveals that while college and university campuses may each be distinct spaces, they rely upon familiar tropes, or frames, to communicate beliefs about their own campus racial climate as it compares to others. For example, nearly every person who responded declared that race relations on their campus are good, much improved compared to previous years, or that the institution is taking significant steps to make things better. No response made mention of failed efforts or existing racial conflict.
On the one hand, that is not surprising. University leaders are often asked to help fund-raise and need to be adept at convincing private citizens, public officials and certainly alumni that their campus is a good investment. On the other, given the sheer number of campus protests nationwide, as well as the enormous news media coverage that followed them, we find it hard to believe that every institution we sampled is a utopia for race relations.
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has a crowdsourced list of more than 100 campus racial incidents dating back to 2011, and FBI data shows that more than 780 hate crimes took place on college and university campuses in 2013. Meanwhile, by the end of 2015, student protesters had issued written or verbal demands at nearly 80 colleges and universities.
Nevertheless, nearly half of our sample contained explicit commitments from college and university leaders to “diversity,” “inclusion” or “equity.” Some marked their efforts as enduring, woven into the fabric of their institution. Brandeis University, for example, claimed its commitment is “lasting,” while Virginia Commonwealth University declared its commitment is “unrelenting.” Other institutional leaders promised their communities that the events across the nation would produce new commitments. At Duke University, for example, leadership declared that “continued campus dialogue” would occur in 2016, sparked by the “national debate about issues around race, diversity and inclusion.” Still other college and university leaders chose to downplay or minimize any potential racial conflict at their institutions. At Georgia State University, for example, leadership touted its national recognition in “The Washington Post for our commitment to diversity.”
Yet a deeper analysis of the various responses reveals that, in many cases, commitment functioned as a way for institutions to distance themselves from the racial conflict taking place elsewhere and/or deny racial tension on their own campus. For example, the same day that hundreds of students gathered to raise awareness about experiences of racism at Columbia University, its president declared in an email to the campus community that the university's commitment to addressing racial inclusion there and elsewhere was “deep.” Likewise, four days after students rallied against a “climate of antiblackness” at the University of California, Irvine, the institution's leadership proclaimed that that the continuing diversity activities and dialogues on that campus reinforced its “commitment to sustaining and supporting a diverse community.” Moreover, the Black Student Union had filed a letter with a number of demands for improving the campus racial climate earlier in the year.
As scholars who study race and racism, we are concerned that the public messaging of campus racial climates by college and university leaders is deeply entrenched within the larger ideologies of colorblindness and diversity. In the 21st century, racism has been caricatured as extreme bigotry, often directed at an individual or group of individuals, by another. Yet a significant body of sociological research shows that contemporary racism is much less overt and often comes in the form of downplaying or minimizing existing racial disparities. Colleges and universities, for example, will often tout their creation of an Office for Diversity and Inclusion as evidence of their deep commitment to promoting racial inclusion, while their leadership and senior faculty ranks remain overwhelmingly white (and male).
On college campuses, as in every corner of our society, pretending that race, racial inequality and racism do not exist is not the same thing as working actively to effect social change in these spaces. As faculty members at three different universities, when we embarked on this project, we did so because the race-related communications and responses coming from our own institutions were, given our experience, quite out of the ordinary from administrations -- rare indeed are communiqués that even come close to discussing race and racism.
Colleges and universities, the vast majority which are historically white, are spaces that are rife with racial conflict, but not typically discussed -- whether in the dorm, the classroom, the department or the halls of administration. We believe the events at institutions like the University of Missouri represent the tip of an iceberg and reveal only a small part of the racial animosity that has pervaded campuses for generations of students, faculty members, staff members and administrators. What encouraged this collective administrative response across dozens of colleges and universities to the tip of that iceberg is unclear. What is clear from our initial research is that this response, in its institutional inertia, appears to quickly wish to push the tip back underwater.
David L. Brunsma is a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech University. His Twitter handle is @brunsma. David G. Embrick is an associate professor of sociology at the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut. His Twitter handle is @dgembrick. James M. Thomas is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi. His Twitter handle is @Insurgent_Prof.
