In the aftermath of a year largely defined by campus protests over racial grievances, a majority of college presidents and administrators expect the trend of unrest on campus to continue, and about half say the trend is impacting their approach to the job. Interestingly, while many campus leaders believe the events of 2015 are part of a growing national trend, most believe their campuses to be well-situated on race relations.
Many students disagree.
At the University of Missouri, last year's campus protests contributed to a 23% decline in the number of applications for the coming fall, which is forcing a 5% budget cut — which does not account for additional cuts currently moving through the state legislature — and a "grim" overall outlook for the 2016-17 year. And while some majority campuses are seeing a decline in applications for the coming year, many historically Black institutions are reporting an uptick in applications.
The Seattle Times recently published a piece examining "what it's like to be black on campus: isolated, exhausted, calling for change." Middle Tennessee State University graduate student Joshua Crutchfield recently called for a mass transfer of black students on campus to historically Black colleges in the area, including Fisk and Tennessee State universities. Crutchfield, tired of feeling he and other students "have to beg institutions to be included," said, "we don't have to be where we're not wanted."
As the United States prepares for a demographic shift that will see a majority non-white student population by 2020, administrators at every level must figure out ways to address the needs of these students, or see their doors shut.
Dr. David O. Stovall, a professor of African American Studies and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Monday during a panel at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting he believes a shift in the attitudes of the students is forcing the conversation into the public sphere.
"We will not be dehumanized, we will not be taken advantage of, be advised that not only are our lives important, but we will demand the shift of this [educational space] or something else will happen," Stovall said, speaking in the voice of students across the country.
Dr. Jerlando Jackson, director of the Wisconsin Equity Lab and the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Education Dive institutions must accept some of the responsibility for changing these outcomes.
"There's good national evidence to suggest that there's something that's going on at college campuses that cause black [students] to exit them without getting what they came there for," he said. Jackson, who also serves as coordinator for the Higher, Postsecondary, and Continuing Education Program and as a faculty affiliate for Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said the problem lies with campus climate.
"You look at the college-going rate and the retention, matriculation and graduation rate, it will show that there is something going on at our institutions that aren't supportive enough to keep a group of individuals who were committed enough to come to our campuses and not find themselves staying," he said.
But Stovall believes the time is right for change.
"We are in this moment where this type of situation [has to change], and what's powerful about this moment is that young folks are embracing this moment,” he said.
At a minimum, in 2016, institutions are being forced to acknowledge there is a problem to address. Optimism of college presidents on race relations is eroding, and educators at all levels continually debate ways to increase engagement and connection for these students, in hopes that establishing a connection will raise outcomes around measures of academic progress, including graduation, retention and test performance.
At the University of Connecticut, attempts to build a learning community around Black males, specifically, has recently come under a lot of criticism.
But other efforts have been praised for promoting successful outcomes around graduation and retention of the underserved populations. Dr. James L. Moore III recently received the American Educational Research Association award for distinguished contributions to gender equity in education research in recognition of his work as executive director of the Todd Anthony Bell Resource Center on the African American Male at Ohio State University.
Many of the campus uprisings and conference think sessions have pointed out what Moore said he and his team discovered over a decade ago when they decided to create the center: black students, particularly black males, often feel "virtually invisible on campus, in terms of being engaged in the campus environment." This is true not only in higher ed environments, but in K-12 settings as well.
Jackson said the problem is not limited to male students. "I actually think black women have an even more difficult time than black males," he said.
Focusing on a solution at all levels
Moore said the work of the center seeks to find solutions that can be applied to black males in K-12 settings and the workplace, in addition to higher ed.
"We're trying to infuse the ethos of excellence," he said. "It's abstract, but it's really touchable as well. Slowly, we're trying to help [young men of color] change the way they think about themselves, think about their academic prowess attainment and the difference they can make in their lives and in their families and communities."
"We need to think intentionally about ways to bring [students of color] into the fold. Without that intentional focus, we will perpetuate some of the things that the academy usually does: in being paternalistic, in being elitist," said Dr. Constance Iloh, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Irvine.
This means, she said, understanding the difference between equity and equality and understanding the intentionality of policies that led to the current disparities.
Stovall agreed, provoking the idea that "segregation, gentrification and education" are all tied, and imploring audience members to “not be dismissive of that relationship between race and place.”
