Forum: Trustees Need to Address Racism

By Kenneth Bedell    //    Volume 28,  Number 5   //    September/October 2020

A Campus without Racism?

Racism needs to be on the agenda of college and university trustees because integrity and sustainability can be threatened when resources have not been directed to create an anti-racism environment. Addressing racism is also an essential component of fulfilling the larger responsibility that higher education has to sustain and preserve American society and democracy.

The federal government requires that the board of trustees adopt and review statements of non-discrimination. As Brian Rosenberg pointed out in a 2016 Trusteeship article, “Enrolling a diverse student body, hiring a diverse group of faculty and staff members—these are necessary steps toward the goal of building diverse communities, but too often they are seen as ends in themselves.”

Even with non-discrimination policies that are enforced, an institution of higher education can be disrupted by a racial incident. Looking at incidents over the last decades, in most cases, there were not policies, practices, or the intentional development of an anti-racist culture that adequately addressed racism. A contributing factor to this situation is that trustees have not established policies nor allocated resources that address racism directly.

Today, addressing racism is central to the purpose of higher education: to prepare students to participate in the economic, cultural, and political life of the nation. Providing an anti-racist environment and helping students develop anti-racist sensitivities and skills is part of preparing them for full participation as citizens.

Imagining the Institution without Racism

Trustees work closely with the administration to develop plans for the physical plant and strategic plans to ensure institutional sustainability. The same energy and commitment should be applied to addressing racism. The best place to start is by developing a vision of what the institution would look like without racism. This vision will depend on the history and mission of the school.

It is important to develop this vision considering the perspectives of various stakeholders. For example, what would a school without racism look like to students of color? First, they would always feel safe: safe to express opinions, safe from being victimized by racial stereotypes, safe from experiencing barriers that white students do not experience, and safe when reporting instances of racial discrimination. Second, without racism, all students would experience their identity group being respected and celebrated. White culture, history, customs, and perspectives would not be presented as superior to all other perspectives.

Faculty and staff are also stakeholders who will be impacted by eliminating racism. Faculty and staff of color will have the same experience as students of color in being freed from the personal and collective burden of racism since they also experience racism as victims of stereotypes and institutional practices.

Only if trustees begin by developing a consensus about what the institutions would look like without racism can you ensure that every step that is taken to address racism is moving toward ending racism. A collective vision also makes it possible to evaluate policies or programs that are designed to address the needs of the institution, but may have an impact on the goal of eliminating racism.

The vision of an institution without racism will be different for every school. A public university has a commitment to provide an environment that is not only without racism, but also serves the needs of students that come from many different backgrounds. A faith-based college might articulate a vision that grows out of its historical roots.

Some institutions will have a vision that goes beyond eradicating racism from the experience of students, faculty, and staff. The vision might include that all graduates are prepared to live and work in the larger American society as advocates for a non-racist society. Other schools might include in the vision that a specialized department or research center would address the issues of racism in the larger society.

Three Foundations of Racism

Going from vision to actuality requires identifying and implementing strategies. There are no quick fixes. Because racism is embedded so deeply in American society and institutions, there are many possible sources of resistance. Justifications that come from long-standing practices can sound like they are defending values of the institution. Yet, these practices may unconsciously preserve privileges for white people. Some obstacles can be anticipated while others will come as a surprise. If it were easy to root out racism, we would have come much further than we have as a nation in ending racism since the 1960s.

The three foundations of racism are (1) stereotypes, (2) institutional practices that disadvantage people of color—often delineated as institutional racism—and (3) the pervading ideology that white culture and people are normative and superior. Racism has structural, systematic, and institutional legs.


Negative stereotypes are assigned by white culture and then become justifications for claiming white superiority and white privileges. Stereotypes are deeply embedded in American culture, and as social psychologists explain, they impact the behavior of both whites and people of color. Stereotypes are embedded in the conscious and unconscious minds of young people before they arrive at college.

The staff and faculty also have both conscious and unconscious biases based on stereotypes. One of the reasons that the last 50 years has seen so little progress in eradicating racism is that white people have learned to be polite while continuing to hold onto stereotypes. To end racism, stereotypes need to be addressed directly. There is no scientific evidence for stereotypes. It is not true that African Americans are good at sports and poor at academics. It is not true that Hispanic students are lazy and always late.

It is the role of higher education to teach students uncontested fundamentals. Therefore, colleges teach that the Earth is not flat, and all objects in a vacuum fall to the earth with the same acceleration. In the same way, a fundamental of human interaction is that stereotypes are not true. It has also been established by the science of racism that stereotypes impact the performance of non-white students. And stereotypes are a source of making students, faculty, and staff feel unsafe. Therefore, colleges and universities need to address directly the fact that stereotypes are not true.

Since the 1960s, institutions of all kinds, including institutions of higher education, have used cultural sensitivity training, anti-racism training, and other strategies to address the destructive impact of racism. It must be admitted that these strategies have only been modestly successful. Recent advances in racism studies and social psychology not only help us understand why past strategies have had such limited impact, but they point to practices that are effective in combating stereotypes.

The key to combating stereotypes is understanding that the stereotypes are embedded in our unconscious minds. We are born with strategies for survival that evolved thousands of years ago. These include a preference for people who look like our parents, a fear of people who are not part of our family, and a desire for human interaction. By the time we are about three years old, our social experience confirms the usefulness of these strategies. At that point, our brains mature by separating conscious from unconscious work. And our unconscious brain work is not available to us. While our unconscious mind is not available to us, it is possible to modify the power that it has over our actions and our thoughts. Working together, our conscious and unconscious minds can overcome the power of stereotypes.

