AAC&U News, December 2016

Campuses Combatting Microaggressions

When Tiffany Martinez published her recent blog post, “Academia Love Me Back,” she expected it to “to get like 15 views,” not reignite a heated national debate about microaggressions in higher education. But Martinez, who self-identifies as Latina, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that her post, which recounted how her Suffolk University professor publically accused her of plagiarism for using the word “hence” in a paper, led “thousands—and I’m not even being dramatic—thousands of students, of faculty members, of academics, [to contact] me telling me similar experiences . . . Even if it’s not someone’s intention to be racist or discriminatory, it’s still having an impact on students.”

There are many voices— both within and outside of academe—that believe microaggressions have a lasting influence on underrepresented students like Martinez. The Microaggression Project, a website that allows users to post and comment on their personal experience with microaggressions, says that they are often unintended and are not always destructive when taken individually. “Instead, their slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience, making explanation and communication with someone who does not share this identity particularly difficult. Social others are microaggressed hourly, daily, weekly, monthly.”

Christy Byrd, assistant professor of Psychology at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC), spent the 2015–16 school year studying microaggressions and their effects on UCSC students. Byrd told UCSC’s Newscenter that perceived microaggressions, after controlling for gender, race, and social class, “were associated with lower self-esteem, lower feelings of competence for daily life, more depressive symptoms, and more stress.” In a presentation of the study’s preliminary findings, which were released in October, Byrd connected microaggressions to “lower feelings of belonging,” a “lack of confidence in abilities,” and “poor performance.” She also highlighted a dearth of research on intervention strategies for students to respond to microaggressions. In an effort to remedy this, participants of her study receive two workshops a quarter on appropriate intervention strategies.

In a March 2015 report, the University of Illinois Racial Microaggressions Research Project also emphasized the effects of microaggressions on student mental health, academic performance, and graduation or retention rates. It called on the administration of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) to implement a wide range of diversity programs, including mandatory training and workshops for all employees that provide services to students. The report also recommended that “all students (complete) a General Education requirement about race, White privilege, and inequality in the United States.” In its concluding remarks, the report added, “Valuing diversity is more than numbers, it is how we interact with and treat each other. Training for citizenship in a diverse society should be part of the general education requirements.”

However, not everyone sees value in these programs. According to a September article in the New York Times, diversity programs often come with hefty price tags that are seen as frivolous spending by some donors and alumni, leading to a decline in fundraising at some institutions. This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison implemented a new $150,000–$200,000 pilot diversity program aimed at one thousand first-year students, and the University of Wisconsin system sent a proposed budget of $6 million to its state legislature that included funding for “systemwide cultural training for faculty and staff members and students.” This proposal led the office of Wisconsin State Senator Stephen L. Nass to issue a press release in August arguing that “the UW System already spends millions on various diversity programs and staff.” Borrowing vocabulary from campus diversity programs, Nash said, “If only the taxpayers and tuition-paying families had a safe space that might protect them from wasteful UW System spending on political correctness.”

Still, for students like Martinez, working to increase diversity awareness on campus provides a more inclusive atmosphere and gives a voice to students who experience microaggressions on a regular basis. After Martinez published her blog post, Suffolk University acting president Marisa Kelly wrote on her university blog that Suffolk had recently hired numerous staff members focused on diversity issues. She also announced mandatory microaggression training sessions for all faculty and staff during the 2016–17 school year. “While these sessions will not make us perfect,” Kelly wrote, “it is my hope that through training and open dialog we will further foster a climate that is safe, supportive, and welcoming to all.”  

Martinez sees the response from Suffolk University as a positive first step. “I think the only thing we can do in this moment is to implement culturally responsive programs, trainings for professors,” she told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “I feel teachers are always learning about the color-blind narrative of teaching every student equally, and we just need to remove that from our vocabulary.”

In light of more overt incidents of discrimination reported on campuses since the presidential election, institutions are finding it more important than ever to face issues of diversity and equity head on. Larry Dietz, president of Illinois State University, wrote in a November 16 Facebook post to students, faculty, and staff, “We must strive to achieve diversity and celebrate it as an important aspect of the community of Illinois State University. In order to continue to be a community and to meet the expectations of our value of diversity, we must listen to each other; discuss our issues with each other; respect our differences and learn from them; celebrate our achievements; and care about each other. I have faith in our potential to do all of these things. I have faith in our democracy and in our ability to persevere and achieve.”


AAC&U offers resources for campus leaders responding to issues of racial and social justice, including messages from institution presidents and AAC&U publications. 

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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