It is also critical to embrace the idea that not only is everyone capable of learning, but everyone is entitled to the same opportunities to learn. Confronting one's own biases about a population and recognizing the societal images projected upon them is an important first step in reversing the deficit narrative facing students of color.
"Too often, black [people] are seen as part of a group, rather than individually, so there's a stigma of inferiority that follows them everywhere they go," said Moore, who added the stigma "creates a heightened sense of anxiety for" these individuals.
Dr. Prudence Carter, Jacks Family Professor of Education at Stanford University and Faculty Director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, suggested during the AERA meeting that educators approach “education as a public good and not just a private good, not for our own private consumption,” but fundamentally serving all students.
"When we talk about making this palpable to younger folks, I think one of the ways to value their lives is to value the places that they come from as not spaces of deficit, but of places of possibility and value," said Stovall.
To this end, the pervasive conversation around representation is key.
Allowing students the opportunity to “have an investigation of the things that they find important and the things that they are [interested in] in their daily lives,” Stovall added.
Sometimes, the answer is not so tangible. Sometimes, said David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on African American Excellence, at the AERA meeting, it is just a simple matter of getting back to the fundamental basics of nurturing their humanity, as opposed to seeing them as data points or problems to address.
"If we do nothing else, young people need us to stand with them, love them, and affirm them,” Johns said, stressing the importance of moving from beyond a theoretical to a personal conversation.
As the country prepares for a population shift that will see a majority of students being people of color, one thing is clear: institutions will either figure out how to meet the needs of students of color, or face glaring enrollment gaps and continual, potentially disruptive, campus unrest.
Looking Beyond Students
Maintaining a critical mass of faculty of color on campus is proving imperative towards the retention of students of color. As critical as it is for students to see themselves represented in the work they're doing is the need to see themselves represented in the faculty and administrative ranks on campus. Many students of color are first-generation collegegoers; often there's no one in their family to tell them about options relating to graduate school or tell them about going on to get a Ph.D. That's where faculty of color are key. They serve as not only mentors but models to the students of what is possible.
To that end, however, many faculty and administrators of color face the same sense of isolation, deal with the same microaggressions students face, making it even more difficult for many institutions to recruit and retain African-American and Latino professors and leaders.
“That same set of challenges aren’t going away when we show up on these campuses as professionals, whether leaders or faculty or staff,” Jackson said. He suggested the institutions must make intentional efforts to extend support considerations to faculty, staff and administrators of color.
“For navigating these types of employment places, you’re challenged to find good mentorship, you’re challenged to be sponsored for good opportunities, you are not always supported in the types of priorities you might want to bring to the table. You struggle to develop authentic relationships with your colleagues,” Jackson continued. “The list can be so pervasive and [that’s] why it’s difficult to get connected to the organizational culture in the institution.”
Some of the same solutions many are applying to students are important to consider for faculty: intentional efforts to help them build community, supporting and encouraging professional development and considering the implications of policies that have traditionally kept instructors of color out of these spaces.
For teachers and faculty at all levels, representation is just as key as it is for students. Allowing them agency to reflect their own experiences in their work — be it classroom examples and curricular reading text or research approaches or program and policy suggestions — is key to supporting them as individuals. Similarly, allowing them time and flexibility to convene with other educators of color and see themselves and their experiences reflected in others who have “made it” is just as important.
"We all know the environment is important," said Moore. "I think white faculty and staff play a critical role in policies, practices, processes they use and the people they put in position who will determine" the tone for the campus environment.
Jackson said those policies and practices must consider that there is not equity in terms of access, even today.
"When you have fewer access points to key decision-makers or privileged information, it will always be more difficult for you. That's a fundamental dynamic," Jackson said.
"Ultimately what we're talking about is the transfer of power in decision-making. Some groups just don’t want to let those differentiating markers go. Not many people readily give away what makes them special," he continued. But being keyed in on the "special" ingredients is important to helping teachers and leaders of color build up agency in the space as well. "What you have in essence in a lot of places, are individuals trying to figure out how to navigate organizations with no real assistance."
Moore said institutions must begin "to recognize that diversity is an asset, not a deficit." Most recognize conceptually that increased diversity benefits everyone, but campus leaders must move from theory to practice if they are to remain competitive in the education landscape.
"I think the frame of mind is really important in and that all human beings have the capability to do extraordinary things if the context is conducive for producing."
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