At the same time that the COVID pandemic’s health and economic effects have disproportionately impacted our students of color, their families and communities, many Black students are grappling with what it means to be part of a nation whose institutions are steeped in racism, as we face yet another murder of a Black person at the hands of police.
Despite the calls for peace and unity and a glimmer of hope for systemic change, the calls to “get back to normal”, seem an attempt to ease the discomfort of white people, including on our campuses. We hear too little about how peace is something that never truly exists for those who must, as a colleague described, slowly strip away the innocence of their children as they attempt to prepare them for the violence they are all too likely to face in our communities.
“Getting back to normal” in the wake of the COVID is not good enough. We must seize this opportunity for higher education to step up and build the campuses and communities we contend to be. To do so, we must acknowledge and address the racial inequities that define our system, by design.
Our policies and practices have made it such that Black students are significantly less likely to be admitted to many of our institutions. Equity gaps in graduation rates of 50% are commonplace. Black students regularly report feeling as if their instructors don’t believe in their capacity to be successful. When you look at the consistent and pervasive inequities in access, experiences and outcomes – it’s clear that we do not value all of our students equally. Is it really any wonder that our Black students may feel as if they don’t belong at our institutions and question our commitment to equity, especially when we maintain policies and practices that enact such inequitable outcomes? If we want Black students to truly feel as if they belong at our institution, we must we must acknowledge the current reality and our role in its creation, and commit to real, systemic changes.
This level of change will require us to become anti-racist institutions. In his most recent book, Dr. Ibram Kendi outlines how institutions’ policies and practices are either racist or anti-racist – they either actively combat racial inequities or they perpetuate inequity. There is no such thing as “not-racist”. We must stop allowing racism to be defined at the individual level and define it systemically, as policies and practices that maintain the power and privilege associated with whiteness in our society. To be anti-racists, we must engage in authentic efforts to improve access, experience and outcomes for minoritized students of color on our campuses. These efforts require leadership from senior level administrators with the authority to make critical decisions, adequate staffing, university-wide buy in and support from the top of the institution. Anything less will rightly be seen as toothless efforts to appease our collective conscience or the voices who call on us to “do something” in the face of the latest racial injustice.
We must uncover and challenge what McNair, Bensimon and Malcom-Piqueux call the omnipotence of whiteness in academia. We espouse higher education as a meritocratic system equally accessible to all while continuing to use criteria for admission that decades of research have shown to be racially biased. We design academic experiences that may have worked for our largely white, middle and upper-middle class faculty, staff and administrators , but do not meet the needs of the diverse students we espouse to serve.
And then we excuse the inequitable outcomes we achieve by labeling students “underprepared,” blaming their families or cultures of origin for not being “academically-oriented” and viewing their responsibilities outside of school as impermeable obstacles to success. As Anthony Carnevale concluded last year, “The system is worse than broken. It’s fixed.”
To become an anti-racist institution we must stop making excuses and start taking responsibility for eliminating gaps in access and outcomes for our minoritized students of color through our systems, structures, policies and practices. When we see disparate outcomes, we must accept that is a reflection of institutional choices, not of our students.
A team at University of Toledo, has spent the past year – in collaboration with other institutions of higher education through the Student Experience Project – working to create equitable learning environments and increase retention and degree attainment through policies and practices that support sense of belonging and identity safety for underrepresented students. This work, to mitigate the impacts of stereotype threat, discrimination and bias, is critical to support the success of students marginalized by our educational system. But we need to ensure that these efforts do not substitute for changing the actual system that makes such efforts necessary.
Becoming an anti-racist institution will require us to learn about and value the tremendous assets that our historically marginalized students bring to the college experience. We must stop judging students’ capacities based on narrow metrics that align with our own experiences and the existing culture of higher education and build an educational experience that capitalizes on our students’ diverse assets.
Becoming an anti-racist institution will require fundamental changes to how we align resources to students, providing them support commensurate with need and what is required to achieve equity. We must ensure that programs supporting historically marginalized students (e.g., summer bridge programs, need-based aid) are resourced at levels surpassing those of programs that support largely white, higher income students (e.g., honors programs, merit aid). We must support participation in high-impact educational experiences that improve learning, persistence and career placement at rates equal to white students, including removing barriers to access such as GPA thresholds and financial support for lower income students to complete unpaid experiences.
Becoming an anti-racist institution requires ensuring that every student who enrolls at our institutions learns about the history of systemic racism in the U.S. and its impacts on the lived experiences of marginalized populations and on our society, in the past and in current times. Our students must learn how to critically examine racism, meritocracy and equality and develop the skills needed to effect change at all levels of the system. If higher education truly serves the public good, that broader good cannot be achieved until systemic racism is widely understood and recognized, and we equip our students with the tools needed to dismantle it.
Becoming an anti-racist institution will require changing the criteria for hiring, tenure and promotion so that equity-informed, racially-literate, high-quality teaching is sought after, required and rewarded at the same level as research grants and impact factors. We must ensure that the faculty population accurately reflects the racial and socioeconomic profile of the students we serve. We need to provide adequate support for faculty so that they can practice equity-minded and racially conscious pedagogy.
Finally, becoming an anti-racist institution will require consideration of racial equity in every decision we make on campus. For every practice and policy under consideration, we must answer key questions: Who, by race or ethnicity, will benefit most? How will it impact minoritized students of color? Are we seeking to “fix” the students of color, or the conditions we’ve created that marginalize them? If the policy or practice marginalizes students of color, it is not enacted. Period.
Becoming an anti-racist college or university will require us to hold ourselves accountable, not just for our efforts around racial equity, but for the outcomes we achieve. These actions will require courage on the part of administrators, board members, faculty, staff and students, especially in the face of backlash from those who would prefer to maintain the status quo and the discomfort that will be created.
If we can redefine our worth as an institution in terms of how much we reduce racial inequity in educational outcomes, we can become part of the solution in the fight for racial equality. Doing so will allow us to not just survive the current reckoning in higher education but thrive as our students and communities join with us to create a more just society.
Denise Bartell is the Associate Vice Provost for Student Success at the University of Toledo. She leads the University’s work to build equitable learning environments on campus through the Student Experience Project.