University leaders are feeling increasing pressure from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and broader communities to grapple with histories of racism embedded in physical and cultural artifacts on campuses. To better understand how higher education institutions are exploring and confronting their own histories of racism, EAB analyzed existing programs and initiatives across the United States and Canada.
We found that most institutions are focused on visible, short-term solutions without investing resources to explore the root causes of historical harm. As a result, historic harms caused by higher education institutions and the impact of those harms are largely undocumented and unknown.
When historical storytelling is deprioritized, institutions remain vulnerable to ongoing flashpoints.
EAB research illustrates how fast-tracking short-term solutions without exploring the expansive nature of harm done leaves institutions vulnerable to ongoing criticisms and flashpoints. Although reckoning work is challenging and resource-intense, it is a fundamental element of any successful effort to reckon with and fully heal from harmful pasts.
Check out these resources to learn more about higher education’s history of slavery and indigenous dispossession.
In our analysis of institutional reckoning efforts, several institutions stood out for going beyond quick-fix solutions and doing meaningful work to understand their institutional histories of racial oppression. These institutions typically applied one of two main approaches to the work: archival projects or collective memory initiatives. Read to learn more about their initiatives as well as critical questions university leaders need to answer before starting a racial healing project.
Archival projects explore and document historical records to create a publicly accessible narrative of an institution’s past. These projects may be undertaken by centrally established working groups or promoted by grassroots efforts of disparate community members – i.e., faculty, students, and alumni. Expand the institutional examples below to learn about impactful ways to structure and share archival projects.
In 2006, Brown University released a report of a three-year examination of the institution’s history with slavery. The report produced a list of recommendations including memorialization projects, a formal research center studying impacts of slavery, and funding for local children’s schools. The design of the study has served as a model for many institutions that have explored their histories in following years.
What makes this impactful: Brown University developed a variety of public programs to disseminate the narrative to all members of the community. In the first year, the institution sponsored scholarly lectures, panel discussions, forums, film screenings, and two international conferences exploring their legacies of historical injustice.
Although known for being founded by abolitionists, the Bates College community initiated a collaborative exploration of its connection to the slave economy in the 1800s—where faculty probed, students investigated, and the institution affirmed and promoted the work to the broader community. Years of faculty and student research on the institution’s legacy culminated in a report that was published in the university magazine, reaching over 23,300+ readers.
What makes this impactful: Bates College was proactive in taking charge of its institutional history. Rather than public pressure prompting exploration of the accepted narrative of being founded by abolitionists, the Bates campus community dug deeper into its historical roots and reframed the complex nature of the university’s founding.
Dalhousie is the first university in Canada to commission an accounting of its early intersections with the legacies of slavery. In 2018, the university released a report examining the institution’s founder’s connection to slavery in Nova Scotia and the Caribbean in the 19th century. The report’s recommendations include a formal university apology as well as efforts to connect with the local African Nova Scotian community.
What makes this impactful: The scholarly initiative closely analyzed the present-day impacts of Dalhousie’s legacies on Black communities across Canada. In addition to a broader historical analysis, the report considers the institution’s connections to modern day educational disparities, immigration, and policing in Nova Scotia.
Despite differences in approaches, successful archival projects have the following components in common:
- Centrally commissioned: institutional leadership provides appropriate funding, staffing, time, and executive leadership and support to advance efforts
- Led by scholars: exploration is led by academic researchers and librarians to ensure the comprehensive and accurate analysis of histories
- Engaged with the community: local community members have defined roles to engage in the exploration, documentation, and distribution of archival projects
- Action-oriented: archival projects are designed towards action with clear ownership, accountability measures, and timelines embedded
Collective memory projects
Collective memory projects are designed to create a shared understanding of a university’s history through initiatives that memorialize and educate the broader community. Distinct from archival projects, collective memory projects seek to integrate histories into the university through many forms including physical memorials (e.g., statues and building names), academic courses, and immersive digital experiences. Expand the institutional examples below to learn about successful approaches to embedding collective memory projects on campus.
Davidson is creating a student orientation module that will address its history of racism and slavery. Developed in collaboration with alumni, the module will be completed by all new students during their orientation experiences.
What makes this impactful: The module is a mandatory element of the institution’s orientation program that ensures all students, staff, and faculty will be aware of Davidson’s complex history.
Villanova is requiring all students to take a course exploring the history of race and racism at Villanova and in the country. The interactive course was designed by expert dialogue facilitators on campus to provide students an opportunity to learn about history as well as engage in questions of identity and power, so that students are better equipped to have difficult conversations about race.
What makes this impactful: The universal course content includes foundational modules on race and dialogue that will be integrated with all majors and academic disciplines across the university.
A part of TCU’s “Race & Reconciliation Initiative,” the Reconcile This! Podcast is an academic examination of the university’s collaboration with the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium. In weekly episodes, the chair of the committee interviews faculty and community members involved with the institution’s reconciliation efforts.
What makes this impactful: The podcast is a collaboration between the committee and the broader TCU community including students, faculty, staff, and residents in the local community. Accessible on all streaming services, the program creates a sustained conversation with the entire community and highlights advancements made toward reconciliation.
Institutions considering a collective memory project should ensure the following elements are embedded to guarantee high impact and engagement:
- Educationally focused: the project is designed to educate community members on the institution’s history and the impacts on present-day
- Multimedia: project content is shared through different media including physical memorials, digital experiences, symposia, and academic courses
- Widely-disseminated: outcomes of the project are deeply embedded into the institution through programming, curricular integration, and training for university community members
Four questions to answer as you investigate your institution's history
As your leadership team begins or continues to tackle your institution’s histories of racial harm, the following questions and guidance can help focus your efforts:
What is the collective understanding of your institutional history?
Gauge what is already known by your university community and what the public sentiment is towards historical exploration. Take inventory of existing archives, memorials, and grassroots initiatives to inform the scope of your project.
What expertise do you have access to?
Faculty, librarians, and student researchers can be valuable sources of information and guidance in conducting methodical explorations.
How will you center the voices of harmed communities?
Institutions have a responsibility to prioritize the needs and perspectives of present-day harmed communities that are most impacted by legacies of racism. Consider how you can establish rapport with these communities and how their voices are centralized in the development of your initiatives.
How will you embed this history into your institution's culture?
Engagement is a critical factor to design for when considering your project’s impact. Plan for how all members of your community will engage with your initiative. Decide early on how the analysis of historical harm will become a prominent facet of your institution’s history for future generations of students, staff, and faculty.
15 must-ask questions before addressing a racist symbol on campus
Before your institution renames, removes, or contextualizes a visible symbol of racial oppression, use our infographic to answer 15 critical questions to ensure your work sustains and achieves strategic and transformative outcomes.