What Can Campus Leaders Do to Make Protests Unnecessary?

This article first ran in The Chronicle of Higher Education and appears here under an agreement with The Chronicle and the author.

Recent protests by students at a number of colleges have highlighted once again the persistent issue of race in America. The students see a campus culture that does not support a sense of inclusiveness and campus leaders who underappreciate and underemphasize issues of diversity and race. As a Hispanic-American, I empathize with the students of color, who have faced a lifetime of microaggression and micro- (and not-so-micro) discrimination. And as a former student activist, I am encouraged by the renaissance of campus activism.

But these protests, especially those directed at individual leaders, raise the question, “What can campus leaders, namely presidents and chancellors, do regarding the inclusiveness of their campuses anyway?” To answer that, it’s important to first understand what presidents and other campus leaders are unable to do.

For one, they cannot instantaneously change their campus culture by fiat. That culture on any campus goes well beyond any one individual, no matter how broad his or her authority. It is rooted in the prejudices and stereotypes of faculty and staff, who have much longer tenure and much less turnover than students. It is rooted in the college’s history. And it is rooted in the surrounding community’s culture and perspective, where many of the campus’s staff and faculty are from and live. To think that a campus or system leader has the power to change campus culture in a moment is foolhardy.

Second, leaders cannot ensure that everything they write and say will be flawless, sensitive, and politically inoffensive. We all make mistakes, we all say things in ways that later we wish we had said better (or not at all). As Thomas Rochon recently wrote in The Chronicle, these unfortunate utterances should be taken as an opportunity for dialogue, not for even more aggressive attacks on the leader in question, creating a situation where a campus leader has to choose between stepping down or allowing a student to harm himself. Any responsible leader will opt first for student safety.

Third, campus leaders cannot, in the midst of a crisis, suddenly create a campus culture that respects and fosters open dialogue. That culture must already be in place. It forms a backdrop of trust that allows campuses to get through those moments when mistakes are made or misunderstandings occur.

Creating a campus culture today that encourages, respects, and supports open dialogue is not easy to do. The increasing size and complexity of college campuses, with their growing number of competing interests in the face of dwindling financial resources, fosters administrative secrecy and concealment; an excessive emphasis on political correctness has led to a culture that rejects diverse but perhaps unpopular views; and some students are now opposed to hearing views that counter their beliefs because these make them feel “unsafe.”

Still, presidents and chancellors can and do have the power to make changes that start the process toward a more-inclusive campus. By the nature of their positions, they are able to determine priorities and devote the necessary resources to them. And leaders set the tone and openness of dialogue on campus.

The experience of my former institution, Georgia Health Sciences University, which merged in 2013 with Augusta State University to become Georgia Regents University, highlights the possibilities and opportunities. The college is located in a part of the country that has traditionally suffered from significant racial segregation and draws most of its staff and many of its faculty from its surrounding community. And yet the college in recent years was able to make significant inroads in the inclusivity of its campus culture.

We did this by making diversity and inclusion a topic of discussion both on campus and in the surrounding community, through seminars, symposia, and dialogue. A strategic and tactical plan to improve campus culture was formulated, starting with extensive leadership education, and inclusiveness became an area for assessment in a university leader’s annual performance review.

For those members of the university family who were more skeptical, particularly around the allocation of the resources necessary to ensure transformation, we also made the business case for diversity. Rather than focusing on improving outcomes for specific groups, we made valuing diversity and inclusiveness part of the broader campus culture, weaving these concepts into the fabric of our organization, not just relegating them to policy manuals.

And we articulated clear and transparent metrics and goals, then regularly collected the data, and reviewed and shared it. Perhaps most important, we provided appropriate funding, staffing, authority, and structural organization to get the job done.

So can campus leaders, particularly presidents and chancellors, change the culture of inclusiveness on their campuses? Absolutely.

But they must genuinely believe there is both a problem and a solution, be willing to foster open dialogue on the issue well in advance of the crisis, be ready to make dealing with it a high priority, support the development of a thoughtful strategic plan, and commit the necessary funds and the appropriate level of authority to ensure that the strategies and tactics put in place are effectively executed.

It will also take often-painful campus and community dialogue, the civil cooperation of all stakeholders, the support of governing boards, and time. It isn’t easy or cheap. But it is the right thing to do — for our campuses, for our communities and, most of all, for our students.

Ricardo Azziz is a visiting scholar at the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California and a professor at Georgia Regents University. Previously he was president of Georgia Health Sciences University and then founding president of Georgia Regents University.


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