Embracing campus diversity and addressing racial unrest

How higher ed can take the lead in confronting this modern civil rights issue

Universities welcome media coverage of college sports, groundbreaking research and alumni achievement—all of which generate recognition and revenues supporting their educational mission.

Too often, however, racially charged events at universities have dominated those headlines. Racial diversity, inclusion and equality in higher education are hot topics. Low numbers of minority faculty, students and administrators, as well as incidents of on-campus racial harassment, have become the civil rights issue of this millennium.

A nationwide movement

Many students have joined the struggle for fairness, which has resulted in a nationwide movement for campus reform.  In fact, as of December 2015, students have presented lists of race-equality demands to at least 78 universities and colleges across the nation.  The events set forth below are a few recent instances of the burgeoning movement for campus equality and inclusion.   

  • University of Missouri-Columbia. In September 2015, Payton Head, an African-American student, walked with a friend through campus.  A passenger in a passing pickup truck assaulted Mr. Head with a string of racial epithets.  Mr. Head responded to the incident with a detailed Facebook post that included accounts of similar experiences and expounded on the exclusionary plight of racial minorities on campus.  The Facebook post went viral.  In the following months, students organized as “Concerned Student 1950” (the date of the University’s admission of its first African American student) to protest racially-charged incidents on campus and attempted in vain to obtain an audience before University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe.  On October 21, 2015, Concerned Student 1950 issued a list of demands to the University.  Then real power was exerted.  On November 2, 2015, a student announced that he would commence a hunger strike until President Wolfe resigned.  On November 7, 2015, members of the University’s Football Team announced their refusal to participate in football activities for the duration of the season unless President Wolfe was removed.  In the face of escalating pressure, President Wolfe resigned.
  • Claremont McKenna College. On October 23, 2015, Claremont McKenna College student Lisette Espinosa published an article detailing the discrimination she had experienced on campus.  In response to the article, Mary Spellman, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students, emailed Ms. Espinosa to thank her for the article and invite her for a discussion.  Dean Spellman emphasized the importance of “working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our [Claremont McKenna] mold”—a phrase that offended many students who felt that the college was not addressing the needs of minorities.  Many students protested, including two hunger strikers, and emphatically demanded Dean Spellman’s removal.  More than 100 faculty members signed a statement supporting the student protesters, while at the same time over 300 students signed an open letter in support of the dean.  Dean Spellman ultimately resigned, and the college’s president created two new positions which will focus on diversity issues.
  • University of Cincinnati On July 19, 2015, a University of Cincinnati Police Officer pulled over Sam Dubose, a non-student African-American Cincinnati resident, near campus for a traffic violation.  In the ensuing incident, the officer shot and killed Dubose, which led to a series of highly-charged national headlines, a social media barrage, protests, and concerns raised not only by students, but by faculty, alumni, community groups, clergy, civil rights organizations, and others.  Shortly after the fall semester commenced, students formed the group “The Irate8” which announced its arrival by hijacking the Twitter hashtag #hottestcollegeinamerica in an effort to express disappointment in how the University had acknowledged the shooting and the need for campus reform.  On October 15, 2015, The Irate8 issued a list of demands to the university.  Unsatisfied with the nature of President Ono’s response, students expanded participation in protests. 

Addressing grievances and demands

As illustrated by University of Missouri former President Wolfe and Claremont McKenna College former Dean Spellman, demands for resignations pose a legitimate threat to ill-prepared university and college administrators. Concerned Student 1950 targeted President Wolfe at the homecoming parade because he did not respond to its request for a dialog.  He publicly responded only after the student started his hunger strike and only one day before the financially and powerful alumni-influential football team declared support for the cause.  President Wolfe aptly remarked, “Had I gotten out of the car to acknowledge the students and talk with them, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

By contrast, Dean Spellman responded to Lisette Espinosa and did so promptly—but students still demanded her resignation based on her reference to students that did not “fit [Claremont McKenna’s] mold.”  Regardless of intent, students interpreted the comment to imply that students should focus on conforming to this College’s societal norms and this reaction likely fueled the intensity of the student organizations’ reactions.  Stated simply, wholly failing to respond, or providing an insensitive response, will probably lead to dire consequences.  
A more effective reaction, with a more positive outcome, is that of University of Cincinnati. Almost immediately after the incident, University President Santa Ono reached out to the family to offer his condolences, and met with them as well as local civic and religious leaders.  He brought in outside experts to assist in addressing issues raised by community leaders, and ordered a complete review of the campus police actions.  Key University administrators continue to meet with an advisory panel of prominent members of the Cincinnati clergy, community, and judiciary, and the University communicates often with the public and the media.  According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “University of Cincinnati leadership listened to its students of color and sought to address their concerns head-on.”  The ultimate challenge for universities and colleges, however, is to successfully, not only listen, but proactively address core issues of underrepresentation and lack of inclusion, and implement changes that will confront historic concerns.

What do they want?

The lists of demands vary from campus to campus, but several themes are apparent.  As a whole, the demands outline specific ways to further the overall goal of increasing minority representation, and fostering a more welcoming campus environment for all.   
The student organizations have demanded greater diversity at all levels of campus involvement, including faculty, student bodies, administration, staff, and even those invited on campus to speak.  Increased diversity of faculty likely presents a difficult but not insurmountable challenge for universities and colleges that are committed to addressing this serious concern.  For example, Concerned Student 1950 demanded that the University of Missouri increase the percentage of African-American faculty members by ten percent by the start of the 2016-2017 academic year.  As of the 2014 fall semester, African-Americans at Missouri comprised only 4.4 percent of the fulltime tenured and tenure-track faculty, consistent with faculty demographics nationwide.  Satisfying the demand would likely require the hiring of about 240 African-American faculty members within a single academic year.  Again, using an analogy to the business community, which is currently engaged in a “war for talent” and is always seeking a competitive advantage – colleges and universities that are successful in achieving dramatic increases in talented faculty members of color will have a real competitive advantage in attracting more of the best and brightest students (which will also include women and other students of color).

