A 2017 survey of 706 college presidents conducted by the Gallup organization for Inside Higher Education offers some surprising and even troubling findings. Despite the fact that racial incidents are still occurring on college campuses, most college presidents view race relations positively on their own campuses. Sixty-three percent rated race relations as good and 20 percent as excellent, with only one percent rating race relations as poor. The presidents’ responses were similar in the survey conducted last year. Yet both the 2016 and 2017 surveys reveal a persistent view among presidents that race relations are less positive on other campuses. In 2017 only 21 percent of presidents saw race relations on other campuses as positive, with 61 percent viewing race relations as fair. And 66 percent of the president disagreed or strongly disagreed that racial incidents on campus have increased since the election.
In addition, roughly only a third of the presidents reported that they have spoken out more than they typically do on political issues either during or since the election. Nonetheless, a majority of the presidents believe that the election revealed the growth of anti-intellectual sentiment and a growing divide between higher education and American society.
What accounts for the disconnection between the view from the top and day-to-day racial realities campuses? Take, for example, a report by the Anti-Defamation League released this month indicating that 107 incidents of white supremacist activity on college campuses have occurred during the current academic year. The report indicates the election of Donald Trump has emboldened white supremacists to step up activism on college campus and distribute racist and anti-Semitic flyers.
In Alvin Evans and my forthcoming book, Leading a Diversity Cultural Shift in Higher Education (Routledge), our study reveals that the implementation of diversity strategic plans is uneven at best. Such plans may persist as high-level statements without the resources, accountability, and delegation of authority needed to build inclusive campus cultures and ensure equity in processes and outcomes. The continuing isolation of minoritized students on predominantly white campuses has given rise to student demonstrations demanding specific improvements including diversity training, resources, curricular change, and a more inclusive climate. At the same time, the leadership of doctoral universities remains predominantly white and male with a noticeable lack of minority representation among top administration with the sole exception of the chief diversity officer.
It is unclear what objective ways of measuring campus climate led so many presidents to view race relations on their own campuses so positively. An extensive body of social science research demonstrates that in the post-Civil Rights era, subtle forms of “everyday” discrimination such as micro-inequities and micro-aggressions can shape behaviors and send devaluing messages to faculty, staff, and students from nondominant groups. For example, in Diverse Administrators in Peril, our survey of university administrators revealed that African American/black administrators believe to a greater degree that minority employees experience covert discrimination on a frequent basis compared to white participants.
The absence of protests or racial incidents is not a measure of whether institutional climate is inclusive. As we have shown in Are the Walls Really Down? Behavioral and Organizational Barriers to Faculty and Staff Diversity, subtle barriers that impact the success of individuals from nondominant groups include stereotyping, application of differential standards, myths of incompetence, lack of support, and failure to empower and include in decision-making. Acts of process-based discrimination frequently do not rise to the level of institutional attention. Without concrete programs that address institutional micro-inequities and how these subtle forms of discrimination are manifested both in everyday experiences and in consequential institutional processes, the likelihood of organizational change will remain illusory.
The second major concern arising from the Inside Higher Ed survey is the indication that many college presidents have not spoken out about the divisive political climate driven by Donald Trump, an individual who, as Nicholas Kristoff points out, has been associated for more than four decades with racism and bigoted comments. Trump’s devaluing of the truth and unveiled attacks on minorities, Muslims, disabled persons, immigrants, and other marginalized groups in American society threatens to destroy our sense of decency and morality. This loss of morality strips the veil of pretense that has shrouded our vision of inclusion.
While many courageous college and university presidents have spoken out forcefully against Trump’s travel ban, this issue is only part of the persistent dilemma affecting race relations on campus. Much work still remains to be done to build inclusive campus climates. In his ground-breaking book, Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression, sociologist Joe Feagin indicates the necessity of moving beyond individual approaches to social justice to a group conception that addresses how racial injustice privileges one group over others within the fabric of our institutions.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us:
…the call to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.
In this light, consider how Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber frames the problem of race relations on college campuses, leading him to call for self-reflective institutional reports, action-oriented programs, and solutions:
I have heard compelling testimony from students of color about the distress, pain, and frustration that is caused by a campus climate that they too often find unwelcoming or uncaring. …these problems are not unique to Princeton—on the contrary, similar stories are unfolding at many peer institutions—but that does not make them any more acceptable. Our students deserve better, and Princeton must do better. We must commit ourselves to make this University a place where students from all backgrounds feel respected and valued.