Dear Higher Education,
You seem to care about improving diversity on your campuses. You’ve begun to invest more in positions and programs that are designed to improve the opportunities and climate for minorities and women attending and working at your institutions. You’ve created positions like ‘chief diversity officer’ to provide a tangible example of your devotion to the goal of a student body that at least matches the minority distribution in your community, state, or region, and a faculty body that is at least representative of your student body. You’ve hired special academic advisors for students and and committed to “active” recruiting for faculty.
And yet, you’re largely falling short.
Your minority students say that they don’t feel welcome, or worse, don’t feel safe while attending school. They graduate in fewer numbers than their white counterparts and when they do graduate, it’s usually much later and with a crushing debt burden.
Your minority faculty ranks have grown minimally over the past twenty-some years because you infrequently hire them and when you do, you infrequently retain them. At the current pace, the percentage of African Americans working as faculty will mirror their representation in society in about 150 years or at roughly the 200th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Vos movere ad celeritatem glacialis.
You’re actually losing ground with Native American faculty. Plotting a trend line with the IPEDS data to the right shows that in only 20 years Native Americans could effectively be absent from your faculty ranks.
Unfortunately data are only anecdotal for student and faculty populations from other underrepresented communities such as LGBT or people with disabilities, but I think we both know that their experiences aren’t a bright spot either. So, why are your campuses so unwelcoming for minority faculty and students despite some notable efforts to improve?
There are two primary reasons that you’re failing. The first is that your campuses are a product of the society in which we live, and it’s one that lacks intercultural sensitivity. While this isn’t your fault, it is a fact that you must deal with to move forward.
More than 30 years ago, Dr. Milton Bennett’s research applied a developmental approach to intercultural communications. Through that work he created the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. His six phase scale maps experience of difference as an individual progresses from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism. The phases are: Denial (differences don’t exist), Defense (my culture is superior, others are inferior), Minimization (differences may exist but they’re not important, we’re all human), Acceptance (learning to see differences and how they might be valuable), Adaptation (beginning to empathize with members from other cultures), and Integration (can operate in and switch effortlessly between cultures). Spoiler alert – the value of diversity isn’t unlocked until individuals reach at least the Acceptance phase.
Guess where the majority of Americans fall on this scale? If the 2016 Republican Presidential Primary cycle didn’t clue you in, perhaps a poll completed by the Associated Press will help. It found that when asked, 51% of Americans expressed anti-black attitudes and about the same number expressed anti-hispanic attitudes. That sentiment puts them squarely in the Defense phase of the continuum. Making the situation even more difficult is that Bennett’s research found that approached the wrong way, efforts to move individuals beyond the Defense phase had the undesirable effect of causing the person to revert into Denial or become even more entrenched in the Defense phase. For instance, one example of a counterproductive approach to moving people past the Defense phase is bringing cultures together in an unmoderated way. You’ve maybe read about some examples of this recently. Unfortunately, there are many.
The good news is that Bennett developed a diagnostic tool to assess exactly in which phase an individual is operating. His research also identified simple, yet effective techniques to move an individual successfully through each phase. If your mission is to produce graduates who are global citizens and can be effective in a multicultural society, don’t you have a responsibility to educate them on this? And if your faculty and staff have not been appropriately trained to become more ethnorelative (and I’m betting they haven’t in any purposefully sequenced and systematic way), they won’t be of much help in creating and sustaining a culture that helps minority students and faculty to succeed at your institutions. In fact, they will likely wittingly or unwittingly undermine the diversity goals that you’re trying to achieve.
Addressing the absence of cultural sensitivity on your campuses would go a very long way toward improving the climate and conditions for success among your minority populations. However, by itself, it probably won’t be enough to create lasting change. The second reason that you aren’t achieving your diversity goals is that even if you had everyone on board with an agenda of support and acceptance for minorities on your campus, implicit bias keeps those barriers to success in place.
The study of implicit bias is more than 20 years old and has covered the impacts of unconscious bias in all areas of our society from healthcare to criminal justice and, of course, education. Despite our best intentions, bias creeps into our decision making and creates results that run counter to our values. Just a few examples of ways in which it colors decision-making in higher education include hiring and salary placement, treatment of students in the classroom and out of the classroom, and assessment of professional competency. Researchers have found that ethnic and other minorities and women are systematically disadvantaged in higher education through implicit bias even when decision-makers have a stated belief system of egalitarianism. Luckily, solutions to implicit bias are well developed and documented, but the problem takes a comprehensive approach to solve. You must address both people and processes and must remain vigilant so that unrecognized bias doesn’t creep back into decision making.
So now you know. You can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing and expect better results. The student protests this fall across many of your campuses give you an opportunity to either make superficial changes or to do something really great. Even if work on intercultural sensitivity and implicit bias wasn’t among their lists of demands.
You can and must do more in order to truly achieve change. While the path you need to take is clear, it won’t be easy. It is uncomfortable and sometimes messy work, which is probably why it hasn’t been done yet. It will require investment of time, money, and political capital to ensure that everyone on your campuses become an active participant in achieving your goals. But the results will be so worth it.