With tongue in cheek, we used to say that if a college or university president wanted to strongly encourage one of its administrators to consider employment at some other institution, the president need only assign the administrator the responsibility of determining when to close because of inclement weather. These judgments and decisions were always no-win propositions, and they never created heroes.
Similarly, there are few heroes in what some see as the unenviable position of chairing a task force on diversity. Twenty-two years ago, I was asked to chair a diversity committee and I declined. However, in this instance, I do not think that I was asked to chair the committee and become the sacrificial lamb; I just happened to be the only administrator of color.
If I were in a campus position today and was asked to chair or facilitate a committee or task force on diversity, equity, and inclusion, my first question would be about the intention of the endeavor. Are we looking for a task force for transformation of an institution’s culture or are we creating a task force to determine terms of engagement with an aggrieved constituency? The reflexive response is that the intention is to accomplish both. This expectation may be unrealistic in the short term, and I encourage anyone who takes this role to proceed with caution.
I suggest that before you take any approach, you should insure, as is feasible, that you have support regardless of the outcome of efforts. Go into the situation knowing that whatever you do, everyone will not be happy and you will be second-guessed and criticized.
If you report to the head of the institution, have the conversation about the extent of your powers to enter into negotiations with aggrieved constituencies. If you are the president, get the support of the Board of Trustees in regard to the actions you may take on their behalf.
Attempt to get confirmation that, to the extent possible, your decisions will not be reversed while you are in negotiations. Outline as best you can what some of the alternative responses might be to demands and ask for latitude to respond based on your best judgment.
With support, I believe that you are ready to not only listen but hear what students say they want rather than impose what you or others think is the ideal strategy to move forward.
Optimistically, we hope the ultimate outcome of our current confrontations between students – mainly Black students – and their college or university is transformation of a culture that has historically not been open and accommodating to students referred to as minorities.
Think of the term minorities in every aspect of the word, including race, sexual orientation, and privilege. When you listen to students, think about how their common experiences make them different than you and your colleagues were when you were students, and think about how they are even different from students you had a decade ago.
While students are generationally diverse, the actors most recognized in interviews about their dissatisfactions and subsequent demands are those students who may be seen as second-wave Millennials. One of the characteristics of this wave of Millennials is their great desire to be connected and part of what is trending. Students have always wanted to be connected to a cause and to contribute to change. Comments from students at the University of Missouri, Columbia, are illustrative of how students want to be part of something that matters:
Reuben Faloughi, third-year doctoral student, said, coming together was a powerful experience; it touched me to the core. It was the first time I saw that many students committed to the cause.
When undergraduate, Corie Wilkins, told interim president, Mr. Middleton, that he was tired and didn’t see much change, Mr. Middleton told him that he had to continue because he (Middleton) had been at this 50-plus years and if he hadn’t given up, neither could Mr. Wilkins. Mr. Wilkins said, I will never forget that. There was nothing to do but shut up and get back to work.
(Student quotes from The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I Believe I Can Leave This Place Better Than I Found It,” by Beth McMurtrie, January 3, 2016)
In addition to a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, students are aware that they are participating in a necessary social moment stimulated by the broad reach of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Another characteristic of students participating in campus protests is that they eschew conversations, workshops, and events and demand instead concrete actions.
In other words, they are creating their terms of engagement, and to the extent college and university officials are able to respond to these terms, it should be done in good faith.
Responding to recommendations from students can be the first step in transforming institutional culture. When some characterize responding positively to student recommendations / demands as “caving,” they setting up a zero-sum game for the negotiations, creating a confrontational situation in which there must be a winner and a loser.
When officials are unable to respond because of real obstacles such as lack of resources or the response would infringe on the rights of others, they should communicate what the reasons for not responding are clearly and promptly as they would respond to anyone with whom they desire an honest and respectful relationship.
At the same time that legitimate responses are addressing the terms of engagement, facilitators for faculty, staff, administrators, and student groups should be bringing people together to take a fresh look at their culture through the lens created by protesting students.
Discussions should include questions such as, “What do we see now that we did not see before?” “What can each of us do to insure that all students know that they belong here?” “What needs to happen to recruit and retain faculty and staff of color?”
If these discussions are going to have the potential to contribute to transforming campus culture and climate, the entire academic community must become a community of learners.
As learners, all will need an understanding of the history of race in this country and how it influences culture and society today. All will need opportunities to practice the skills of talking about race and other controversial topics. All will need to hear opinions different than their own. All will need to practice expressing thoughts and feelings in a facilitated environment where the purpose is transformation through learning and understanding.
Chairing a task force or committee on diversity, inclusion, and equity needs to be a labor of love for the ideals of higher education in a diverse and democratic society. Chairing such an endeavor is no place for heroes or Lone Rangers, and credibility and humility may be the most salient characteristics of those who have this role.