In the wake of the tragic mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday morning -- when a large number of Latinx lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other club patrons were murdered in one of the largest shootings in United States history -- some people in higher education are probably feeling themselves targeted and traumatized. I’m reaching out to anyone who may feel that way to say that I am thinking of you and that you are valued by some of us. I imagine the violence itself and the aftermath of responses and nonresponses from colleagues, friends and the news media can be overwhelming for people who are already treated as less than in our society. You do matter. In fact, we desperately need you -- even when we don’t do a good job showing it.
I also am writing because I believe what has been happening is incredibly relevant to the work that we do in higher education in general and as faculty members in student affairs in particular. I have been taking stock of my own response, or nonresponse, to the shooting and trying to make sense of it in light of my identities as a cisgender, white, agnostic woman from a middle-upper-class background. My privilege allows me to not engage in the conversation, not participate in community events necessary to show solidarity with targeted individuals and not think about terrorism being directed at me on a daily basis. I can simply go about my life, teaching, hanging out with my family and finishing those projects that I need to get done for my own benefit. I acknowledged the shooting to my partner and a friend I know who identifies as queer, but otherwise I have not been present in solidarity or action.
Some of you who are reading this may be wondering what you can do in the world generally and in academe more specifically in the wake of the horrific tragedy in Orlando. Based on my experiences and knowledge of the literature, here are some things that have started to come to mind for me.
Engage in the conversation, especially with people who haven’t brought it up yet and probably won’t in the future.
Listen, listen, listen to what people who have been targeted might be trying to tell you about their experiences.
Continue to do your own work to understand issues of oppression -- especially those related to your privilege areas. (The most highly skilled people practice this every day.)
Show up in solidarity (attend or help plan events hosted by others) but don’t expect praise for it. Then, keep showing up.
Start a conversation with students by framing curriculum in a way that they must ask critical questions about how people in positions of power make decisions with or without including people who have been or are often excluded.
Pay attention to when the conversations start to be about dominant-group perceptions, stereotypes (e.g., Islamophobia, heterosexism, cisgenderism) and feelings (e.g., “I didn’t mean it that way, and I’m really trying, so why are you mad at me?”). Shift it back to challenging the norms: Why was this group targeted? What are the consequences of stereotypes? Where do our norms come from, and how do they harm everyone? How can I question and resist norms that privilege a few people at a cost to many?
Give resources -- time, money, people -- to establishing programs, policies, procedures and other methods of dealing with issues of inequity. That could include, but not be limited to, hiring faculty members who have experience or expertise about equity issues; tackling social-justice topics in courses; creating mechanisms for faculty, staff and students to report instances of bias that they experience; and developing means for handling instances of bias that occur.
Seek out good sources of advice on the issues. The University of Michigan, for instance, has some great resources for educators about being inclusive and having difficult dialogues.
I plan to use some of the continuing discussion taking place on the Student Affairs Professionals Facebook page to help my students understand how incidents like these have a traumatic impact on our higher education community. If you look on social media, you can see some mostly LGBTQ people expressing frustration and anger that the student affairs FB group and professional community have been silent or dismissive in the wake of the Orlando attack.
The central question raised in the Facebook group is whether or not student affairs professionals should be expected to be supportive of people who are minoritized in society. Should we as a whole be knowledgeable about the issues minoritized people are confronting and responsible for supporting minoritized students and others? How can we go about addressing that essential question in our field?
And how can we work with others throughout higher education to grapple with it? What kinds of things can -- and should -- we in higher education do to confront violence and inequity and support people traumatized by continuing oppression? I hope we can work to find more answers and make changes in higher education to better live our expressed values of equity and inclusion.
Stephanie Bondi is a faculty member in the student affairs program at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Her scholarship focuses on power and oppression, teaching and learning, and student affairs preparation.
The precarity of contingent faculty members limits their ability to make important structural changes in the academy, including responding to student demands for racial justice, writes Michelle Kweder.