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The Cost of Academic Freedom: How Ghosts of Racism’s Past Haunt College Campuses

Dr. Darnell ColeDr. Darnell Cole

Recently, Black students at UCLA have reignited the hashtag #BlackBruinsMatter after a predominantly White fraternity and predominantly White sorority threw a racially themed costume party. It seems yearly, particularly during Halloween and back-to-campus celebrations, White students on predominantly White campuses are in the news for overtly racist actions.


However, there are examples of such acts taking place all year, and in March, the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter was closed because of a video capturing a racist chant that went as far as to suggest lynching Black students. Similarly, in 2014, Cal State Fullerton’s Alpha Delta Pi faced sanctions after mocking Latino culture in a “Taco Tuesday” event. With numerous campuses having similar incidents making national headlines, university administrators are being forced to address racism and campus climate issues.


Today’s millennial college student has been stereotyped as “color-blind thinking,” believing that today’s racism is unrecognizable, possibly nonexistent, and a problem of the past. An education on the realities of structural and institutional racism is not the only way to challenge color-blind thinking; instead, one can to point to the persistent presence of overt racism of college campuses. This time of year, racism is far from invisible, as college students model their most creative, “racially insensitive” or overtly offensive Halloween costumes that they post proudly on social media.


The purpose here is not to complain about the annoyance and even anger that is aroused when observing students in blackface or with feathers in their hair dressed as Native Americans. Instead, we use these examples of racially offensive Halloween costumes as an opportunity to consider why racial ignorance and overtly racist ideas are still so prevalent on college campuses, as we reflect on a research study conducted on the effects of diversity course requirements.


A common occurrence


It would be difficult to find a campus leader that would hesitate to condone overt racism including campus hate crimes like the hanging of nooses and the aforementioned Halloween costumes. However, these acts persist. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), nearly half of all hate crimes are racially motivated and schools or college campuses are the third most common place for a hate crime to take place. Let’s not forget the crimes that go unreported and the acts that dance dangerously close to the line like college students dressing up as Ku Klux Klan members and posing with a noose hung around the neck of a student in blackface.


The scariest thing about what we see on college campuses during Halloween is not the replaying of the dark, racist, images of the past that make today’s audiences cringe when viewing movies such as 12 Years a Slave, but rather that all of this is taking place at what are supposed to be our epicenters of thought, advancement and intelligence. So why haven’t today’s colleges and universities at least gotten past overt racism? Some would argue that, as a microcosm of the larger society, we should expect to see symptoms of racism on college campuses. But why aren’t colleges and universities successfully interrupting these patterns of perpetual racial ignorance, insensitivity and aggression?


Lessons aren’t learned


Student affairs professionals across the country work tirelessly to implement “programs” to educate students about diversity with the ultimate goal of curbing overt expressions of racism. Academic affairs, however, rarely has been a required partner in these efforts. Academic freedom means that campuses must tread lightly from dictating what happens in the classroom and even how they respond when overt racism takes place on campus.


The first principle of academic freedom suggests that “teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” This is not an indictment against academic freedom but rather a call for us to consider the residual effects of how maintaining academic freedom has meant that campuses resist “mandating” if and how issues of racism are handled in the classroom. Campus efforts to curtail overtly racist practices like racially themed costumes continue to operate on the periphery, for example, Ohio State’s video discouraging college students from dressing in racially offensive costumes.


Although such efforts are needed — today we see tomorrow’s leaders dressed like the hate mongers of the past. Yet addressing racism and diversity still sits on the sidelines of most universities’ required curricula. This week, at college campuses across the country, students of color will sit through classes where contemporary forms of racism will be surprisingly absent from the conversation. Then, at night, they are confronted with images like a student dressed in blackface mimicking Trayvon Martin with a blood-splattered shirt standing next to a student dressed as George Zimmerman (See article). Chances are that the implications of such experiences won’t be explored in the classroom because of the perception that they don’t relate to course content.


