Americans (and people across the world) are waking up to the realities of systemic racism and the experiences of people of color. Across industries, leaders are reckoning with their role in perpetuating racist practices at the same time they are moving towards dismantling them. Colleges and universities are no exception.
College leaders want to do the right thing and combat inequities and discrimination, yet these conversations are hard. So hard that they rarely happen in a meaningful way. It is no longer enough just to commission strategic plans or documents rife with diversity, equity, and inclusion language and hope for the change to happen. Leaders need to dig in, ask tough questions, and talk about the state of race and equity on their campuses.
A call to action: Be an anti-racist leader
Faced with such an overwhelming problem, it can be hard to know where to start. Equity gaps persist despite past efforts, and students of color have vastly different experiences on our college campuses. It’s time to examine why. Here are seven questions to ask on your campus:
1. Does the demographic makeup of our faculty and senior leadership reflect our students and community?
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It matters who your teachers are. When students don’t see faculty and administrators who look like them, it can reinforce feelings that they don’t belong at their school. Unfortunately, on most campuses, students are more likely to encounter people of color in service roles than in faculty or leadership positions.
Studies have shown that Black and Latinx students perform better academically when faculty share their same racial identity and are often afforded greater opportunity for independent study, research, or service-learning. Yet despite efforts to hire diverse candidates, 76% of faculty are white, even though they reflect only 56% of students.
2. How does our institution mitigate bias in the classroom experience?
Our students are racially and ethnically diverse, yet our curricula represents an overwhelmingly white Euro-American perspective and pedagogy. Numerous studies, including this one, have found that a dominance of white perspectives in the classroom causes students to disengage from learning. For many students, what is taught in the classroom marginalizes the generational histories shared and acknowledged in their homes.
Though there is no single approach to mitigating bias and promoting racial equity in the academic experience, consider the following questions:
- Do we incorporate discussions of race into programs of study?
- What criteria do we use to determine mandatory versus elective courses? What topics are being signaled as central versus peripheral?
- Do we provide training to mitigate faculty biases in instruction and mentorship?
- Do faculty members exhibit under- or over-critique of students based on race, as evidenced by grades, student reviews, and evaluations?
– Steven Mintz, Professor of History at University of Texas at Austin in Inside Higher Ed
3. Does our institution regularly assess the campus climate and students’ sense of belongingness?
To uncover and understand the experience of students of color, deploy regular climate surveys to assess their perceptions of inclusion and belonging. Take an intersectional approach and disaggregate data results by race, ethnicity, and gender to surface nuances for various demographic groups. Only when you’re armed with data can you develop the kinds of interventions to tackle the kinds of overt and [subtle racism] your students of color face at your institution.
An intesectional approach is a means of analysis for how particular identities and conditions are located within structures of power and is a way of understanding the how race, income, and gender overlap with no singular category taking dominance.
According to NSSE’s Engagement Insights Annual Report, one in three students cite campus climate as their reason for departure. Sometimes the reasons are overt and obvious, such as a white supremacist incident on campus. However, more common are the countless microaggressions that occur daily and cause students to self-segregate or depart entirely to avoid further harm. This not only wears down students’ mental and physical wellbeing; it also impedes academic performance.
4. How can we ensure that students of color receive the necessary support in advising, counseling, and other student services?
Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities have borne the brunt of suffering from the pandemic. As we welcome students back this fall, virtually or physically, the coordination of academic, social, and mental care for students of color should be of utmost concern. By augmenting care with technology, students can access help through a resource directory, make appointments, and share information with support staff – a real virtual care experience.
As you communicate with students, ensure the support you provide is timely, relevant, and can reach them whether they are at home or on campus. You may find that Black and Latinx students express a preference to speak with an advisor who shares their same racial identity. You can expand the support their receive by creating a peer advising team for basic advising needs. Peer advisors with similar experiences can provide a safe space for students to disclose any race-related challenges.
5. How is my institution addressing food and housing insecurity?
Let us be clear: Not all students of color are low-income. However, when those identities overlap, there are often gross disparities: while 36% of white students have food insecurity, their Latinx (47%), Black (54%), and Native (60%) peers have significantly higher rates.
To ensure food and housing needs are met, normalize help-seeking behavior, provide training on recognizing needs, and ensure awareness of services and resources for students. Strengthen or expand first-gen and low-income programs to foster student advocacy, community, and empowerment. Lastly, launch tech-enabled quick polls to rapidly identify and connect students with need.
6. Is your campus engaging students of color in co-curricular experiences?
Inequalities show up readily in out-of-classroom activities like faculty research, study abroad, and learning communities. For instance, only 40% of Black and 41% of Latinx students participate in internships versus 51% of white students. Why? It’s often an access problem. While many students express interest in internships, they can’t afford to forego employment or additional course load, especially if it is unpaid. These lost opportunities come at the cost of an additional $10,000 in postgraduate earnings.
If we cannot provide meaningful and equitable learning experiences, we are effectively shortchanging their career prospects. Has your college mapped out students’ high-impact experiences and activities across their major? Consider creating co-curricular degree maps for your students, and determine how you will ensure equitable participation and measure progress to goal.
7. What is the relationship between students of color and campus police, local law enforcement, and the broader campus community?
Equity in Education Resource Center
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Racial profiling is a national issue that persists on our college and university campuses. Students and faculty of color often have to endure the police following or being called on them because they seem “out of place” on their own college campuses. Yet college leaders remain hesitant to reform their campus police department, and even more resistant to address concerns with local law enforcement.
College leaders should perform formal reviews of campus and local police conduct toward Black, Latinx, and other students of color. Based on the reviews’ findings, the administration should construct race-conscious policies, mandate regular equity training, and encourage the use of de-escalation tactics and/or the deployment of campus care and intervention team.
The journey to building a more inclusive, equitable campus will take hard work, difficult conversations, and persistent energy. No leader will get every initiative right. However, reflecting on the questions above will enable you to more fully examine how racism and other injustices manifest on your campus and how you can dismantle these harmful structures. Your students, your faculty, and your communities need your leadership.
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