How can colleges confront racism on campus?

A new report on the aftermath of turmoil at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2015 offers lessons for college administrations on how to recover from a racial crisis on campus. The report defines racial crises as “situations in which a college or university experiences a discriminatory racial incident, or series of incidents, that are left unaddressed or inappropriately addressed.”

Published by the American Council on Education (ACE), the report shares insights gleaned from interviews, early research, and news analysis to document the “first phase of healing” at the University of Missouri’s (MU’s) flagship campus. Specifically, ACE looked at “the 18 months after student activism against racism and leaders’ inaction forced the Missouri system’s president to resign,” writes The Chronicle of Higher Education.

A convergence of racial crises off and on and off campus

ACE points out several key events that shaped the context for MU’s racial crises, including the 2014 fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, just two hours from the campus. “Students were disappointed when MU’s leadership failed to respond to events happening so close to home,” the report states, adding that a series of racist incidents on campus compounded the student community’s trauma.

Ill-prepared to respond quickly, thoughtfully, and comprehensively, MU administrators found themselves facing mass student protests, national media attention, further acts of hate, and ultimately the resignation of the system’s president and other leaders.

Lessons learned: Crucial to gauge, improve the institution’s ‘capacity’

Since November 2015, the University of Missouri system has taken steps to recover, bringing on new leaders; funding an Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and assessing its capacity to address diversity and inclusion.

This notion of capacity—whether an institution has a “high” or “low capacity” for diversity, equity and inclusion on campus—has a significant impact on schools’ ability to confront racial crises, ACE says, adding that “The University of Missouri case highlights how low capacity around diversity and inclusion led to a prolonged and traumatizing experience.”

Institutions build capacity by educating their leaders, fostering trust and respect among all stakeholders, adding inclusive values to their mission, planning strategically, investing in ongoing learning for all community members, dismantling oppressive environments, and evaluating their practices. Additionally, after a crisis, leaders must be able to reserve judgment, listen actively to campus constituents, respond honestly, and speak from the heart.

“We know that if you have a positive climate around race and gender and other identities, when you get to a crisis like this you will be in a far better shape” to address incidents,” Dr. Lorelle L. Espinosa, ACE’s vice president for research, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Context also is crucial: ACE says that institutions must take stock of their racial history; existing racial inequalities; and the political, social, and cultural climates on campus. In addition, campus community members must have the emotional space to process “collective trauma,” which may manifest in anger, distrust, fear, and fatigue.

“The way in which leaders rebuild and provide direction to restore a commitment to diversity and inclusion matters,” states the ACE report. “Rebuilding the campus community requires commitment, significant organizational and leadership effectiveness and strategies to restore trust and stability.”

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