Last year Ana Mari Cauce, the University of Washington president, launched a Race and Equity Initiative urging all staff and students to take personal responsibility for addressing biases and improving the university’s culture.
Speaking at a time of turbulence on US campuses over race and identity that has only intensified since, she described how a Black Lives Matter march at the university had been marred when “somebody yelled out something about the demonstrators being apes, turning something joyous into something ugly”.
Dr Cauce, who is Cuban-American and gay, gave a personal take on prejudice by describing her experiences of coming out to her mother.
She told her audience at the Seattle institution: “I expected my mother to be unhappy, but I could not have anticipated what she’d say: ‘Now both my children are dead.’ Nothing could have been more hurtful. My brother, her son, had been murdered.” Her brother was a civil rights activist who was killed at a rally against the Ku Klux Klan.
Dr Cauce said in her speech that over the years, her mother “grew to love my partner, now spouse”. She added that her mother had been “a strong, wise, giving and compassionate person…but her life was steeped in racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism.
“It’s not just about bad people doing bad things. It’s about us. This is not someone else’s problem. And it is not someone else’s responsibility to change.”
Dr Cauce, who is also a professor of psychology and American ethnic studies at Washington, spoke to Times Higher Education after giving a keynote speech at the inaugural THE Asia Universities Summit in June, hosted by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. There, she offered a staunch defence of the value of public higher education and warned that too great a focus on admissions selectivity could mean that some universities reproduce social inequality.
So why did Dr Cauce choose to tackle the issue of prejudice in such a personal way in her Washington speech?
“Universities are some of the most diverse places that students will ever be in,” she told THE. “But to really take advantage of that diversity, we need to be able to talk to each other and talk across our differences.
“And I don’t feel I can ask our students to do that if I don’t do that.”
She added: “At times when there have been incidents [of prejudice] on campus, sometimes university presidents have responded [by saying] ‘that doesn’t happen here’ or ‘that’s an exceptional case’….We do have to take seriously [that prejudice] is something we carry with us – and if we’re not aware of it, we can’t overcome it.”
Washington is a public university with about 45,000 students. “When we say a third of our students are low-income, that’s a very large number,” Dr Cauce said.
She also said: “We’re as selective as most other public universities are. The thing is, though, I don’t take pride in that. I want you to judge the quality of our institution by the value added that we give to our students.
“I just think that being given extra points for who you turn down, rather than what you do with the students who come in – that seems a little odd to me.”
Asked about higher education and the race to become the next US president, Dr Cauce said: “Personally what I want to see is, both at the state and [federal] government [level], more direct investment – for example…providing good funding to the NSF [National Science Foundation], the NIH [National Institutes of Health], those have been critical to enabling universities to create the kind of discoveries that have led to a better life [for individuals].”
She also said that “really good financial aid” should be a priority for the next presidential administration, flagging up the high debt levels and interest rates faced by many graduates.
“It is absolutely critical to make it possible not only for someone to go into higher education, but then when they get out to be able to be part of careers that focus on the public good,” Dr Cauce said.
At Washington, the course with the “highest debt compared to what [students] will make when they graduate is social work”, she said.
“If you expect people to go into social work, teaching, if you expect a lawyer to go into certain types of law – that becomes impossible if the debt level is too high,” Dr Cauce added.
Policies outlined by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for debt-free public higher education (for students from families earning less than $125,000 [£94,000] a year) are “very appealing to me”, she said.