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Confronting Racism

Stories of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education

By Megha Anwer, Rhonda Phillips, Maeve Katherine Bergman, and Natalie V. Nagthall

May 19, 2022

A chance meeting between two presenters from Purdue University’s John Martinson Honors College and two presenters from the Foundation for California Community College’s Success Center led to a collaboration to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in higher education. We met because our presentations were part of the same session, “Confronting Racism,” at the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ 2021 virtual annual meeting. After the conference, we sought each other out because our approaches to and implementation of DEI at institutions of higher education were fundamentally in sync.

The four of us held virtual conversations between January and August 2021. We were moved and inspired by the comprehensiveness and resiliency of one another’s commitment to fighting for equity in our respective educational contexts, a Midwestern research university and the largest community college system in the United States. All of us unapologetically prioritize and make visible our commitment to anti-racism as the launchpad and template for a broad-spectrum approach to equity in higher education by asking what is needed to move from theory to practice. We advocate for an intentional and systematic enactment of anti-racist policies and practices that can mitigate the damage caused by structural, institutional, and interpersonal racial inequities.

We also are committed to creating continuity between an anti-racist education, anti-racist practices in higher education, and collaborations that address individual mindsets and actions as well as institutional structures and climate. This anti-racist mindset and practice is part of our work at Purdue’s John Martinson Honors College and the Foundation for California Community College’s Success Center team as we implement the state system’s Vision for Success and 2020 Call to Action.

Our conversations led us to exchange notes not only about our past work and current priorities but also about the conditions under which we operate—both in the pre-pandemic and post–George Floyd and Black Lives Matter eras. We recognized the power of the stories we told one another, the patterns of repetition they held, and the seesaw of satisfaction and frustration they articulated. For instance, even after decades of failing to diversify faculty and retain Black faculty, many colleges and universities continue to commit the same errors in hiring processes and refuse to address racist work environments. In addition, while the topic of Black student success has garnered attention in recent years, significant inequities remain, especially for Black male students. Despite the variation between our two segments of higher education, we were compelled to acknowledge the parallel challenges that we, as anti-racist practitioners, have faced for a long time and continue to face today.

In this context, we believe it is critical to record the experiences of faculty and staff practitioners, as well as student advocates, at different colleges and universities who have long been doing anti-racist work—such as equipping faculty to be inclusive, culturally responsive teachers; running organizations that support minoritized students and campus personnel; working to overhaul non-student-centered policies and processes; and instating equity-minded mentoring practices. We urge these scholars and practitioners to meticulously record the ways in which their respective institutions have (or have not) acknowledged, honored, and leveraged the extent of their expertise to create more inclusive educational and residential campus cultures. In an attempt to act quickly, institutions sometimes rely on third-party experts to update university practices. In the bargain, however, they end up further alienating their own students, faculty, and staff who have a wealth of experience and capabilities that remain unacknowledged and unutilized.

We encourage our anti-racist collaborators to note the continuation of old forms of obfuscation and obstacles, including resistance to equity-centered, inclusive teaching practices; advocacy against equitable placement; and support of transfer-level English and mathematics courses. We also encourage collaborators to note the manifestation of new obstacles, such as the anti–critical race theory campaigns gaining traction in several states, that make DEI work challenging—even when institutions funnel resources into equity initiatives and spotlight their successes. The curse of oblivion to which in-house expertise is subjected is only one aspect of the problem; the overburdening of DEI scholars and practitioners is another. In this moment, we must memorialize the experiences of those individuals, particularly students, faculty, and staff of color, who are exhausted because the expectations of the invisible labor they perform—anti-racist programming, committee work, support of minoritized students—have intensified as their campuses attempt to improve their diversity indices, including the recruitment, retention, and success of underrepresented students. We would do well to consolidate a list of strategies that students, faculty, and staff of color have used to navigate the increased demands on their time, energies, and expertise.

We aim to create a digital repository for students, administrators, faculty, and staff where they can candidly and generously share the successful and unsuccessful efforts they have undertaken to explicitly combat racism as it manifests within higher education generally, and specifically within their respective higher education communities. We are especially interested in initiatives that center on racial equity for Black people in higher education but also envision a comprehensive anti-racism effort based on interracial solidarity among all races and for all people of color.

Our goal is to compile and make available anti-racist plans and practices that do not pit marginalized groups against one another. We want to invest in frameworks that are not held hostage by a scarcity mentality that places the needs and experiences of Black, Brown, Indigenous, international, and first-generation students and faculty in competition with one another, with the idea that “scarce” resources must be used only to attend to the marginalization of one particular group. Instead, we seek to learn about and implement anti-racist frameworks that advocate for and establish structures of solidarity between people whose marginalization may look different but nevertheless is rooted in connected systems of inequity and racism. We want to distribute equity-minded educational structures that offer an intersectional approach based on a logic of “and”—not “either/or.” We seek examples of efforts to set a collaborative and comprehensive vision that attends to all aspects of higher ed—student, faculty, staff representation/recruitment, experience/climate, and success. Further, we seek to develop a long-term agenda that isn’t simply responding to immediate crises like hate crimes, racist attacks against people of color, and COVID-19.

Working in the DEI and anti-racism space can often be isolating without the support of a community. Thus, we welcome you and your community to share efforts to engage in anti-racist praxis in higher education at the following link. We seek examples of student-centered, anti-racist, and anti-bias practices, including those just emerging and/or generating lessons learned. With this collective knowledge, we can foster a supportive digital learning space for fellow DEI/anti-racist teaching and learning professionals while creating connection and community with one another.

Authors

  • Megha Anwer

    Megha Anwer

    Megha Anwer is a clinical assistant professor and director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the John Martinson Honors College at Purdue University.

  • Rhonda Phillips

    Rhonda Phillips

    Rhonda Phillips is dean of the John Martinson Honors College at Purdue University.

  • Maeve Katherine Bergman

    Maeve Katherine Bergman

    Maeve Katherine Bergman is a regional coordinator for the San Francisco Bay Area at the Foundation for California Community Colleges.

  • Natalie Nagthall

    Natalie V. Nagthall

    Natalie V. Nagthall is the lead regional coordinator for Greater Los Angeles at the Foundation for California Community Colleges.

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