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What has higher education promised on anti-racism in 2020 and is it enough?

November 16, 2020

On May 25, George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police. Floyd’s murder sparked national protests calling for police reform and progress on racial justice. Thousands of college and university students demanded their institutions commit to a host of anti-racist efforts. In response to the national moment and student demands, many college and university presidents issued statements denouncing racism, reaffirming their institutional values, and committing to progress on racial justice issues.

But what exactly was promised? To understand what higher education committed to in advancing these efforts, EAB conducted an analysis of 130 statements on racial justice and anti-racism issued by colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. To ensure the analysis is comprehensive and captures the breadth of institutional commitments, we considered both initial statements released in response to the murder as well as any follow up statements released throughout the summer and fall of 2020. In most cases, follow up statements included specific racial justice action items and commitments made by institutional leaders.

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EAB’s analysis examined how institutions are using the national moment to identify structural and cultural racism on their campuses, the level and type of commitments leaders made to address racism, and how institutions are ensuring that their commitments will be effective in developing an anti-racist campus culture.

What commitments have college leaders made to address racism?

Our analysis revealed that 82% of institutions in the sample released statements following George Floyd’s death. The most common commitments made in these statements included establishing anti-racism taskforces, hosting town halls, and celebrating Juneteenth.  The actions institutions typically committed to tended to be short-term and more symbolic in scope. While some institutions identified longer term initiatives such as developing anti-racism trainings and advancing the recruitment of faculty of color, they did not provide a timeline or specific metrics to measure success. Overall, EAB’s analysis showed that few institutions offered substantive and systematic approaches to tackling racism on their own campuses.

Type of institutional anti-racist commitments

Percentage of anti-racism Statements that Included Short-Term Actions

Percentage of Statements that Included Short-Term Actions

Most Common Examples:

  • Celebrate Juneteenth
  • Conduct campus listening tour
  • Establish anti-racism taskforce
Percentage of anti-racism Statements that Included long-Term Actions
Percentage of Statements that Included
Long-Term Actions

Most Common Examples:

  • Develop anti-racism trainings
  • Advance recruitment and retention of faculty of color
  • Expand resources for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students, staff, and faculty
  • Improve partnerships with local and regional communities

Our analysis also showed that size of institution and financial resources impacted the scale of the commitments made. Fewer small and less-resourced institutions made commitments after their initial statements. Inversely, institutions that laid out the most robust commitments in their statements were the largest and the ones with the greatest financial resources.

What are the emerging priorities and trends around anti-racism initiatives in higher education?

Across the sample, only a quarter (26%) of statements clearly identified priority areas to address racism on campus. These institutions focused on specific challenges in their communities such as education and awareness of systemic racism, reevaluating campus security measures, and collecting data on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. The following are emerging trends of anti-racism initiatives that focus on addressing specific aspects of systemic racism on-campus.

Emerging Trends of Anti-racism Initiatives

Research centers for the study of race and racism
Research centers for the study of race and racism
Roanoke College established the Center for Studying Structures of Race to study the legacies of racism in modern society
Institutional and unit level strategic diversity plans
Institutional and unit level strategic diversity plans
Adelphi University is requiring all schools and colleges to develop unit level strategic diversity plans
Resource pages for anti-racism education
Resource pages for anti-racism education
Framingham State University has developed a resource center for educational materials on anti-racism
Evaluation of institutional relationships with police
Evaluation of institutional relationships with police
University of California Berkeley has reorganized its police department to include mental health professionals after an independent analysis
Memorials for legacies of racial injustice on campus
Memorials for legacies of racial injustice on campus
The College of William & Mary is fundraising to build a memorial acknowledging the history of slavery at the institution

Are these commitments enough?

Although the statements reviewed in this analysis communicate the willingness of higher education leaders to address systemic racism, most institutions are limiting their ability to achieve their commitments for the following three reasons:

1. The legacies of racism are not acknowledged

An analysis of the language used in institutional statements revealed that a majority of them did not address racism explicitly or specify the differential experiences of marginalized racial groups.

Most statements did recognize that systemic racism exists in society but failed to take the next step in identifying how it manifests at their own institutions. To uproot racism, institutions must perform a deep and honest analysis of how it has shaped their current reality.

2. Systemic anti-racist solutions are lacking

Systemic racism cannot be solved without systemic anti-racist efforts. While an important first step, listening tours, taskforces, and anti-bias trainings alone will not address the centuries of racism embedded into the policies and practices of the higher education system. Institutions must elevate their tactical responses into a strategic and comprehensive plan in the same way that they address their operational budgets, curricula, and enrollment goals.

3. Insufficient resources are allocated to address anti-racism

In our analysis, half of the statements did not mention any resources allocated to address anti-racism. Although the current financial landscape of higher education is challenging, institutions must provide support in the form of funding, staffing, executive leadership, and partnerships. If resources are not sufficiently allocated, institutions risk overpromising without accomplishing their commitments and jeopardizing trust with their communities.

If institutions intend to tackle the systemic racism embedded in higher education, leaders must move beyond rhetoric and short-term commitments. Structural change requires longer-term strategy, holistic review of institutional operations, and the resources to create anti-racist policies and practices. However challenging-logistically, financially, emotionally- institutions must invest in this work to translate their meaningful words into purposeful action.

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