Amid ongoing conversations about the impact of racism and the need for meaningful change, institutions have been under pressure to confront their own legacies. Institutions in the United States and Canada are removing statues, changing names of buildings—even changing the names of institutions themselves. This is not the end of the work, however. Students and communities demand more from their institutions to rectify past wrongs.
To address how leaders can go beyond symbolic changes, EAB experts sat down for a conversation with Dr. Benoit-Antoine Bacon, President of Carleton University, and Dr. Carol E. Henderson, Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion of Emory University. Here are three themes that emerged from their conversation.
1. Leaders must create the space for lasting change
Many institutions are taking the first step on the road to confronting their legacies by publicly acknowledging historical wrongdoing. “There’s no progress without truth. For a long time, universities ignored the past,” said Bacon of embarking on this journey.
“You can’t build a foundation on broken pieces. If you can’t admit and start to acknowledge those pieces, what kind of foundation are you building?” asked Henderson, as she described Emory’s work to do more to investigate their history. “It’s one thing to acknowledge [historical legacies], but it’s another thing to put [promises of change] into practice. For this work to continue, it must live in the infrastructure of the learning apparatuses of an institution.”
You can’t build a foundation on broken pieces. If you can’t admit and start to acknowledge those pieces, what kind of foundation are you building?
- Dr. Carol E. Henderson
Because these are often complex decisions involving multiple stakeholders and competing priorities, leaders can struggle to go beyond the first step of acknowledging historical wrongdoing to progress toward racial healing and transformative change. Many institutions also operate in a reactive space, making changes primarily in response to student and community pressure. “Avoiding flashpoints cannot be the primary motivator for driving change,” said EAB expert Jane Alexander.
To go beyond reactionary measures, leaders must work to establish a vision for racial healing and transformation at their institution. “Your role as a leader is to recognize that there’s no foundation, and we have to build that foundation together. One of your few powers as a leader is the ability to create the space for this work to begin,” said Bacon.
It can seem like a daunting task to make real, tangible progress—but it’s not impossible. “To get a community of 40,000 people to agree on what needs to be done, you need formal processes and formal strategies with clear objectives—short, medium, and long-term—that you can measure,” said Bacon. He explained how leaders need clear objectives to build consensus and momentum, saying that this is how you can measure and report back to the community on the progress made.
One of Carleton University's formal objectives to address past harm done to Indigenous communities was to create an initiative called, Kinàmàgawin: Learning Together. This initiative is also a step toward graduating socially responsible and ethical future leaders.
2. Leaders must commit to discomfort
It’s easy to shy away from difficult and painful conversations. Bacon and Henderson shared why a commitment to discomfort is necessary to make progress. Leaders need to put themselves in the position to have their mistakes pointed out—and be ok with it, Bacon explained. “We can’t be defensive about it; we need to welcome the opportunity to learn,” he said. In order to grow and advance, leaders must welcome feedback and recommendations from the community—even when it is uncomfortable.
Not only do leaders need to accept feedback, but they also need to support the members of their community who offer it. Henderson shared why a leader’s role in walking people through trauma is uncomfortable but necessary. “Nobody wants to stand up and unveil themselves and their wounds. You have to be a part of the healing, not a part of re-traumatization.”
Emory has committed to navigating discomfort through education. In an institution-wide symposium titled “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession,” the university collaborated with academic and community leaders to explore and discuss the harm that Emory caused to Black and Indigenous communities. While uncomfortable for the school to acknowledge, by shining light on this issue themselves, the institution is able to take an active role in the communal healing process.
3. Leaders must center racial justice work within the broader mission of the institution
Racial justice work is imperative to the mission and future of higher education. Higher education institutions aim to provide the best education to all students, but they currently serve some students better than others. Failure to make progress on racial justice harms students, faculty, staff, and the broader university community.
“We cannot claim to be excellent institutions if we’re not inclusive,” said Henderson. She added, “Equity-mindedness is not optional. It is part of the value proposition of an institution, and it is the responsibility of higher education to create informed circles of change so we can develop scholars who will impact the world in transformative ways.”
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