What Can We Do or Do Better?

Last week we saw a Black man’s life snuffed out, horrifically. And we can’t “unsee” it.

I sat at the water’s edge here in northern Michigan this morning at dawn, reflecting on all that has happened over the course of the past few days. “How can I help?”, I thought to myself. “What can I do or do better? What part can I play in meaningful, positive change?”

Not only do we need to ask ourselves these questions as individuals, but we have to ask them of our institutions, our systems, our support structures, our communities. Higher education, especially, has a substantial role to play in the months ahead if we are to better understand and confront the systemic racism underlying the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many more.

The expertise on our campuses is deep and broad, and the opportunities to contribute to real change are profound. We teach. We study. We create intentional communities in shared pursuit of a higher ideal. What roles can and do our higher ed institutions play as we look ahead? How can we better understand, educate, and foster a real sense of belonging? Do we have our own house in order? Let’s identify concrete and substantive actions our institutions can take in the wake of these latest and undeniable acts of racism, police violence, and social injustice.

Now is the time for higher education leaders to marshal their institutions’ expertise and good will toward constructive dialogue and change. What particular strengths can be brought to bear, to shed more light than heat? How can we best support our stakeholders who are deeply frustrated and angry?

You can bet our students will be asking these questions of us. And they will demand change with new intensity this fall, against the backdrop of the pandemic and the unequal distribution of its destruction.

Higher ed leaders have spoken out with force over the past few days, and many colleges are announcing new initiatives to do more and engage even more deeply in their ongoing efforts to attack the causes of racism and foster meaningful diversity, equity and inclusion on their campus and in their communities. Below is a sampling of institutional efforts as a resource for leadership teams discussing future opportunities for growth and change.

Law Enforcement Initiatives

The University of Minnesota severed ties with the Minneapolis police department.

Wayne State University started a national training center to reduce deadly encounters between police and citizens.

Community college systems in Virginia and California said they would review their training programs for law enforcement.

After revising its public statement about the killings, Boston University announced that Ibram X. Kendi, a leading scholar and historian of racism, would start and lead the BU Center for Antiracist Research.

Prairie View A&M University is launching a Center for Race and Justice and will require a mandatory class on the history of race for incoming students.

Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar announced a year-long presidential initiative on racism.

Louisville-area university and college presidents announced a collaboration, 5 ways they plan to address racism.

Cornell University President Martha Pollack announced 5 immediate actions to support and strengthen community.

Goucher College communicated a list of specific initiatives, some completed and some underway.

And I highly recommend taking a look at Colorado College’s ongoing Anti-Racism Initiative.

Gatherings and Reflection

Numerous campuses have held or scheduled campus gatherings and reflections. A few noteworthy examples are highlighted here.

Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun announced the campus will close ‪on Monday, June 8, to observe a Day for Reflection, Engagement, and Action.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel announced a student town hall to help ‘heal and examine’ racism.

University of Chicago Press has published a list of 11 books that examine the history of racism in America.

Other Action Steps

Barnard College President Sian Beilock encouraged students to support Black communities and offered resources to connect them.

The University of Mississippi will move a Confederate statue away from the center of campus.

 The University of Denver rescinded a student’s admission and discussed other campus diversity efforts.

New York University investigated racist Instagram posts and suspended the fraternity responsible.

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