WASHINGTON — Though the discourse of diversity on campus has been subsumed by a “bigger political landscape” as of late, America’s colleges and universities must still fight to make the nation’s professoriate more reflective of the nation as a whole.
That was one of the key arguments that UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III made Tuesday as he spoke to attendees at the annual conference of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, or NADOHE.
“I want you to keep in mind that the reason we’re doing this work is not to give a person of color a job,” Hrabowski said during the keynote speech at the conference as he lamented how the professoriate is 85 percent White and not reflective of American society.
“This is about changing the very culture of American higher education, which means changing the culture of American society, and at a time when we are having to question who we are,” Hrabowski said.
Speaking in what could have easily been seen as thinly veiled barbs against President Donald J. Trump, Hrabowski said a paramount concern for colleges and universities is to “prepare people to be responsible citizens, who first of all will vote, who will ask the right questions, who will not allow a reality show to influence who they are, who will determine that the values will be truth, seeking the truth, analyzing the data, being fair to all people, and not allowing oneself to assume that I have all the right answers.”
At the same time, Hrabowski said, “a part of diversity has to be teaching people how to find common ground.”
“We must be able to help some people who voted differently from us to talk about, why did you do that? What is important to you? What can we work on together where we can find ourselves in a position we’re all proud to have, whatever the situation is in our country,” Hrabowski said.
Hrabowski’s remarks come at a time of great uncertainty and change as the fledgling administration of President Trump — lambasted for its lack of diversity — seeks to take a hardline approach toward illegal immigration in the name of national security.
Hrabowski said a key question for higher education leaders is, “Where are we as a nation and who do we want to be?”
“Because the world is looking at us, and they’re asking the questions: Who are you as Americans? Are you thinkers? Do you believe in the truth? Do you believe in a democracy that, in the final analysis, you will have people who will represent all people, and how do you work to prepare the next group of leaders?”
Hrabowki’s speech was just one of several sessions at the NADOHE conference that dealt with higher education in the Trump era.
One of the more lively sessions that featured a fair amount of pushback was a session led by Alison Akant, principal and director of content at DiversityEdu, which develops courses for students and faculty to counter “diversity resistance.”
Akant stressed a number of strategies that she said would help diversity officers achieve their objectives. For instance, Akant stressed diversity education over diversity “training” because the latter term is wrought with problems.
“The learning approach is different because diversity training is passive and top down,” Akant said. “My pedagogical suggestion is that we make it active and bottom up.”
Akant also said it’s important to focus on the impact of certain behaviors — such as attending campus parties where White students dress up in the cultural attire of another ethnic or racial group — as opposed to the intent, which would enable students to say they “didn’t know” the behavior would be offensive to members of the group.
Some attendees, such as Sheila Caldwell, advisor to the president on diversity at the University of North Georgia, said that, although she was new to diversity as a professional practice, she is growing tired of taking the approach of teaching students from the White majority to not offend students from minority groups.
“I don’t like that we have a model that we’re teaching White people, I hope that one day they get it together not to offend you,” Calwell said during the Q&A at Akant’s presentation. “I want to teach Black people that this is how you deal with the people who are not prepared for you.”
She spoke of a Black student who was questioned as to how she got the highest score on a particular test. Caldwell said such students should respond: “Because I’m smarter than you,” because the question implies that they are not smart to begin with.
Dr. Brighid Dwyer, director of the Program on Intergroup Relations at Villanova University, said that, at the same time, Black students must be taught that they do not have to carry the burden of educating White students who say ignorant things.
Dr. Roland Smith, associate provost and an adjunct professor of education and sociology at Rice University — where he also oversees the Office of Diversity and Inclusion — said it is important for discussions of race on campus to avoid “absolutes.”
“We have to figure out a way to move beyond conclusions that it’s either absolutely this or absolutely that,” Smith said.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.