A study of diversity courses


Latoya Russell OwensLatoya Russell Owens

Many campuses have attempted to address race in the curriculum through diversity courses. Diversity courses address historical and contemporary issues surrounding race, gender, social class, age, culture, disability and sexual orientation in order to encourage political, social and economic tolerance (Chang, 2002; Holland, 2006). The Association of American Colleges and Universities defines a diversity course as relating to stereotypes, the nature of prejudice, and the advantages and challenges of a multicultural society (Humphreys, 2000). More than half of today’s colleges require students to complete a diversity course; however, there is limited information about the impact those courses have on student learning and openness to diverse curriculum and peers (Humphreys, 2000). Therefore, we conducted a study examining how diversity courses impacted students’ openness to diversity. We asked: How does the type of diversity course impact students’ openness to diversity?


This work was part of a larger research project on diversity courses, taking place at Western University (WU), where students are required to take at least one general education (GE) diversity course prior to graduation. “The “Diversity Survey” was developed by the research team in spring 2009 in order to survey students about their experiences in the 126 diversity courses. Survey questions ranged from the extent to which students interacted with peers of similar and different racial/ethnic backgrounds, as well as discussed and thought more critically about diversity issues as a result of taking a required diversity course. The 31-item Diversity Survey was sent out to a sample of 3,000 undergraduate students and 480 students completed the survey.


Openness to diversity was defined as an openness to having individual views challenged, and an ability to discuss and negotiate controversial issues. There were five diversity course experiences used in this analysis, which included: how many diversity courses taken, frequency of diverse perspectives considered in classroom discussions, in writing assignments, work with other students on class assignments, and efforts to better understand someone else’s views by imagining how the issue looks from his or her perspective. The Diversity Course Typology is a scale used to assess the rigor and depth of diverse content in the courses.


The findings indicated that Course Typology had a positive effect on students’ openness to being challenged and ability to discuss/ negotiate controversial issues (β = .209, p < .01). In sum, students were more likely to be open to challenge and have the ability to discuss controversial issues when taking more engaging and comprehensive diversity courses, according to the course typology. Thus, the level of diversity course is significant in explaining students’ openness to challenge and ability to discuss controversial issues.




The results of this study and other research on the impact of diversity courses suggest that classroom learning, and more specifically, diversity courses can play an important role in helping students become more aware and open to diverse groups (Chang, 2002; Holland, 2006; Hurtado, 2007). Consequently, we understand that simply offering courses is not sufficient to have an effect on students’ openness to diversity and thus student outcomes, as the study indicates that more advanced diversity courses had a greater impact on student outcomes. While overall we found that diversity courses are having an impact on student’s openness to diversity, and further their ability to work with diverse student populations, in order to have greater effects or better educational outcomes, the results indicate the importance of considering the quality or depth of diversity courses in college. This increased level of diversity courses will result in intellectual growth via exposure to diverse ideas and perspectives (Piaget, 1985), ultimately supporting increased openness to diversity.


Universities will have to consider this in designing diverse course curriculum, hours and requirements, among other factors, if they want to make a real impact on student openness to diversity, and ultimately, their campus climate. In addition to courses, it is important for campuses to also consider the role of faculty background and expertise needed to facilitate important conversations on race and race relations. Academic affairs and faculty have to include representation from diverse groups, and currently more faculty of color are needed as nearly 90 percent of full-time professors are White. Thus, when universities such as UCLA take steps to address the plethora of racial issues present on their campus through the introduction of diversity courses, it is imperative for university officials to consider not only the course offered but the faculty representative and course content, as well as how students are engaged and how the course professor play significant roles in the overall quality of the diversity course.


Dr. Tiffany JonesDr. Tiffany Jones

In this way, colleges will be taking pre-emptive measures to improve race relations and campus climate on their campuses rather than simply reacting to the next inevitable incident of racism. Campuses must utilize academic affairs so that they can work against not only the overt incidents of racism that make headlines, but the everyday microaggressions students of color may experience on campus as well.


Latoya Russell Owens is a doctoral candidate in education policy studies at Georgia State University and a doctoral intern at the Southern Education Foundation.

Dr. Tiffany Jones is the program director of higher education research and policy at the Southern Education Foundation.

Dr. Darnell Cole is an associate professor of education in the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.

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