This is accomplished by first learning to recognize stereotypes and our commitment to them. Then we can learn techniques that train our unconscious mind to give up the inherited preference for people like us and a fear of people who are different.

There is still much to learn about how to address stereotypes. Institutions of higher education that have taken seriously mitigating the power of stereotypes on their campuses have discovered that a program needs to be long term. A workshop during orientation or a day-long retreat does not give sufficient time for a program to be successful. Secondly, they have learned that a group process is important where students have opportunities to listen to each other as well as share their own feelings and experiences.

It is always important to consult with lawyers as specific responses are made to racist activity on the part of students or others. Because there is scientific evidence that stereotypes are not true, free speech that promotes white supremacy can be addressed in the context of academic freedom where the scientific evidence moderates the discussion. Harassment and hate crimes need to be dealt with through the legal system.

Trustees need to ensure that there are well designed anti-stereotype programs and that they are well resourced with budget and staff.

Institutional Racism

Institutional racism has two expressions: (1) barriers for people of color that are not experienced by whites, and (2) privileges experienced by whites that do not extend to people of color. Racism is hidden in institutions and across our society in practice and policies that seem natural. The way we do things seems like common sense.

Addressing institutional racism and combating it requires that the institution develop two capacities. The first is the capacity to identify institutional racism. The second is the capacity to respond.

Because racism is so embedded in institutions, it is easy to overlook. And the same mental processes that support stereotypes generate rationale for established practices. Training students, faculty and staff to recognize institutional racism is called developing a “sense of racism.” A sense of racism is like our sense of fairness or our sense of propriety.

After someone recognizes institutional racism, there needs to be a clear path for it be reported, evaluated, and corrected. Everyone needs to know how they can report institutional racism and the process for it to be reviewed. Trustees should always be informed of the progress in addressing institutional racism and actively engaged in reviewing policies that address racism.

Trustees can also play an important role by asking questions and developing a ‘sense of racism’ so that new and existing policies are run through a racism filter to evaluate the possible ways that practices and policies might impede progress toward the vision of a campus without racism.

Trustees need to ensure that there are sufficient resources dedicated to the training of administrators, faculty, staff, and students so that everyone on campus develops a sense of racism to identify institutional expressions of racism. Most importantly, trustees also need to provide resources to institutionalize the response to racism when it is identified.

At many institutions, dedicated staff will have responsibility for receiving and processing both anonymous and public reports where racism is identified. At other institutions, the responsibility for reporting racism will be distributed across various administrative offices.

Institutional racism can be particularly difficult to recognize and to root out. There are often strongly held justifications for practices and groups that do not want to change. An example that is reported in the literature about racism in higher education relates to one aspect of the tenure review process that has white privilege baked into it.

A stated goal of the tenure review process is that tenured faculty will be leaders in their field. The primary data is peer-reviewed research and participation in academic associations. What about a candidate for tenure who has demonstrated leadership through participation in activist organizations, has published books and articles that make their own and others academic research available to a wide audience, and has demonstrated leadership that transforms individuals and organizations?

Confronting White Superiority

Institutions of higher education play an important role in establishing the foundations that present and future generations have of what America stands for and what it means to be American. This is illustrated by what happened in the 18th century in the British colonies. A generation of young men were educated in institutions of higher education. Most of these institutions continue today with names like Harvard, William and Mary, St. John’s, and Yale. There the revolution leaders read and discussed Cicero, Descartes, Hume, Locke, and others.

Higher education instilled in the founders the values of scientific inquiry and democracy. The colleges also instilled attitudes of white male superiority. They did not recognize or question sexism or racism. Higher education has evolved since the 1700s, but there are still ways that white male superiority is supported and preserved.

Every institution has its own history and context that require addressing white superiority. Two examples illustrate ways that trustees can initiate correcting the role of higher education in preserving the ideology of white supremacy: curriculum and history.

Without any malice or intent, the curriculum can support a perspective that white culture is normative and, therefore, superior. A department called Art History that only has faculty members trained in European art history, a major in literature where it is possible to graduate with little exposure to non-white writers, and a required Western civilization course are all examples where the curriculum supports racism.

An approach that some institutions have used to address white supremacy is to investigate their history of involvement in slavery and support for racism. This provides a context for discussion and identifying remedial actions. It also can help clarify ways that the institution continues to support white supremacy.

Trustees can ask questions and provide resources for studies of curriculum and/or historical investigations. But more importantly, the trustees can encourage a culture where the institution recognizes its responsibility for identifying and eliminating support for the idea that white culture is superior to all other cultures.

Opportunity and Responsibility

For more than 300 years, institutions of higher education have participated in the formation from generation to generation of the American character. Some institutions were founded as part of the abolition movement. Others were coeducational in a clear stand against sexism. But for the most part, higher education has been a conserving force that participated in the culture of racism. Trustees have an opportunity to face racism honestly and transform their institutions into anti-racism institutions.

Today addressing stereotypes, institutional racism, and the culture of white supremacy is not just an opportunity for any college or university board of trustees; it is the social responsibility of every board of trustees.

Kenneth Bedell, PhD, is a member of the board of trustees at Rust College, a historically black liberal arts college in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He was formerly a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. He is the author of Realizing the Civil Rights Dream: Diagnosing and Treating American Racism (Praeger, 2017).

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