What Colleges’ Leaders Can Do To Address Racial Justice

In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, many university presidents released statements condemning racial injustice. But professors who study campus racial diversity and organizations that track college staffing and leadership say that university leaders need to take concrete steps now to promote the cause of racial justice. 

Colleges have a lot of work to do to increase the diversity of their staff and faculty. A 2020 survey conducted by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources found that only 16.1% of administrators in higher education are racial and ethnic minorities, compared to 44.8% of U.S. residents enrolled in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2018, the most recent year data is available.

A separate survey found that racial and ethnic minorities make up 23% of higher education professionals, which CUPA-HR Director of Research Jackie Bichsel says means there is a pipeline in place for leadership positions, but those involved in the hiring process are not drawing from it.

University presidents have the power to prioritize diversity and inclusion within their institutions, through initiatives such as hiring more faculty of color and changing the curriculum to include classes about anti-racism, says Rachaele Pope, a professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Buffalo. She says schools should allow students to have an ongoing dialogue with administrators about their needs. 

New York University professor of higher education Stella Flores, who serves as associate dean for faculty development and diversity at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, says university leaders should prioritize equity and inclusion in every conversation and decision they make. 

If schools hire a diversity officer that person must be included in all university decisions, rather than just “diversity-obvious” issues, Flores says. Diversity officers should be at the center of decisions about budget, hiring, admissions, recruitment, and promotion.

University of Buffalo’s Pope says schools should implement mandatory courses for all students on anti-racism. That’s happening at the California State Universities, the country’s biggest four-year public university system. On June 18, the state legislature passed a bill that requires all Cal State undergraduates to take a course focused on race and ethnicity in order to graduate. The policy takes effect in the 2021-2022 academic year.

American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) President Mildred Garcia says that in order to create lasting change university leaders must develop a comprehensive, consistent plan with benchmarks and accountability that supports students of color.

Six AASCU member institutions are part of the Frontier Set, a collaboration between 29 colleges and universities, and two state systems, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Frontier Set institutions work to identify, understand, and share effective ways to boost student success, particularly among first-generation, low-income students of color.

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, an AASCU member institution in the Frontier Set, eliminated the graduation gap between Black and white students and nearly eliminated the graduation gap between Pell students and non-Pell students after introducing new programming for underrepresented students. They added an academic success coaching program, a summer bridge for incoming first-years, and a college-readiness program for Latinx high school students across North Carolina.

As colleges prepare for their fall semesters, University of Buffalo’s Pope says college leaders are likely to hear a lot about racial justice, even if they are communicating virtually.

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Nathan Odige