Calls on colleges and universities to grapple with their historical ties to slavery, racial discrimination, and oppression have been renewed in the last year, but institutional reckoning has a long history in the U.S. and around the world.
Brown University’s 2003 investigation of its historical relationship to slavery is widely accepted as the first comprehensive university effort of its kind, but before and since then, faculty and students across the U.S. have led grassroots inquiries into the histories of their institutions. In countries like Canada and Australia, truth and reconciliation commissions have investigated the displacement and oppression of Indigenous peoples, and, in some cases, explicitly put the onus on higher education to redress historical harms.
Despite this foundation of work, there is no clear roadmap for how colleges and universities should contextualize recent events like the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools in Canada and the murder of Black Americans across the U.S. In light of these tragedies, widespread protests over enduring racist legacies and symbols, and the continuous diversification of campuses, higher education is only going to be pressed harder to take transformative action.
To help, EAB has launched a research initiative to support higher education leaders in their efforts toward institutional reckoning and racial healing. Our early conversations have revealed important lessons for institutions considering this work. Here are three that campus leaders should keep in mind along the way.
Lesson #1: Address institutional cause or context, not just the flashpoint
Student activism around campus legacies tends to be cyclical and spike following prominent displays of racial injustice, as students rally around these events and symbols to demand deeper commitment to racial justice. Too often, institutions try to manage through a particular flashpoint but fail to address the broader context that leads to these acute moments, creating decades-long cycles of frustration and activism.
At the University of Kentucky, for example, a mural depicting slavery was a persistent source of concern since the 1970s. After repeated activism it was covered in 2015 and removed in 2020, but it was an issue raised and re-raised for 50 years.
Why do institutions fall into this trap of addressing the symptom, not the root cause?
- Immediate incident response efforts are all-consuming.
- The implications of not acting immediately outweigh the negative consequences of applying a quick fix.
- Wanting to get it “right” delays a comprehensive response.
- There are differing points of view across campus about what the root cause is.
- This is challenging work, with no clear path forward and no assurance of success.
Caught in these cycles, many institutions struggle to consider a more comprehensive approach to institutional reckoning and healing, and its value to their mission, campus culture, and larger DEIJ goals. The following strategies can help overcome this common cycle:
- Identify and distinguish between symptoms versus root issues.
- Evaluate previous interventions—were they superficial? To what extent did they address underlying problems not just the symptoms?
- Consider a two-pronged approach, like Emory University’s working group structure, to allow for temporary fixes and long-term, actionable solutions.
Lesson #2: Don’t be easily deterred by vocal alumni
As pressure to address legacies and symbols of racism has grown, many institutions are concerned about resistance from donors around these changes. In some cases, presidents and chief advancement officers determine there is more risk in embracing reckoning and healing than not. But institutions should not let alumni funds be the reason they do not make the mission-critical decisions that will best serve students and advance their institutional goals.
So far, we have seen impact on donations cut both ways: On one hand, alumni have rescinded pledges—or at least threatened to—over the removal of certain symbols. On the other, donors have helped cover the cost of building name changes and statue removals. Others still, like Texas A&M University, anticipate a short-term drop in donations if they remove a particular campus statue, but feel that long-term fundraising would largely be unaffected.
It is imperative that colleges and universities build an actual (versus anecdotal) understanding of the potential effect of institutional reckoning on fundraising. Consider the following strategies to guide this process:
- Like Texas A&M, talk to your alumni to orient them to the situation and solicit their input.
- Investigate whether the most vocal alumni actually donate to your institution.
- Consider your future donors: College-going students are diversifying and will change the makeup of alumni bases.
Beyond potential risk, there also is energy and will among alumni to advance racial justice work. To best position yourself to act on opportunities, make the giving process as easy as possible by embedding giving opportunities across platforms and consider establishing a formalized process for seeking transformative gifts.
Lesson #3: Don’t limit the scope of longer-term institutional reckoning and healing efforts
Engaging in broader efforts to reckon with ties to racial oppression requires institutions to examine their history, understand harm caused, and work with oppressed communities to determine how to best move forward. However, there is no clear process for doing so, and a lot of the steps and terminology may feel vague, abstract, or lofty.
As a result, many institutions either focus too heavily on historical exploration (without meaningful action) or on action planning (without honest self-exploration). , institutions risk exacerbating trust gaps with historically underserved communities and missing the mark on repairing harm.
In one comprehensive example, Davidson College’s Commission on Race and Slavery was explicitly charged with examining their college’s history and developing initiatives to continue to investigate, teach, and address the findings. The commission issued a report that catalogued the college’s historical complicity in systemic racism and followed it up with action steps across four areas: campus environment; commemoration and acknowledgment; research, teaching, and learning; and community. In immediate response, Davidson’s president made a formal apology on behalf of the board for the college’s role in perpetuating slavery and systemic racism.
How EAB’s institutional reckoning and healing research will help
Failing to heed any one of these three lessons is enough to derail institutional reckoning and healing initiatives. Without addressing root causes, flashpoints are more likely to become a matter of when, not if. Donor pressure threatens the moral- and mission-critical opportunity to serve current and future students. And failing to inform future-facing actions steps with historical investigation damages credibility.
EAB’s forthcoming research will help overcome these obstacles, with the goal of lifting leadership teams out of crisis response mode and above the politically fraught issues of the moment to unpack what is critical to all institutions regardless of politics, history, and geography. Our research will define terms like “reckoning” and “healing” so that higher ed leaders can envision how their institution looks and behaves differently for having done this difficult, yet important work.
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