Higher Education Should Lead the Efforts to Reverse Structural Racism

Colleges and universities have a special role to play in making sure America’s prosperity is accessible to all.

College students graduating

The knee on the neck of George Floyd aggravated an American psyche already frayed by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. Protesters from diverse backgrounds marched in the streets across the nation demanding change. Channeling the growing public and private support for meaningful change into action requires Americans, in every sector, to engage in difficult conversations, and to be honest about our problems and deliberate in developing solutions. We in higher education are no exception.

We in this field have an obligation to engage in this work, because we have become more central than ever to our students’ American dreams. We hold out to our students the promises of an enriched life and social mobility, and yet we often fall short in providing these to all who arrive on our campuses.

In his 2019 book, the UC Berkeley professor David Kirp called out higher education, naming our poor six-year graduation rate of 60 percent for full-time freshmen at bachelor’s degree–granting institutions “the college dropout scandal.” And if 60 percent is a “scandal,” what do we call the rate for Black students, which is 40 percent? It would be simplistic—and wrong—to conclude that our students of color are failing. Instead, we must admit that higher education is failing them.

Our institution, the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, has made enormous progress on the crisis in student success. In the 1980s, UMBC had a six-year graduation rate for all freshmen of just more than 30 percent, and for Black freshmen, the rate was 10 percentage points lower. Through a range of interventions, we have increased our six-year graduation rate to 70 percent overall, not including the 10 percent who transfer and graduate elsewhere. Moreover, we have no Black-white graduation gap.

Thirty years ago, the university administration (including one of the authors of this piece, Freeman Hrabowski) and faculty began thinking strategically about student success. The institution developed a program to support talented Black undergraduates in the natural sciences and engineering. Based on that program’s outcomes, the university also developed similar strategies for improving learning outcomes for students of all races, across fields. In 2005, UMBC established an office of undergraduate education led by a new dean of undergraduate education. Over the next decade, OUE implemented new programming for first-year students to increase retention, including a summer bridge program, a new-student book experience, short courses on how to navigate college, writing instruction, first-year seminars, and other support programs for transfer students. These provide students with a sense of belonging, agency, and efficacy, along with tools they need to be successful.

On a parallel track, beginning in 2003, the university created a “data warehouse” that pulled together information from across the institution—including students’ grades, courses, extracurriculars, and demographics—to provide a comprehensive view of the student experience. This database allows leadership, staff, and faculty to examine the efficacy of and to reshape programs to meet student needs. It also lends insights on how and when to help individual students. Our academic advocates work proactively with at-risk students to ensure their success—as defined by grades, persistence, and completion—by connecting them with resources such as tutoring and counseling.

In the past decade, faculty have also focused on course redesign to improve teaching and learning. Redesigned introductory courses that emphasize active, problem-focused, and group-based work support student learning and success in classes that have traditionally been taught across the country as “weed-out courses.” The co-curricular programming offered to students—residential learning communities, experiential learning, and a career center that helps students with internships and jobs—also enhances the student experience and reinforces persistence.

Of course, a major issue for students is money. Financial aid plays a role in where students go to college, whether they persist, and the quality of the education they get. This is in part a state- and federal-policy problem. Pell Grants have not kept pace with inflation, much less increases in tuition and fees, as per-student state appropriations for higher education in constant dollars have declined. It is also an institutional problem. We must do a better job of communicating net cost to students so they make informed choices; we must support students so they can immerse themselves in their studies instead of splitting time between work and school. Lately, at UMBC, we are finding creative ways to support students who dropped out very close to finishing their degree. With financial assistance and online coursework, many of these students are able to return and complete their degrees.

As we worked to improve student success generally, we also changed our institutional culture to be more supportive of students of all racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds. Our campus had a challenging racial climate in the 1980s, including student protests and annual takeovers of the president’s office by the Black Student Union and its allies. Over the intervening 30 years, we have built an inclusive, multicultural campus and have achieved well-documented success in educating students of all races across disciplines, including Black students in science and engineering who go on to earn doctoral degrees. We have achieved this through a program that instills high expectations, builds community, and brings students directly into research.

Despite this, we still have challenges regarding race and gender, but we continue to learn from difficult conversations. We experienced this recently when news of several sexual-assault cases involving UMBC students prompted us to rethink how we handle Title IX complaints. Even with our progress in building an inclusive campus, students and alumni also asked us to listen to their concerns and do better after the tragic death of George Floyd. We often like to say “Success is never final,” by which we mean that we know we can still improve. This has given us an opportunity to have the difficult conversations that we need to get there.

