The Antiracist College

The statements from college presidents came in flurries, bullet-pointed and chock-full of promises. Most were issued last summer in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police. There were announcements of new committees, initiatives, and task forces. There was talk of transformation, roadmaps, and “action steps.” Many nodded toward sweeping curricular reforms. The president of Duke University wrote that the institution would “assess and remediate systemic biases in the design of our curricula.” Castleton University’s president pledged a review of courses that would seek to “combat systemic racism and implicit bias.” The president of Bates College assured members of the community in bold type that there would be “structural change across the entirety of the student experience.”

When we emerge from this period, what will the reshaped higher ed landscape look like? Read on.

Many of the actions were geared toward symbolism, including rethinking who had been historically honored. Clemson University removed the name of John C. Calhoun, who held that slavery was a “positive good,” from its honors college. Western Carolina University dropped the name of the segregationist former governor Clyde R. Hoey from an auditorium. James Madison University announced it was rechristening three campus buildings named for Confederate military leaders — though administrators did not consider renaming the university itself, despite Madison’s having owned slaves, explaining that “we recognize his flaws as well as his virtues.”

A slew of colleges declared they would require some form of diversity training. Brandeis University’s president proposed “workshops, symposia, speakers, programs, conferences, and events.” Amherst College announced it would require such training “at all levels” and “reporting annually on the form that work has taken and the difference it has made.” Lafayette College signaled that it would institute regular anti-bias training for faculty members, staff, and students in order to “keep us all engaged in ongoing and up-to-date conversations about racism and racial injustice.”

It would be easy to downplay the significance of any particular announcement: a renamed auditorium here, a workshop there. After all, nearly all the topics highlighted in these many statements — diversifying the faculty, improving graduation rates for students of color, examining bias in the curriculum — have been bandied about on college campuses for decades. At the same time, the number of changes and the scope of the commitments made in recent months are striking. Some critics see these moves as pandering to student activists, or perhaps buying into a particular ideology. But supporters and detractors alike may come to see the summer and fall of 2020 as a watershed moment in the history of higher education and race.

Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California, tends to be skeptical of such statements, but he has been heartened by much of what he’s heard in recent months. “We’ve seen many more campus leaders actually lay out a specific set of actions,” says Harper, who is a co-editor of Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Higher Education. “There are some places that have taken bold, swift action. They’ve moved faster than I’ve ever seen them move before.”

One of those moves has been for presidents to declare that their institutions will strive to become antiracist, a term whose popularity has been driven in large measure by the best seller How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi, the historian and activist who moved his research center from American to Boston University in July; the following month, the center received a $10-million gift from Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter. That book was quoted repeatedly in statements by presidents and was selected as a summer read by any number of colleges.

It’s not as if Kendi invented the word, or the ideas behind it, but as college leaders were crafting statements and making promises, it was his language they tended to echo. It “became a more tangible and consumable way to process a lot of the deep thinking that had been going on for decades,” says Davarian L. Baldwin, a professor of American Studies at Trinity College and author of the forthcoming book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities. “Among critical thinkers, there’s been a long-term dissatisfaction with the use of terms like diversity and multiculturalism,” he says, which tend to mean “we have this existing institution and we’re just going to diversify the demographic that exists therein and not have any alteration of the infrastructure of the institution itself.”

How exactly should an institution’s infrastructure be altered? A recent paper, “Anti-Racism in Higher Education: A Model for Change,” published in Race and Pedagogy Journal, calls for colleges to “dismantle systems of White supremacy” and to embrace “shared power across racial lines.” The paper argues that chief diversity officers too often function as “chief absolution officers” — that is, they allow an institution to give lip service to diversity without supporting more substantive, and potentially controversial, change. Instead, the authors write, chief diversity officers must “hold presidents accountable for their racist mindsets and actions.”

In a blog post last September, Robert O. Davies, president of Central Michigan University, wrote about the influence of Kendi’s book on how he thought about his university’s mission. He was not just reading, he wrote, but “re-reading, underlining passages and absorbing the advice I found within its pages.” Davies came to the conclusion that “CMU must become an antiracist institution.” He points to a variety of efforts that Central Michigan is undertaking, among them an attempt to figure out why graduation rates are not equal across racial groups at the university. “Why not? They need to be,” he says. “We’re working diligently to make sure that the graduation rates are within a range of each other.” He notes that the university has a need-based financial-aid program that stops after a recipient’s sophomore year, a cut-off that might lead vulnerable students to drop out. “That was put in place decades ago,” he says. “We’re looking to change that.”