The demand for increased student diversity to mirror the population also presents a formidable challenge.  As of 2012, the percentage of African-American students at colleges and universities nationwide roughly reflected the percentage of African-Americans in the general population (13.2%).  Nevertheless, the enrollment at many individual colleges and universities lags well behind the national percentage.  For example, African-American student populations are frequently one-third to one-half of the national figure at many prominent public and private universities.  Doubling or tripling these student enrollments would obviously take diligent efforts to achieve.  It should be noted, however, that the students’ aspirational demands could never be achieved without proactive goals, university commitment, and the formulation of realistic action plans.

Other demands frequently appearing on students’ lists include:   

  • Mandatory and regular training to educate students, faculty, and staff on cultural awareness and sensitivity towards minorities; simply stated, how to treat all people with customary respect, avoiding purposeful and even unintended hurtful comments or other communications.
  • Addition of courses to the mandatory curriculum designed to introduce the concepts of systemic discrimination and exclusion as well as more diverse and culturally-oriented course offerings.
  • Funding for cultural organizations and facilities for minority students’ use, colloquially known as “safe spaces.” 
  • Greater accountability for addressing discriminatory and exclusionary practices, including:  
    • Establishment of a chief diversity officer position to implement and oversee enhanced antidiscrimination policies
    • Websites that would allow the public to monitor the progress of the diversity initiatives.

It should be noted that many colleges and universities adopted some or all of these measures long ago, well before the current round of student protests – often in response to earlier protests.  Interestingly, the types of solutions these students of color have proposed for racially offensive, harassing, discriminatory, and insensitive behavior are similar to the approaches developed by progressive corporations particularly over the last 25 years, partially in response to federal statutory and regulatory mandates that commenced in the 1960’s.

Prescriptive advice

The sizeable number of often highly-publicized student protests and demands in reaction to a perception – triggered by specific problematic incidents – of unfair, unsupportive, insensitive, or hostile campus environments likely caught many university and college administrations off guard.  Colleges and universities typically view themselves as caring and inclusive, and far more progressive than society at large on race and other such matters.  Indeed, many higher education institutions hold themselves out as leaders in these areas, which may well have invited students who have suffered the slings and arrows of racism to judge their colleges more critically. 

At the same time, there have been many instances of backlash against current student unrest over race and inclusivity.  Institutional leaders and faculty who are empathetic to the social justice goals of protesters may nonetheless express concern over their methodology, as some student demands may clash with long-held institutional values of academic freedom, shared governance and the free exchange of ideas.  Legislators, alumni, community leaders and others will have their own perspectives which may not be in sync with the concerns of students, or with the needs of academia.

Faced with such a complex swirl of pressures, even those sympathetic to the plight of minority students and faculty may be ill-equipped to analyze and respond quickly to such sensitive issues on their own, and may fall victim to the pitfalls associated therewith.  The right balance needs to be struck when timely responding to the legitimate concerns about systemic racism in higher education, while remaining true to important institutional values.  Not having the infrastructure, personnel, policies, experience, skilled advisors, or battle-tested consultants to deal with such inflammatory issues in recent years, many universities and colleges may get caught “flat-footed.”  Many are not positioned to comprehensively understand or evaluate and effectively address the students’ legitimate concerns. 

Colleges and universities suddenly finding their hard-earned reputations—and their ability to attract the best students, faculty, and administrators, as well as Federal and state funding/grants, and alumni support—at severe risk, need to quickly develop effective responses.  When an event erupts, it is clear that institutions cannot afford to ignore the situation or issue blanket denials.  What should they do? 

  • Should they accept all student demands, such as minority enrollment mirroring the population?
  • Should they deny they have a problem?   
  • How should they take into account the unique, key core values of academic freedom, shared governance and the critical – but not unfettered – exchange of ideas?

It is the rare institution which will be able to successfully manage such crises with internal resources alone.  Just as with a crisis in a legal, financial or other serious matter of public concern, universities and colleges should strongly consider seeking expert professional advice.  Although the proper resources are not broadly available, skilled expertise does exist.  The recognition of the value of diversity in other contexts has facilitated the rise of diversity crisis management and counseling, legal, public relations, and subject matter diversity experts.  Diversity counseling experts can study the unique history and culture of the institution and effectively interact with the various stakeholder groups—administrators, students, alumni, faculty, staff, legislators and regulators.  Both short-term and long-term action plans and accountabilities are essential to address shortcomings and adopt best practices.  The often complex (and sometimes unrealistic) demands of the students or calls for stonewalling the issues—both have consequences.  The urgent need to avoid mishandling the responses should motivate universities and colleges to promptly (or better, as a precaution) obtain such expertise and develop comprehensive strategies.

With or without the cattle prod of student activism and demands, forward-thinking colleges and universities should engage in introspection and take proactive, concrete, measurable steps toward the growth and maintenance of more diverse campus representation, a more inclusionary environment, and truly equal treatment for all.  Under the best of circumstances, administrations, faculty and students across the country must collaborate to make these bastions of higher education live up to their promise of enlightened and rational thinking, discourse, and action.

Weldon H. Latham is founder and chair of the Corporate Diversity Counseling Group and a member of the Higher Education Group of Jackson Lewis PC. He can be contacted at lathamw@jacksonlewis.com.

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