Out of this important work, we have taken several significant steps. We have overhauled our Title IX operations and procedures. We have expanded our Equity and Inclusion Council to include more students, faculty, and staff. We have hired or promoted Black and female leaders throughout the institution. This past academic year, three Black faculty were promoted to associate and full professor, more than ever before. But we have more work to do.

Many colleges and universities hire a chief diversity officer—though UMBC has not—to lead the campus effort in this area. These positions are important and, if campus leaders signal that addressing diversity and inclusion is a priority and the CDOs are granted the resources and power they need, these leaders can make a difference. But although CDOs can be helpful, their hiring alone is not sufficient. To be successful, presidents, provosts, and CDOs need allies among the most powerful faculty. Progress requires commitment from the academic community, including the faculty who have the power over the curriculum, how classes are designed and taught, and experiential learning—essentially the academic experience and success of students.

Our faculty and staff serve as mentors, role models, and teachers. Many institutions have been successful in hiring highly committed minority staff who care deeply about students, but we need to do more to diversify our staff. Meanwhile, the irony is not lost on us that although some critics of academia attack our culture as being too progressive, we must admit that we in higher education have had only limited success in hiring and promoting Black and Latino faculty. Nationally, at present, non-Hispanic white faculty comprise more than 75 percent of the professoriate, while they are just 60 percent of the population—by 2044, non-Hispanic white people will make up less than 50 percent of the population.

Many campus leaders argue that they cannot find diverse faculty candidates, but applicants of color are available in the academic job market, and we can increase faculty diversity by adopting strategies that broaden the hiring pool, reduce implicit bias in recruitment and hiring, and support new faculty. The challenge is not just one of recruiting and hiring Black faculty. We must also encourage them to stay by working with departments to ensure their cultures are welcoming and supportive, and providing new faculty with research and grant-writing support.

At UMBC, as at many institutions, we have made substantial progress toward increasing diversity in some departments, principally in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. We have much work yet to do in the natural sciences and engineering. We have hired a small number of Black faculty in biology and computer science, but there are departments that have no underrepresented minority faculty.

One ongoing issue in hiring and retention is implicit bias. To address this at UMBC, we have recently implemented a program called Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting to Improve Diversity and Excellence, or STRIDE—adapted from a program developed at the University of Michigan. STRIDE Fellows comprise a small group of majority faculty who are committed to increasing diversity and work as a team to educate and counsel search committees on how to overcome implicit bias in the hiring process, broaden the applicant pool, support new hires, and change departmental cultures. They are making a difference, even if it is one hire at a time.

Meanwhile, professors can make a difference in other ways. Individual faculty can mentor students of color and become their champions and sponsors as they transition from undergraduate to graduate school, postdoctoral fellowships, and faculty positions. They can promote the success and career development of scientists of color by citing their work, inviting them to give talks, and collaborating with them on research projects, grants, and papers.

A final imperative for universities is to do more to encourage our students of all backgrounds in the work of civic engagement and voting. Historically, young adults have voted at lower rates than older adults, so efforts by higher-education institutions to increase registration and turnout among their students could have a significant impact. Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to directly shape the electoral participation of younger voters. UMBC participates in the “All In Campus Democracy Challenge,” in which we encourage students to vote, because elections have consequences, each of us should make our vote count, and voting is one dimension of broader civic action that we should all engage in. To further support voting, we participate in the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tufts University to benchmark our efforts to increase student electoral participation.

To foster civic action, we have established a Center for Democracy and Civic Life, which provides programs and initiatives for students to establish civic purpose and find agency through actions that they take on campus or in the community. Colleges and universities can also do more to deepen Americans’ understanding of the country’s history. With support from the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History grant program, UMBC’s Center for History Education has been working with K–12 partners to create and provide professional development and curricular resources for elementary-, middle-, and high-school history teachers.

Now is the time for higher education leaders to demonstrate that our institutions can do much more to address structural racism. Whether virtually or in person during the pandemic, campus leaders must listen to all voices from across campus, especially those of Black and other underrepresented groups; signal the importance of these issues, establishing them as campus priorities; and identify areas where we can implement changes—which include improving the curriculum, supporting students, diversifying the faculty, and engaging our communities. We can do this by building trust, cultivating allies, and empowering community members to take initiative and do the work. And it will take work, but that work will bring us closer to the society we should all want.