From Diversity to Anti-Racism: Trends Among Higher Education Institutions

Written by: Cobretti Williams
Published on: Mar 1, 2021

Anti Racism
Image credit: Lucky Business/Shutterstock

There was a time when simply addressing the basic concept of diversity was a serious undertaking for many institutions in higher education. Faculty, students, and administrators were forced to grapple with the need to create inclusive campus environments that would reflect the broader society. More recently, the push towards inclusion has evolved to emphasize the need for anti-racism education and initiatives at colleges and universities.

Higher education has employed a variety of mechanisms to address racial equity on college campuses. A number of trends are emerging among institutions that are committing to inclusive, diverse and anti-racist campus climates in the future.

Sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in the summer of 2020, social unrest racked the nation, shining a light on disturbing patterns of racialized violence and police brutality. As a result, individuals, organizations and institutions around the country, including many colleges and universities, were forced to reconcile with histories and systemic practices of racism.

“I think there is optimism based on this worldwide movement and the fact that there’s worldwide attention on the way Black folks have been treated in this country for hundreds of years now,” Troy Alim, an engagement manager for the Young Invincibles youth advocacy groups said in an interview with the Hechinger Report. “The question I would ask is, ‘What is being done?’ The institutional racism is so deep, there are so many things that can be done to address it…I think it’s a really important time for institutions to show who they are.”

A variety of actions have been taken to address wrongdoings towards marginalized students of color and to, hopefully, create campus environments that are racially inclusive and equitable. Colleges and universities are making significant financial investments in research on anti-racism and educational initiatives to it combat it, revamping curriculum and creating research centers to promote a scholarly understanding.

To that end, some institutions, including the University of Michigan, are focusing on the recruitment and hiring of faculty whose work emphasizes anti-racism across disciplines, and even more notably, evaluate relationships and commitment to police which have been the source of brutality and violence for communities of color before. In the long term, these efforts by university leadership are part of larger developments in strategic diversity plans that are meant to align metrics of institutional diversity with the demands of Black students, staff, and faculty, who remain skeptical of the possibility of systemic change in higher education.

Based on the recent actions of colleges and universities around the country, that skepticism may be warranted. Last fall, the Education Advisory Board conducted an analysis of 130 statements on race and racism issued by higher education institutions in the U.S. and Canada following Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis. The study found that 60% of the statements did not explicitly address anti-racism efforts and 18% did not acknowledge institutional history and complicity with racial oppression.

While based on solely institutional statements, many stakeholders, particularly Black college students, seem to feel that these findings reflect the lack of meaningful progress that has been made in higher education. “I feel like it’s completely lip service, with no actions and no specific next steps. These statements are just like the exact statements they’ve put out after past incidents; it’s to relieve the weight off of them and just shut everybody up” Nala McWhorter, former president of the Black Student Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the Hechinger Report.

The unfortunate events of this past year cannot be erased, nor can the longstanding challenges Black students and students of color have faced in higher education in this country. While higher education is undoubtedly making strides to self-correct systemic practices of racism and oppression, challenges remain. The ability of institutions to reckon with the past will ultimately impact their ability to truly embrace anti-racism.

Recently, the College of Education at Lehigh University came under siege for a plagiarized statement of commitment to anti-racism on campus. In a message to faculty and staff, William Gaudelli, the college’s dean, said, “Rest assured that the content of this work -- decolonizing syllabi and working to become an anti-racist community of scholars -- continues to be an utmost priority for the College of Education along with the integrity of the written word.”

It should be abundantly clear by now that repeating previous patterns of silence and inaction when it comes to racism will not be tolerated. Students will hold their colleges and universities accountable for delivering on the promise of building diverse student bodies and campus populations.