Higher education leaders from across the country gathered to participate in the first day of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) 2021 virtual meeting.
The online event, scheduled to take place through Saturday, is focused on highlighting ways to move forward and bring about change in higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing fight for racial justice.
“There can be no return to normal in a post-pandemic future,” said Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U. “Higher education, after COVID-19, must be restructured and recalibrated to center on equity and student success.”
Highlighting the Jan. 6 riots — in which supporters of former president Donald J. Trump incited violence at the United States Capitol with anti-Semitic clothing and Confederate flags in hand — the afternoon sessions focused on ways higher education can address structural racism.
“Racial reckoning is about so much more than a rubric or a checklist or to-do list,” said Dr. Mary Dana Hinton, president of Hollins University. “This conversation, this topic is an emotional one. It is one where we have to take responsibility and ownership.”
For Dr. J. Goosby Smith, assistant provost for diversity and inclusion at The Citadel, Wednesday’s inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris depicted what the “democratic experiment looks like when it actually does works.”
“For some, the events of Jan. 6th and [previous events] have been very revelatory because they have not seen what is actually happening in the United States,” she added. “But for others of us, it has been very validating. Now everyone sees this beast for what it is and we can all get together directly and be allies for others to keep positive change and maintain the integrity for our democracy.”
Watching the “miracle of the peaceful transfer of power” was an emotional experience for Rhodes College President Dr. Marjorie Hass.
“The kind of leadership that travels in ideals, travels in justice and travels in speaking to all,” she added. “Those are things that we will never again … take for granted.”
Upon a brief reflection on what this inauguration means for the country, discussions shifted to whether higher education has acknowledged its role and responsibility in being part of that racial reckoning.
“If we truly want to become a society in which the privileges of an education and the privileges of political power are not hoarded, we need to begin by thinking about ways to more equitably distribute them in our own institutions,” said Hass.
Encouraged by schools, such as The Citadel, that have shifted to studying slavery and its history on their campuses, Smith emphasized that higher education must undergo a “transformational change.” For example, shifting to the idea that higher education is seen as “conveying the tools for transformation” rather than “conveying information.”
“To the point that we can teach students to critically think and look at the inequities that have occurred,” said Smith, who is also an associate professor of leadership and management at The Citadel. “Look at the value of a society from a holistic standpoint in fixing those inequities. We have got to reach deeper in our souls and our spirits to move forward.”
Dr. Eduardo M. Ochoa, president of California State University at Monterey Bay, added that institutions are not “monolithic” or “uniform.” Each one faces its own set of challenges, though implicit racial bias exists universally within the education sector.
To address those issues and advance equity, CSU Monterey Bay, for example, has established diversity advocates and training in hiring committees to ensure faculty members represent more of the student population. Additionally, faculty and staff participate in mandatory implicit bias training and professional development opportunities.
Historically Black colleges and universities can also be part of the solution, according to Smith.
“The racial inequality is a symptom of having us this hierarchy of human value,” she said. “It’s not the genesis of the problem. They are able to push the dialogue so much farther and so much more progressively into a variety of institutions. They have the bandwidth and the strategic institutional mission compatibility with racial reckoning.”
Dr. Jelani Cobb, a teacher at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and staff writer for The New Yorker, wrapped up the meeting by continuing the conversation around racial inequity and the impact of COVID-19 on higher education.
Over the last 20 years, there has been a decline in the enrollment of students of color at selective institutions, which was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, he reported.
“COVID pulled back the covers on so many euphemisms that have cloaked the truly brutal nature of our society,” said Cobb. “And on college campuses, we became more aware of the food insecurity that had existed even prior to the dawning of the pandemic.”
Moving forward, amid the pandemic, Cobb suggested adding more flexibility within enrollment, increasing access to mental health services and examining admissions processes.
Sarah Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org