Driving Campus Diversity One Decision at a Time

By Sharon Davies, Published in Liberal Education,

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.—Ernest Hemingway

After last year’s record-breaking student activism, many college administrators welcomed the arrival of summer with a sigh of relief. Through marches, rallies, sit-ins, and even food strikes, student protestors had pressed their campuses throughout the year to address a host of concerns. Their protests touched sensitive topics, like race and ethnicity, and exposed their campuses’ lack of practice tackling such issues head-on. Students of color described the “microaggressions” and cultural insensitivities of their peers, objected to the multiple ways in which their campus environments honored past oppressors, and revealed the embarrassingly small number of African Americans and Latinos among their faculties, staffs, and student bodies. Summer promised a chance for administrators to reflect on what the students had said, to develop action plans, to catch their breath.

But then summer 2016 brought unfathomable acts of human violence. First came the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history, the slaughter of forty-nine men and women at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando—a murderous rampage that intentionally targeted the LGBTQ community. Next came the heartbreaking killings of two African American men by police officers in Baton Rouge (Alton Sterling) and St. Paul (Philandro Castile), adding more names to what seemed to be an ever-growing list of victims and more taped evidence that race may play a role in such incidents. Then came the murder of five police officers in Dallas by a deranged veteran, and another three officers in Baton Rouge by a former marine—both shooters senselessly bent on vengeance.

The heated political discourse surrounding the contest for the US presidency contributed even more grist to the tense mood of the nation. Political promises to “build a wall,” to institute mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, and to ban Muslims from entering the country altogether resonated with a wide swath of American voters who desire to return to an earlier time, a time that felt safer. Unlike the students who just months before had marched and chanted for change, many of these Americans saw the solution to our problems in less diversity, not more. The race for the presidency had thus dragged into the open the depths of the citizenry’s disagreements. Divisions ran straight down the fault lines of race, ethnicity, nationalism, and religion—all places we have been before.

Colleges and universities are bracing themselves for what lies ahead, understanding that much of the debate over these controversies will occur on our campuses. And rightly so. Higher education institutions can be critical sites for building understanding of the drivers of fear-based, anti-diversity thinking. But this is not inevitable. To be effective, colleges and universities must begin with a clear-eyed look at themselves, and then put into place mechanisms of change that are responsive to students’ criticisms. Diversity and inclusion must begin at home.

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The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity was established in 2003 as a center for interdisciplinary research at The Ohio State University. The Kirwan Institute works to create a just and inclusive society where all people and communities have opportunity to succeed.