In his post, he wrote about attempting to diversify the faculty by looking at how open positions are advertised and the “criteria we use to determine qualification for a position.” According to the most recently available data, Central Michigan’s percentage of faculty of color is slightly above the national average. He also wants to expand the pool of students who are selected as so-called ambassadors — that is, those who are sent out to recruit applicants. “Our ambassadors are our honor students and that’s not reflective of the population,” he says.

Like Davies, Neeli Bendapudi, president of the University of Louisville, has embraced the mantle of antiracism. Indeed, the university announced that it would seek to become “the premier antiracist metropolitan university” (that’s since been softened, Bendapudi says, to “an” antiracist metropolitan university).

“I know it’s risky to put yourself out there and say we will be a premier antiracist university,” she says. “To me, it’s about inclusive excellence. In every sphere we see that the more diverse the leaders are, the better outcomes you have. That was what motivated me.” An additional motivation for Bendapudi is that Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by the police during a botched raid last March, was an emergency-room technician at the university’s medical center (Louisville has set up a nursing scholarship in Taylor’s name). Bendapudi, too, echoes one of Kendi’s now-famous admonitions. “It’s not enough to say ‘I’m not racist,’” she has stated. “We must become antiracist.”

In service of that goal, Bendapudi has said that Louisville will be “building intentionally antiracism curriculum across all disciplines,” which she sees as necessary progress for the university as a whole. “People think that an antiracist agenda is only for making sure that our Black and brown students are successful,” she says. “I think that increasingly a Caucasian student that’s coming here is going to be looking for a job and people are going to say: ‘How comfortable are you working with diverse teams? What’s your cultural competence?’ So I think the agenda benefits everybody.”

Louisville calls its plan the Cardinal Anti-Racism Agenda. The website for that agenda lists a wide range of programs, including the Black Male Initiative, which seeks to “increase the retention, graduation and engagement of Black males” and a consortium for social justice-related research intended to address “intransigent social problems and systemic inequalities.” The university is “enhancing programming related to structural racism” and putting together a “curated list of resources on the Diversity and Equity site for the campus community to engage with.” It is also “revamping the Bias Incident Response Team” in order to “counteract incidences of bias, microaggression and racism.”

Those steps, though, haven’t satisfied some student activists. In a response to an email outlining the plans, a student tweeted that Louisville is “nowhere near” its goal of being antiracist, and that if the university failed to cut ties with the local police department “your sentiments are performative.” Bendapudi doesn’t think cutting ties would be possible even if the university decided it was a good idea. “We are in a metro area. You still have to cooperate. It’s a public university,” she says. “I did consider it, but I don’t think the scales really tipped at any point.”

At Portland State University, campus policing has been at the center of a conflict between activists and administrators. For several years, a group of students, staff, and alumni calling themselves DisarmPSU have argued that campus police officers shouldn’t carry guns. Those calls intensified in 2018 when two Portland State officers were investigated, and later cleared, following the shooting death of Jason Washington, a Black man, outside a bar in downtown Portland (in 2019, the university agreed to pay Washington’s family $1 million). After weeks of intense protest last summer, the university announced that officers would start going on their patrols without firearms, and would carry Tasers. Willie Halliburton, chief of the university’s public safety office, said that “we need to heal, and this is the first step in healing.”


Harry Haysom for The Chronicle

In a message welcoming students back after the winter break, Portland State’s president, Stephen Percy, wrote that his “highest priority is sustaining and amplifying our commitment to racial justice.” In a recent interview, Percy said that his statement came after a personal reckoning that he’s undergone in the wake of national protests over the summer and after listening to students. “I needed to help a whole institution move,” he says. “But at the same time I’m learning and growing myself, learning more about white supremacy and learning more about the privilege I’ve had that has allowed me to achieve what I’ve had in my life.” His office put out a list of strategic priorities, among them the notion that the university would apply “an antiracist lens to every signal we send, every model we create, and every policy we enact.”

Sometimes, however, signals can get crossed. Several college presidents had to scramble after issuing statements that were deemed insufficient. In a June statement, Boston University’s president, Robert A. Brown, referred to the “grim reality of systemic racism” and recent police killings. He also wrote that “we rely on our police more than ever,” but that some officers break that trust “in most egregious ways.” One Instagram user described the statement as “performative allyship at its finest” and another called it “hollow, empty and unhelpful.” Brown sent a follow-up to that statement, writing that in his first letter he “spoke like the engineer I was trained to be” but that this one was “from my heart, and my heart is with all of you who feel the dehumanizing sting of racism.”

