It has been a year since campus response to events nationwide first brought into sharp relief evidence that racism, in all its forms, persists in our community and that our efforts to increase diversity and achieve real inclusion are falling short of expectations. Persistent bigoted, intolerant, and insensitive remarks and actions are the evidence of this. Many have found the university’s response to these incidents insufficient.
It is now clear that I and others did not sufficiently understand the daily experiences felt by people of color. Addressing that deficit has led us to re-examine AU's record in attempting to build an inclusive community and undertake additional initiatives to improve on our performance.
These developments led to my November op-ed in The Eagle, where I vowed that American University will re-dedicate itself to stronger and more effective efforts to combat this national problem in our campus community, and I promised to report on our initial steps as the semester drew to a close.
Meetings to Date
In November and December we convened the first in a series of meetings to listen to experiences, observations, and recommendations from those who have experienced racism and bigotry as members of our campus community. These initial sessions included four separate meetings with African American students, staff, faculty, and alumni. A meeting with alumni of Latino and Hispanic heritage was held this week, and other groups will be scheduled following winter break.
Here is a sample of the experiences and observations reported by the participants in these meetings.
Experiences and Observations
AU is not meeting expectations with respect to diversity. More importantly, we have not created the sense of inclusion that was expected when people of color joined AU as students, staff, and faculty. Racist incidents occur too often, despite the university’s long standing commitment to diversity.
Micro-aggressions—insensitive behaviors and remarks that may not appear overtly racist but that have the same effects—occur routinely, often attributable to a lack of education and experience with people of different racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds.
Members of our community lack understanding about why certain words and actions are offensive and create obstacles to positive educational, career, and social experiences for students, faculty, and staff. Classroom experiences are uncomfortable when a single minority student is expected to represent the voice of an entire race or ethnic group on questions that arise in discussions.
Students observed that faculty often appear unwilling or unable to manage discussions of race or other forms of difference when they arise in class.
Students, faculty, and staff of color bear the burden of educating colleagues about insensitive words and actions, when the institution should take on greater responsibility for this education and training.
Additional resources (people and spaces) are needed for persons of color to draw on for support, advice, and assistance, when dealing with racist or biased attitudes and behaviors.
There are not enough persons of color to constitute the “critical mass” often associated with inclusive institutions and to support and mentor those of similar backgrounds.
Uncertainty exists about the commitment of university leaders to create a more inclusive and safe environment.
Too few persons of color are in visible positions of leadership with the ability to influence decision making and resource allocation.
Ideas for Additional or New Action
Participants in these discussions also offered ideas about how to address the issues they raised.
Create a presidential working group, properly staffed, to oversee diversity and inclusion efforts and develop recommendations for enhancements.
Improve resources (people and spaces) for students who experience racist or biased incidents and increase opportunities for students, faculty, and staff of all backgrounds to come together to explore matters of race, ethnicity, and other forms of difference.
Increase diversity and inclusion training for faculty and staff, including student workers in residence halls and other key functional areas.
Review practices from other universities known for their success with inclusion and build on what is learned.
Formally recognize and credit the mentoring and counseling roles of faculty and staff of color in faculty actions and promotion decisions.
Leverage partnerships with external organizations known for effectiveness in education and programming on race and difference.
Provide training and other forms of assistance that will equip faculty to manage classroom discussions of race, ethnicity, and other forms of difference.
Require training on diversity and inclusion for incoming freshmen and transfer students.
Require educational experiences to address issues of racism and other forms of bias.
Examine the history and success of the Washington College of Law in creating a diverse and inclusive climate for lessons learned.
Re-evaluate and refine our recruitment and retention strategies to increase the number of students, faculty, and staff from diverse backgrounds.
Recruit and promote people of color to senior positions of authority.
Raise awareness of policies and procedures that empower students, faculty, and staff to take action on forms of discriminatory harassment and physical threats.
Re-evaluate goals, objectives, and measures of progress on diversity and inclusion and report progress regularly and transparently.
Our highest priority is to assess the ideas that have been presented and to use the most promising as components of an action plan for meaningful and inclusive change, with a timeline and measures of accountability. To do this, we will review our existing survey data on student experience and tap experts in our own community, in the city of Washington, and beyond. I also continue to welcome the ideas of AU students, faculty, staff, and alumni which may be submitted by sending a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My goal is to create a plan for campus comment by the end of February 2016. I urge everyone to engage in this vital effort. Significant progress on diversity and inclusion will require a sustained and serious effort by all members of our community.
AU's strategic plan, Leadership for a Changing World, outlines goals and objectives for the next decade at American University. Visit american.edu/strategicplan for more information. (myAU.american.edu login required for some documents)