Higher education purports to be a beacon for the brightest minds and most radical thinkers but academia’s stain of white supremacy proves difficult to wipe away. Despite some markers of progress, such as the recent appointment of Harvard’s first Black president, Claudine Gay, academia has a long way to go to create sustainable, inclusive, and equitable environments for students, faculty and staff members. After the murder of George Floyd, there was an onslaught of commitments and contributions in the name of racial equity and justice. Years later, the momentum has dissipated. It seems that many institutions are backtracking on their DEI pledges and promises. At Penn State University, more than 400 faculty members have signed a letter indicating their disappointment with a string of broken DEI promises from the university. In Fall of 2022, Penn State canceled the creation of the Center for Racial Justice. At Princeton University, many staff members have resigned due to what some have called a lack of support for DEI efforts within the university. In May of 2022, Princeton hired Jordan “JT” Turner as the Associate Director of Athletics for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Four months later, Turner, as well as two other staff members hired to engage in DEI work within the university, resigned from their roles.
Systemic racism within academia cannot be ignored. At the student level, these structural inequities coupled with power dynamics present a pervasive issue. A viral TikTok video from Winston-Salem State University personifies this. In the video, a Black student was taken out of the classroom in handcuffs by two police officers following a dispute with her professor. The incident, which took place at a historically Black institution, reignited discussions about the mistreatment that non-white students face within academia. There is a pattern of law enforcement being called on Black students; just a few years ago, a Black graduate student at Yale University, had campus police called on her, with her only crime being napping in her dorm’s common area. Students experience racial harm and terror not only at the hands of faculty members and administrators, but also from their fellow students. In 2015, members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon were caught on video singing a racist chant that included slurs against African Americans. And in November of 2022, a white University of Kentucky student, Sophia Rosing, was caught on video attacking Black students while hurling racial epithets at them. Faculty within academia also experience harm and subjugation. The public tenure battle of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Nikole Hannah-Jones provides a classic example of this.
Institutions that pretend that policies and practices rooted in equity and justice are not needed will eventually perish. It is predicted that by 2036 more than half of U.S. high school graduates will be non-white. Failing to provide safer spaces for students, faculty and staff members will mean that your institution will not be sustainable. No one wants to be part of an environment where they are merely tolerated versus being wanted, valued, and appreciated. The Ivies and other so-called elite institutions will lose their appeal if there is no focus on interventions that support the growth and development of historically marginalized populations. Colleges and universities that want to address systemic issues must examine the root causes. Who is creating institutional policies that everyone must adhere to? How are we enforcing and ensuring that equity is baked into the environment? What accountability measures can be put in place to reduce harm and hold individuals accountable for their actions? What specific strategies are in place to assess leadership, administration, faculty, staff and student commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice? It is obviously not enough to say you care about these things if you are consistently making efforts to defund, deconstruct and dismantle DEI efforts.