Thursday, May 6, 2021

Students' views on racial justice

The Student Voice survey (conducted by Inside Higher Education) provides important guidance to educators about students' views of campus climate and action regarding racial justice. With 65% of all students either agreeing or strongly agreeing that higher education has a role to play in addressing racial justice and equality, educators have a clear mandate. This mandate is complicated by the fact that when the data is segregated by political inclination, 63% of students who lean Democratic and only 6% of those who lean Republican strongly agree with the mandate.

The survey (including 1,100 white and 800 students of color) found that most students either don't have a clear perception about what their institutions did to address racial issues or were somewhat disappointed. In particularly, students found the responses to police killing George Floyd "underwhelming." A common perspective was that there are lots of statements of sympathy and understanding but far fewer real actions to bring about change. Student activists can make a real difference in advocating racial justice and some institutions stand out in their effectiveness, demonstrating  that change is essentially a matter of institutional will.

Increased Fall 2021 enrollment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) perhaps reflected Black students' view of campus climate. The increases could be the result of a variety of factors but one likely cause is that Black students see HBCUs as more responsive to their needs and more likely to address racial justice questions than predominantly White colleges and universities.

More Asian American students are now joining fellow Black students in recognizing and voicing concerns about the discrimination and aggressions they face. Interestingly enough, Asian American students were also the most likely to have participated in institutionally-sponsored racial justice initiatives. Sometimes sponsored by institutions and at other times just part of campus life, students indicate that race comes up more often as a topic of discussion. Nathan Reddy, a 2019 Cornell graduate, reinforced the importance of discussions about race, noting that they have raised consciousness, causing people to be "wary of committing microagressions, afraid of insulting someone because of their race." These discussions have created a safer space for exploration of race but one sometimes encumbered by the "need to express all the 'right' thoughts." Reddy called for "more openness to make mistakes and make candid statements."

Jeffrey Herbst, President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles, warned of the threat of rising anti-semitism on campuses in the wake of the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas. He reports that anti-semitism doubled since May and that higher education institutions need to get out in front of what could be rising activism and another polarizing issue on campus.

Student views, are generally support social justice work, need to be understood and factored into clarifying the role for higher education in addressing racial justice as more campuses reopen in fall of 2021 with more in-person encounters. Clarity about the purpose and actions related to diversity, equity, and inclusion will be central to moving forward deliberately and effectively. Of immediate note is the there is a Black faculty have had a lukewarm response to campus Juneteenth programs and observances, skeptical that window-dressing rather than substance may be the focus.

Some educators assert that nothing short of decolonizing the academy must be undertaken, a process that would include 1) revamping the curriculum, 2) reimagining our syllabi, 3) reimagining classroom dynamics, 4) rethinking our pedagogies, and 5) bringing all students to mastery.

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