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Outlook: Creating Culturally Competent Campuses
Outlook: Creating Culturally Competent Campuses

Addressing racial issues requires a proactive and ongoing effort

By Sylvia Carey-Butler

Paul Garland

Racist graffiti. Menacing social media posts. Vile slurs spewed at students of color. In the past year, incidents of bias and racial animus have rocked numerous institutions, including Colgate, Syracuse, and North Carolina State universities; the universities of Massachusetts Amherst; California, Berkeley; and Virginia; and even my alma mater, the State University of New York at Oneonta. All of this begs the question, what's going on?

Institutional leaders quickly take a strong stance on what will not be tolerated on their campuses. At the University of Oklahoma after a video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members singing racist chants went public, the university president closed the fraternity house and expelled two members from the institution. In Pennsylvania, three Bucknell University students were expelled after they used a racial slur and advocated the lynching of African-Americans during a student radio broadcast. But here's the problem with a reactive approach to racial incidents, best summed up by an April 2015 Chronicle of Higher Education article: "College presidents are willing to address the racist, but rarely the racism."

The rise of racial incidents on campus is unsurprising; colleges are a microcosm of the larger polarized society. The United States continues to struggle with the legacies of slavery, legal segregation, and varying degrees of institutional and individuated racism. Students bring their learned behavior about the value of, or contempt for, racial differences to campus. This issue is not confined to the U.S. In the U.K., a two-year study conducted by the National Union of Students concluded that "racism is more widespread than previously thought, and perceptions of racism are creating barriers to the participation of Black students in further and higher education."

If students leave college the same as when they entered—without enhanced critical thinking skills and unable to form opinions and seek solutions to problems—then they should get their money back. It's our job as educators to teach students to be culturally competent, but the effort must be ongoing—not a one-and-done diversity seminar or hastily convened forum after an incident. Institutions must be proactive to head off incidents through what we do best—education.

What's working: Inside the classroom

Some institutions, including the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh where I work, are helping students to develop an inclusive mindset. Like many colleges during the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s, UW Oshkosh endured racial tensions, including the 1968 removal of 94 African-American students who demanded fair and equal treatment. The campus is becoming more diverse: Between 2009 and 2013, student of color enrollment grew by 43 percent. Still, 80 percent of students come from the rural and predominantly white region surrounding the institution, and many have never been exposed to different races and cultures. University leadership decided to make clear that everyone matters.

Recognizing the need to change campus attitudes, the institution established a Center for Equity and Diversity and in 2013 instituted inclusive learning through a reimagined curriculum. Known as the University Studies Program, the curriculum requires freshmen and sophomores to explore three signature questions:

Civic Engagement: How do people understand and engage in community life?

Culture: How do people understand and bridge cultural differences?

Sustainability: How do people understand and create a more sustainable world?

To explore these questions, students can participate, for example, in a Google Hangout discussion on gender with female panelists from around the globe. In the politics of food course, students work with a local food pantry and a mentor who is a health coach to learn about food policy and how it affects what's available in different neighborhoods.

The Inclusive Excellence Council, charged with integrating the ideals of diversity and equity into academic affairs, created the Same Path Different Shoes program. It allows students of color to talk as a group with faculty about their campus experiences and discuss how to navigate difficult environments. The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning has established an Inclusive Excellence Pedagogy Series, providing faculty opportunities for integrating multicultural content in their syllabi.

Outside the classroom

The "Smart Conversations" series encourages campus dialogue about difficult national and global problems. We've held two forums on the issues surrounding the August 2014 fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, of an unarmed black teenager and the protests it sparked; co-sponsored a transgender woman speaker to help students cut through their preconceived notions; and brought a Jewish 1965 graduate back to campus to share how she persevered through mistreatment by a professor. One student was so moved by her story of being marginalized in a class that he handed her $300—the extra tuition she paid to retake the course—which she then donated to the institution.

We are conducting our second campus climate study to monitor how stakeholders experience the campus. Data from the Equity Score Card project will help us identify ways to address inequities in educational outcomes among students of color. The chancellor and his wife, Andrew and Karen Leavitt, established a fund to support activities associated with inclusive excellence.

Among other institutions that teach inclusion are Cornell University, which established the Intergroup Dialogue Project to help students explore such social justice topics as socioeconomic status, class privilege, and religious inequalities; and the University of Michigan, where the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching offers faculty inclusive teaching strategies, such as how to facilitate cross-cultural group work.

UW Oshkosh's curriculum and programs were implemented in the fall of 2013, so it's too early to quantify the impact of our efforts. We know we are moving the needle. At one forum, a white student asked how to change family members' attitudes. At another event, a student who had never met people of color until coming to campus said that she did not know how to engage them. Those events showed that much work needs to be done but that these students are open to others and hungry for information.

Why we can't wait

Establishing a bias-free environment isn't easy. Colleges and universities must head off racial tensions through strategic curricular and co-curricular initiatives. Not all faculty will enthusiastically embrace changes or believe that colleges and universities should focus on inclusive excellence. Making this kind of transformation requires bold leadership willing to revisit old structures and broaden the institution's outreach.

This work is not just about restoring racial harmony to campus. Think Ferguson, a watershed moment for 21st century America. Heard around the globe, Ferguson was a cry to address the pervasive inequities affecting African-Americans. The United States continues to be marred by economic, academic, and social injustices. As educators, our mission is to help students think broadly and deeply about the diverse world in which they live and to empower them to create a better tomorrow for us all. Let's accept the challenge and seize the opportunity while they are on our campuses. To quote writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin: "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

About the Author Sylvia Carey-Butler

Sylvia Carey-Butler is the assistant vice chancellor of academic support of inclusive excellence at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.




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