The influx of racial incidents occurring at predominately White institutions (PWIs) have many questioning if PWIs are on track to create inclusive and safe environments for underrepresented minorities (URMs). Numerous racial incidents were reported on PWI campuses in 2015 with several more occurring within the first month of 2016. For example, a series of racial events at the University of Missouri made national news resulting in the resignation of the university’s president. Other events have occurred at the University of California, Davis where a Black woman was assaulted as she walked near her residence and at Clemson University and the University of Iowa, where racial graffiti was written on the walls of buildings. Other incidents have involved faculty members allegedly using racial slurs and Black high school students being the target of racial slurs while touring Texas A&M University.
When we reflect on the history of racial incidents at PWIs, current trends seem to reflect an increase at alarming rates. A study conducted by Dr. Sylvia Hurtado, now at the University of California, Los Angeles, which focused on campus racial climates, reported that more than 100 racial incidents ranging from verbal harassment to violent beatings occurred from 1987 to 1989. Unfortunately, more than 30 years later, students from URM groups are still being victimized on PWI campuses. In many instances, the state of cultural congruity, which refers to a student’s feelings of a sense of belonging or fit on PWI campuses, appears to barely exist.
In a report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, URM students’ persistence to degree completion can be related to their feelings of a sense of belonging. Feelings of belonging are influenced by the degree to which a student’s culture is acknowledged, accepted and integrated into their campus environment. Studies indicate that culturally incongruent campus environments pose major barriers to degree completion for URM students. Yet the number and severity of racial incidents occurring on PWI campuses continues to rise to the point of a critical call for administrators at PWIs to address and initiate solutions that will promote culturally congruent campuses.
Recently, 11 PWIs came together to form the University of Innovation Alliance (UIA) with a shared goal of increasing low-income college student’s persistence to degree completion. This is the first time in the history of higher education that several major public universities have organized as a coalition for the sole purpose of increasing degree complete rates of low-income students. The UIA’s strategic plans include sharing ideas, lessons learned and strategies that will help enhance college retention rates, academic performance and degree completion rates, especially among low-income and URM students.
While the UIA claims to embrace failure in order to spur success, the UIA has not stated plans to address racial incidents on PWI campuses. Rather, the UIA developed initiatives that focus on maintaining an open dialogue with faculty, administrators and students by sharing ideas from Alliance institutions.
The major initiatives that the UIA plans to focus on over the next three- to five-year period address three areas:
1) Identifying New Solutions, which focuses on increasing student success rates through the identification and verification of proven methods that yield success;
2) Scaling Proven Innovation, which focuses on transferring innovative solutions between campuses that are interested with the goal of developing an innovation transfer model for all higher educational institutions; and
3) Communication and Diffusion, which focuses on promoting the sharing of ideas, strategies, results and recommendations to the higher education segment, policy leaders and the general public.
Considering that one of the UIA’s main objectives is to graduate upward of 68,000 low-income students by 2025, many of whom are URM, what the UIA failed to include are strategies that address barriers to persistence and degree completion among this population of students at PWIs.
Though it is commendable for the UIA to support degree completion and persistence of low-income and URM students, the lack of focus on cultural congruity within UIA’s strategic plan is a major weakness. Simply, if the UIA is committed to the academic success of low-income and URM students, it is strongly suggested that the organization include a strategic initiative that would lead to the development of polices to help foster cultural congruity on PWI campuses.
Most importantly, focusing on enhancing cultural congruity sends the message that universities will no longer serve as incubators of racial intolerance.
Quintana Clark is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Youth Development and Agricultural Education at Purdue University. Clark’s research interests include emerging technologies for teaching and learning science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and mathematics (STEAM), human capacity development, and mentoring of underrepresented groups.
Dr. Levon T. Esters is an associate professor at Purdue University. His research focuses on the STEM career development of underrepresented minorities (URMs), mentoring of women and URM graduate students in STEM, and the role of historically Black land-grant institutions in fostering the STEM success of women and URMs.