The unfinished business of race and equity

Guest post by Daryl G. Smith

If the last few months have taught us anything, it is how much more we have to do as a society in addressing the unfinished business of race. The events in Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore, and Los Angeles, as well as the incidents at Oklahoma State, to name only a few, revealed the many ways in which our society and its institutions have or have not addressed long standing issues of inequity and also whether the leadership of our institutions from all sectors of society has adequate capacity to address these issues today. Indeed, many of these events highlighted the role and credibility of leaders, as well as their effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) in addressing race. And as happened every time there are crises, campuses across the country have been pressed to respond and to take action in addressing diversity on campus—including as it pertains to enrollment, faculty hiring, and curricular issues.

The question is not only whether the response of our institutions this time can be systematic and fundamental in addressing the incidents, but also whether the institutional response can focus on the need to build capacity to fully address the unfinished business of race and inequity in our society. Virtually every campus has a core mission of preparing leaders for a complex society and world. Virtually every research institution boasts the goal of serving citizens and solving problems. For the sake of a healthy and pluralistic democracy that works, can we not see that higher education has a critical role to play? We have witnessed how diversity in leadership can matter. We have also witnessed the ability or lack of ability of those in leadership positions from a broad spectrum of backgrounds to navigate through these challenges.

The events of the last few months underscore the relationship between inequity and the health of a diverse democracy. They also reveal higher education’s role and whether we are truly educating for a pluralistic democracy that works. How will we build our capacity to harness the talent and full participation of citizens in order to address the compelling challenges we face? To become more relevant to society, the nation, and the world while remaining true to their core missions, colleges and universities have to see diversity—like technology—as central, not parallel, to their work. Several decades ago, as technological shifts began, campuses understood that their viability would rest on building capacity for technology. While it was clear that change would be needed in almost every domain of the institution, campuses had to be intentional about building capacity. And it has been clear that readiness to keep up with the changes required was an imperative.

In much the same way, diversity now has to be seen as a strategic imperative, and campuses will need to pursue diversity efforts that are inclusive of the varied—and growing—issues apparent on campuses without losing focus of the critical unfinished business of the past. Diversity will have implications for how to build the capacity of institutions to be high performing in an increasingly pluralistic society. Our campuses can not only be models for creating diverse communities that work but can also be active partners in communities and in decreasing inequity in society. Indeed, achieving excellence in a diverse society requires increasing the institutional capacity for diversity—how diversity is tied to better leadership, positive change, research in virtually every field, student success, accountability, and more equitable hiring practices. Episodic responses to crises in communities or on campus can no longer be the default strategy. Having diversity is only the beginning. Building institutional change, developing leadership, and creating solutions for the historic and long-standing issues related to diversity will require intentionality and sustained commitment on the part of our campuses. Diversity has to be understood as an imperative for institutional excellence that, like technology, requires building capacity.

Daryl G. Smith is a senior research fellow and professor emerita of education and psychology at Claremont Graduate University. The second edition of her book, Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education: Making It Work, was published by JHU Press earlier this year. She is also the coauthor of Making a Real Difference with Diversity: A Guide to Institutional Change and the editor of Diversity in Higher Education: Emerging Perspectives on Institutional Transformation.