Race on Campus
Understanding the Context and Challenging our Assumptions
During Fall 2015, many students of color from US colleges nationwide led protests to draw attention to and challenge the persistence of discriminatory actions on campus and in the broader society. These student groups, often joined by faculty, staff and students from all backgrounds, staged protests, occupied buildings and marched in rallies across the country, as a call for higher education institutions to fulfill their pledge to provide an inclusive, supportive and respectful environment for learners from every demographic background.
Students were not reacting to isolated incidents, but were instead responding to years of frustration from having their concerns ignored, dismissed or minimized by administrators, faculty and staff. Across campuses, students spoke up about what they had been experiencing on campus on a regular basis - everyday racial bias (in the form of offensive comments, jokes and social media posts), parties featuring students with offensive costumes or caricatures of various ethnic and socioeconomic groups and unintentional messages signaling that racial and ethnic minority students do not fully belong on campus.
These protests came at a time when, across the country, concerns about the treatment of people of color by law enforcement were heightened and frequent. In recent years, several high profile incidents resulting in the injury or death of Black and Brown civilians pushed racial divisions to the surface. Responses to these incidents often differed across racial lines, revealing very different perspectives on institutional practices within the criminal justice system and other institutions. Activist groups, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, formed and organized widespread campaigns to focus attention on racialized policing practices, employment disparities and other forms of structural oppression. At a societal level, many began realizing that unconscious biases, even for those with good intentions, shaped people's perceptions of and responses to those who are different, and this could have deadly consequences. Progress requires moving beyond brief national conversations about race and engaging in honest self-reflection and making concerted efforts to listen to and put ourselves in the shoes of those who are different. Doing so allows us to challenge our own assumptions and increases our capacities for understanding the experiences and viewpoints of those who differ from us.
Recognizing the significance of these issues, Lasell students also mobilized to affect change on college campuses, more broadly, and at Lasell, specifically.
Several students joined undergraduates from nearby colleges in a number of local protests. Here, on campus, about 30 Lasell students participated in a brief, peaceful demonstration at a faculty assembly to call for renewed commitment and comprehensive action to foster inclusive, supportive and respectful environments for learners from all backgrounds. Simply put, Lasell demonstrators asked administration, faculty and staff to lead the way in speaking out against incidents of bias and ensuring that Lasell community members honor their commitment to the values they espouse. In many respects, the student demonstration exemplified the qualities Lasell seeks to instill in its students: social responsibility and citizenship in action.
In the aftermath of these nationwide protests, many are asking how colleges should respond and what changes are needed. Although it requires many years to substantially shift the culture of an institution, both taking immediate action and persisting in making comprehensive changes over the long term are critical. Last fall, administrators, faculty and staff at numerous institutions, including at Lasell, rightly responded to student concerns by widening lines of communication, not only through community forums, but also through student meetings with senior administration, faculty, student affairs personnel and others.
Students need to have their concerns heard, considered and, when appropriate, acknowledged and acted upon. And, these conversations must be ongoing, rather than occurring once and then abandoned once a new hot-button topic emerges. Institutions must conduct an honest assessment of their campus climate and be transparent about the steps that have been taken, as well as the steps that are still needed. Fostering a culture that promotes cross-group empathy and prompts people to consider the impact of their words or behaviors involves not only addressing diverse viewpoints throughout the curriculum, but also providing professional development for all college personnel, multiple forms of engaging students and community-wide programming. Along with this, students and all members of the campus community must remember that systemic change requires time, patience and endurance, and that quick fixes will be insufficient for lasting change.
Above all, campus leadership must equip students to move from experiences of marginalization and pain to productive action that affects change and fosters mutual understanding. Doing so requires engaging students and all campus constituencies as partners with valuable perspectives and viewpoints and who share the goal of creating a more welcoming and equitable community.
Lasell has begun taking steps to respond through senior management and employee participation in diversity professional development workshops, joining a local consortium of institutions committed to identifying and following student and employee diversity best practices (The Leading for Change Higher Education Diversity Consortium), and offering diversity and inclusion focused courses and community-wide programing. These meaningful efforts will continue to be built upon and expanded.
When considering the top qualities and skills employers seek from college graduates, among the most valuable assets colleges can offer students and its personnel are opportunities to learn with and from diverse peers and collaborate in working alongside colleagues from all backgrounds. For this to be effective, all members of the campus community are required to put forth effort, sacrifice and commitment.
Campus leadership must model and embody inclusive excellence. In turn, students and college personnel must demonstrate a willingness to learn, as well as draw and share from the expertise of their lived experiences.
Fall 2015 represented a powerful moment in our nation's history. In order for the potential of the moment to be actualized, members of all campus communities, including Lasell's, have important and ongoing work to do.