Middlebury College’s president, Laurie Patton, also sent a second message apologizing for being overly general in her first message. “I needed to name the specific and systemic violence experienced by Black people,” she wrote. Paul Trible Jr., president of Christopher Newport University, walked backed his initial response to the death of George Floyd, a response that included criticism of destructive protests (including mentioning that his son’s clothing store had been burglarized) and a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. about the need to “transform suffering into a creative force.” In the follow-up, he apologized and wrote that “Black lives matter to me and always have and always will.”

Princeton University’s statement ran into a different kind of blowback. Issued in September, the sentiments and language were similar to what appeared in other college’s statements. The president, Christopher L. Eisgruber, wrote about the institution’s history of excluding women and minorities from its ranks. “Racism and the damage it does to people of color nevertheless persist at Princeton as in our society,” he wrote, “sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies.”

That led to a letter from the U.S. Department of Education accusing Princeton of possible violation of the Civil Rights Act for supposedly admitting that its “educational program is and for decades has been racist.” The letter also raised the possibility that the university might face financial penalties, threatening that the “Secretary of Education may consider measures against Princeton … including an action to recover funds.”

The letter was widely interpreted as a partisan jab, one that was designed to poke fun at the liberal leanings of elite higher education, though in the letter the department requested university records including “a spreadsheet identifying each person who has, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, been excluded” from any program at Princeton. (Last month, a week before Joe Biden took office, the Education Department told Princeton it was closing its investigation.)

While that letter may have been a political stunt, it did generate applause from those suspicious of the ideological underpinnings of antiracist training programs and proposed curricular reforms.

In an essay for National Review, Sergiu Klainerman, a professor of mathematics at Princeton, argued that the university is not racist, but race-obsessed. He wondered whether Eisgruber really believes in antiracism or was “just using it as a virtue-signaling ploy to delay the present pressures coming from the justice-warrior activists on campus.”

In a similar rebuttal, Glenn C. Loury, a professor of economics at Brown University, objected to a message from Brown’s senior leadership that promised the university would “leverage the expertise of our faculty, staff and students” to “promote essential change in policy and practice in the name of equity and justice.” Loury wrote that the message contained “no reasoned ethical reflection” and instead was intent on “indoctrination, virtue-signaling, and the transparent currying of favor with our charges.” Both Klainerman and Loury are alleging that their universities are putting out statements for show — more or less what student activists are saying when they accuse administrators of being performative.

Like those students, USC’s Harper is more concerned about follow-through from administrators. “If nobody’s watching and holding these leaders accountable, we will see the same thing happen with those commitments that we made back in the summer of 2020 that we’ve seen happen to commitments that were made to student activists in prior eras,” he says. “I think we need public transparency and an accountability tool that helps ensure that these institutions stay on track.”

On the opposite coast, at the University of North Florida, Whitney Meyer has been pushing the campus to have what she calls “honest conversations.” Meyer was selected as the university’s chief diversity officer in June. It wasn’t as if North Florida didn’t have diversity-related efforts in progress before then, but “everything was siloed,” she says. In the wake of the national protests, Meyer’s position was created in recognition that “we need something universitywide that brings everyone together.” Among other actions, North Florida now requires all incoming students to participate in an antiracist training program, and Meyer is working with faculty members to integrate some of those ideas into the classroom. And she says she has the ear of the university’s president, David Szymanski. “He’ll say, ‘I just want you to go and do what we need to do. I trust that you will do what’s right,’” Meyer says.

Like North Florida, this fall Duke University held its first antiracism training program for freshmen. That was one of the more than two dozen diversity-related efforts outlined in a 2,300-word statement in October from the university’s president, Vincent Price. Duke plans to expand its diversity hiring program and provide funding for research on slavery and the history of the South, among other initiatives. It is also removing the name of a former North Carolina governor and white supremacist from one of its residence halls. “These are only first steps as we chart our antiracist course at Duke,” Price wrote.

First steps — that’s also how Kimberly Hewitt, Duke’s chief diversity officer and vice president for institutional equity, sees it. “We’re in a period of increased momentum, but also reckoning and of recognizing the magnitude of the issue,” she says. “We have a lot of conversations about how we want to keep things moving and we want to be thoughtful. We recognize we are not going to solve this problem in a few months.” That said, she’s more hopeful about that prospect than she was when she took over the position a year and a half ago.

“I think many people probably experienced the feeling from the summer of a sort of shift,” Hewitt says. “It’s like the choir got bigger.”

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