A recent article in Education Dive titled “Don’t Wait on a Crisis to Implement Diversity initiatives” hit on some crucial points.
One thing I have observed over many years of work in this area is that activism and institutional response on race, climate, inclusion, and privilege seem to be cyclical. Institutions tend to change very slowly and they make the most change around diversity when they are responding to the “pain” and disruption of activism. Students and other activists grow frustrated with the slow pace of change, and things eventually come to a head with demonstrations, demands, and elevated attention.
For a while everybody is highly motivated and diversity efforts get launched, some meaningful and some more cosmetic. Eventually everybody gets “outrage fatigue,” activism dies down and things settle back into a normal rhythm. Once the spotlight dims and the disruption ceases, the institution goes back to business as usual. The pace of change slows again, and some gains may even be lost. Frustration mounts, and the cycle begins again.
This cycle explains why we are essentially having the same conversations on campus about racism and the student experience that we were having 10, 20, and 30 years ago. But what to do about it? The lesson here is that our society has deep and persistent challenges around diversity and inclusion, and it will take a long time to make meaningful changes. The work is hard, and it is never done. Universities must commit to this work for the long haul, and support it even when the spotlight is not shining on them. They must create space for serious conversations, implement effective staffing and cross-campus structures to focus on diversity, support research to identify efforts that work, and always be looking to data and best practices to make steady and incremental gains. And all of this must be communicated actively to students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members.
The second theme is that some of the concerns and demands being raised strike at the heart of the mission and purpose of universities. Universities must be a place where ideas and experiences related to race can be explored, discussed, challenged, and taught about. The danger of demonizing faculty and students in the classroom is that it will chill important and appropriate discussions. The safest thing for an instructor to do in the current climate is to never bring up any topics related to race and identity. That would be a terrible outcome, and would hamper our progress toward inclusion. The right approach when hurtful expressions occur is to examine them, label them, place them in context, and learn from them. But what prepares our students to understand this? Most likely they have not had the opportunity to think deeply about what it means to be in a community of ideas. It is the university’s responsibility to teach them.
This doesn’t mean that classroom conversation and behavior are off-limits. Universities can provide training on how to teach effectively about race and identity, identifying unconscious bias and behaviors that silence the voices of some community members. They can work harder to disseminate research and best practices so members of the faculty have the tools to handle sensitive conversations.
Here, too, the work is ongoing and must be proactive. After an incident has occurred or a list of demands has been delivered is not an opportune time to discuss how a university should explore a range of ideas, expose them to the light, and grow through critique and understanding. Helping students, faculty and staff learn how to respond in the face of microaggressions—and teaching bystanders how to speak up when they observe hurtful behavior—is something that begins on Day 1 and continues throughout their time on campus.
- Don’t wait until you have a crisis to focus on diversity and inclusion.
- Don’t assume that because everything is quiet, you don’t have a problem.
- Educate early and often about the responsibility of being in an academic community—both about how to encourage full participation and how to respond to hurtful expressions in a way that doesn’t chill discussion of sensitive topics.