US universities ‘focus on diversity data and ignore racism’

In first policy conference since Covid and Floyd, state higher education leaders told they may be harming racial progress more than aiding it

November 10, 2021
Source: iStock

Leaders of US public higher education are being challenged on the depth of their commitment to racial equity, accused during their annual policy conference of tracking statistical measures while avoiding hard reforms.

The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (Sheeo), after a one-year break in the gatherings on account of Covid restrictions, invited a blunt assessment of the persistent race-related gaps in US college student enrolment and performance.

The critique was delivered to them by Shaun Harper, a professor of education at the University of Southern California, who leads a project that has for several years been directly asking thousands of students at dozens of US institutions about the racial atmosphere on their campuses.

A central message from that on-the-ground work, Professor Harper told Sheeo delegates, was that college leaders and experts dwell on data detailing incremental shifts in such statistics as low-income and minority enrolment rates, but often overlook the far more consequential question of how people are treated in everyday campus life.

Professor Harper, executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center, said the tendency amounted to trying to solve racial biases with policies that do not actually focus on race.

“When we avoid talking about and dealing with race and racism and racist cultures and norms, we become complicit in the sustaining of racism in America,” Professor Harper told Sheeo, whose members are the heads of the nation’s state university systems and statewide higher education policy boards.

“I need not tell you that the work that you all do is so enormously consequential – it literally affects millions of lives,” he told the leaders. “Doing it in a raceless way means that the racism that disadvantages communities of colour – you may have played some part in that.”

Professor Harper delivered the opening keynote for a three-day agenda focused heavily on racial equity. For the closing, Sheeo invited Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University, whose research explores the often-hidden variations in race and family backgrounds among lower-income college students and the complicated equity problems those circumstances can pose.

Professor Harper’s campus climate assessments compiled interviews with more than 2,000 academic staff and 10,000 students at 59 colleges and universities, until the work became so popular in the era of Donald Trump and the George Floyd killing that he had to switch to more traditional mass survey tools.

“The past six years have been unusually intense for us, as the racial climate of the country has spilled over on to college and university campuses,” he told Sheeo leaders. “It compelled lots of very distressed college presidents, provosts and vice-presidents for assorted things to pick up the phone and ask, quite desperately, ‘How fast can you get here?’”

At the same time, Professor Harper said, he grew concerned that many institutional leaders might have been requesting his in-person visits primarily as a public display of concern, with far less intent to act on his findings. Yet he also acknowledged the real political obstacles facing many US higher education leaders, especially in parts of the country that have grown openly antagonistic towards both higher education and policies aimed at promoting racial equity.

That reality was reflected at a later Sheeo session exploring the use of outcomes-based funding systems to improve racial equity. Most US states allocate at least some share of their higher education budgets through formulas that reward institutions for achieving goals in such areas as enrolment and student graduation rates, despite limited evidence of its effectiveness. Of those states, about half use those funding incentives to boost racial minorities and other traditionally under-represented students, according to the education policy study group Research for Action.

The group’s associate director of post-secondary policy, Kasey Meehan, credited the states of Louisiana and Washington for making concerted efforts to determine what kinds of incentives in outcomes-based funding formulas really could improve racial equity. Sheeo delegates from several other states made clear both their interest in pursuing the idea, and their recognition of the hurdles it faces.

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