Beyond words: Why colleges must do more than talk about racial justice

Statements matter, but action is necessary to instill change.
By: | August 5, 2021

The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 proved to be a linchpin to get students across the nation to rally behind racial and social justice causes. It also pushed college and university leaders to release statements on institutional commitment, particularly around diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

There were a number of key words and phrases included in those comments–largely delivered by presidents–in addressing important issues, including “George Floyd” himself, “fair treatment for all”, “discrimination” and “solidarity.” But were they strong enough, and were they part of a long-term strategy to implement genuine transformation on their campuses?

NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education recently published a report called Moving from Words to Action that looked at how well leaders responded in the wake of overzealous policing, mass protests, and the calls for change.

Announcements coming from top officials at revered institutions can have a tremendous impact beyond their community. But additional action is needed to ensure they aren’t hollow.

“When no one follows up to see what actions were taken, statements are just words,” said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA. “This report examines what changes institutions have made and shares strategies for increasing racial justice on campuses across the country.”

One positive statistic from the 36-page yearlong study – done with 230 responding institutions – is that 85% of colleges and universities followed up on those statements with actions such as trainings, assessments, police reform, hiring practices, and changes to curriculum. Nearly a third chose to put more money behind DEI efforts on campus (most had initiatives before the Floyd murder) and another 28% reached out for grants – two of the most effective ways to assure sustainable success. They also began breaking down silos by getting cross-department assistance. Still, institutions have a long way to go in trying to overcome longstanding power structures that favor Whites, and foster atmospheres where buy-in can be a struggle and funding constraints persist.

“Colleges and universities cannot hope to confront the impact of racial injustice without fully examining and reviewing their systems at every level, and we hope this research helps all institutions to begin or continue that process,” said co-author Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.

Many institution leaders sent out their impactful statements within the first couple of weeks after the Floyd murder, and some did well to follow them up. Their statements were carefully crafted and delivered thanks to a number of campus stakeholders involved, from presidents on down to VPs of Student Affairs and Marketing and Chief Diversity Officers, authors noted. Some phrases were more impactful than others, according to researchers, including “Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor”, as well as “discrimination against the Black and/or African American community” and “institutional or structural racism.” And there were those that missed the mark, including “violent protests and riots” and “good cops.”

Beyond continued honing of statements and repeated messaging, study authors offered a number of recommendations in the report to institutional leaders and stakeholders, including:

  • Analyzing and keeping data on racial groups within the college or university system that includes all members of the community. Authors suggested perhaps a public file or dashboard to show statistics or trends
  • Predominately White institutions should set targeted goals for how messaging is being delivered and ensure it is across multiple media outlets
  • Ensuring that offices of diversity, equity and inclusion are properly staffed. More than 20% of respondents said they boosted hirings in the past year
  • Boosting hirings of Black and Ingenious Persons of Color among faculty and staff and in leadership roles
  • Assessing and more closely auditing campus police departments, as well as trainings
  • Empower student involvement in the process, giving them a voice on campus.

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