Racist acts, particularly anti-Black racism, have a long history in higher education. If colleges and universities wait to react only to individual events or act only after damage has been done to their communities, they will fail to create truly safe and equitable conditions. By focusing only on the circumstances of individual incidents, institutions fail to address the systemic ways in which university policies impede the success and safety of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in their communities.
Just as the pandemic has highlighted the disproportionate impact of the crisis on marginalized communities – who experienced higher infection rates, greater negative financial impact and were more likely to lack the resources to succeed during remote learning – the recent bomb threats against HBCUs and Black student spaces have made visible what continually highlights the college experience of communities of color: seeing their presence questioned and threatened. Higher education institutions have a responsibility to examine and address how their policies contribute to this pervasive culture of bullying.
The National Association of Diversity Leaders in Higher Education (NADOHE) recently created “A Framework to Advance Anti-Racism on Campus” to support the work of diversity leaders and higher education in addressing common issues that contribute to racial inequities on campus. We highlight 10 areas where we believe leaders can have the most impact, including institutional structure; policies and procedures; resource allocation; academic equity and student success; curriculum and pedagogy; hiring, retention and promotion; institutional programming; employee education, training and development; campus climate; and admissions and access.
At the height of the racial justice uprisings led by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, institutions across the country pledged to address campus racism. Although the reactions were very varied, joint short-term programs and verbal commitments are not enough. Any college or university committed to transformative change must engage in sustained action that includes honest examination of its institutional structures and policies. The foundations of higher education include structures, policies, and practices rooted in racism, and any house built on those foundations will have cracks.
To center racial justice, it may be necessary to relinquish policies that institutions have relied on in the past. Legacy admissions and test scores that have been shown not to be indicators of a student’s ability to do well in college are becoming barriers to entry for students of color seeking entry to selective colleges. The wealth gap between white and black families remains as wide as it was in 1968, making it harder for black families to pay for test prep or counseling. Black students are also more likely to go to schools with fewer resources. When this inequality is hidden in the measures to decide on admission to university, this inequality increases.
Even for those who are accepted, campus culture can negatively impact students of color’s sense of belonging. Predominantly white institutions continue to produce results where black students and other students of color have lower persistence, retention, and graduation rates, some of which can be attributed to negative experiences perpetuated by their peers, faculty, and the staff. Black students graduate at lower rates than white students and leave college with higher debt than white students. We must understand the realities of race in order to steer higher education toward fair outcomes for all students.
Colleges and universities can dismantle structural racism and it’s a lack of imagination to believe that they don’t have the power to fight it. Higher education plays a direct role in the student debt crisis that disproportionately hampers marginalized communities, institutional policies that erect additional barriers for immigrant students, and hiring and promotion processes that disadvantage marginalized scholars. . If leaders across all institutions adopt a unified anti-racism framework and dedicate the necessary resources to implement these changes, we hope to meaningfully address racial inequities.
A supposed belief that institutions can only change incrementally temporarily prevents institutions from committing to racial equity. The pandemic has shown that institutions are able to make rapid policy changes, with many admissions offices adopting optional testing policies due to the cancellation of scheduled testing dates by testers. The reluctance of some universities to adopt policies that improve conditions for students of color on campus stems less from institutional adaptability and more from a fear of decentralizing wealthier families.
Higher education leaders have a responsibility to educate us and our communities about these issues and to take action to change them. We have the tools, we have the skills, we have no excuses.
Paulette Granberry Russell is President of the National Association of Diversity Leaders in Higher Education (NADOHE).
This opinion piece originally appeared in the March 17, 2022 edition of Miscellaneous.