Finding Inclusive Excellence at Exclusive Research Institutions

In the first few months of this academic year, there have been a number of burglaries and armed robberies near campus, affecting numerous students, and leading to an increased level of alertness (both in timely warnings and crime alerts issued and in student attention to safety). Almost without fail, the alleged suspect is identified as a black or Latino man, usually with a description so vague that it could apply to any college age male. Could it be that men of color, who typically do not live near this college campus, unless they’re students, due to a history of de facto (and de jure) racial segregation in housing in Madison, Wisconsin, are coming downtown to target college students? Sure, this is entirely plausible.

I’m not in a position to debate the veracity of the reports of burglary or robbery victims. However, there is the unintentional impact that this increase in crime has on men of color on this campus. When Latino or black men are singled out as potential perpetrators of violent (property) crimes, the inherent supposition when seeing a young adult male of color on campus is not that he is a student. The heightened alertness to risk of crime is to regard those individuals as a threat to safety or property.

This has obviously been covered extensively in the actual media (and other blogs) in relation to the stop-and-frisk policies of the NYPD. Racial profiling is an abhorrent crime prevention tactic, not exclusively because of the perpetuation of stereotypes and dehumanization of the victims of stop-and-frisk (or because it is statistically ineffective). On a college campus, the perception of black and Latino men as criminals also serves to reinforce another misperception: that these men do not belong on campus.

Recently, I sat in on our campus-wide Diversity Plan listening sessions, where we discussed the current proposed plan developed by the committee and provided feedback on what it means to have an inclusive campus. Nevermind the fact that the last plan expired in 2008 or that the focus on diversity sometimes gives ammunition to opponents of building an inclusive campus. Instead, I was struck by one particular interaction with a faculty emeritus who is actively and adamantly opposed to the current admissions process at the UW.

While seated in a small group dialogue about what it means to feel included on campus, he branched off in to a critique of the admissions standards and how that affects people from “targeted1 racial minorities.” He articulated information similar to the above opinion piece from Madison’s Cap Times, which may be compelling facts. His economic (or whatever) analysis does not hold water when thinking about the context and environments of the education system. The experiences of students of color, both prior to coming to college and after enrolling, matter, and faculty have a tremendous role in how those experiences can negatively (or positively) impact student academic performance.

What came to light in that dialogue, thanks to the generous sharing of a graduate student and a reframing of the issue, is that faculty members may hold certain stereotypes of students of color, including but not limited to:

  • They need a mentor, and therefore the faculty member should take the time to get to know the student.
  • They did not earn their way in to the institution under the “competitive” admissions process.
  • They may only be there as student-athletes, and the “student” part of that label is sometimes completely ignored by peers or instructors.
  • A faculty member’s teaching style, which has worked for White students for years, should also work for students of color. If they can’t compete in the classroom, then they don’t deserve to be there.

Taking these in turn, we can see that many can impact the academic performance of even the most academically talented students of color.

First, research shows that faculty mentors can be important to the success of students.2 However, if the faculty member has a negative perception about the student’s cultural capital or abilities, then this deficit-thinking will not lead to a quality relationship, which is more valuable to black students than the race of the faculty mentor, for example. Additionally, some students don’t have time for small talk–whether its introversion or other deadlines looming. Perhaps when they stop in for office hours, they just want their questions answered, not to share their life story with a well-intentioned instructor.

Second, assuming black or Latino men did not earn their way in to the university perpetuates “stereotype threat.” Faculty and instructors have no way of knowing if a student of color was the top of their class from the very best private institution, or “merely” top 10% from their urban public high school. To assume that they are not academically prepared, and then treat them accordingly, only serves to reinforce social messages students receive about how their race/ethnicity is perceived in academic environments, and can contribute to underperforming. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy about students of color when their grades come in.

Third, while student-athletes may be granted latitude in admissions, there are still expectations (per NCAA eligibility guidelines) that they perform in the classroom in order to be able to compete. Even if a student, no matter their race, were also an athlete, they and the instructor each have an obligation to ensure that they are performing at their very best. Making assumptions about their admission qualifications does nothing to assist this student in their academic (and subsequent) athletic success. Understanding that Division I intercollegiate athletics is both an access point for college for some students as well as nearly a full time job outside of classes, instructors should work hard to encourage their students’ academic success, time management, and balancing of competing priorities.

Finally, I find it particularly detestable, after secondary education preparation and my chosen career as an educator, that instructors would assume that their teaching style and methods would and should work for all students, just because it has worked for decades or worked when they were in college. We have learned so much about teaching & learning–to say nothing of racial and other identity development–over the last half century and for instructors to rely solely on methods that were pioneered in an era when only upperclass White men were enrolled in colleges (and that continued after the GI bill redefined diversity to only include White men from broader social classes) is wrought with White privilege, and both irresponsible and unfortunately damaging. It’s easy to teach the way one always has and chalk up poor grades by anyone to some fault in the student. It’s much harder to acknowledge that some students need different methodologies, different learning assessments, and/or different assistance outside of class, especially when the pressures and challenges for all students have changed so much over time, and to then make the time to engage in those new practices. Even faculty of color can fall in this trap, if that manner of education happened to work for them.

Many faculty like to believe that they are good instructors–and that’s probably true for many of their students. But that does not mean that their implicit biases or negative assumptions about students of color, especially in a community like Madison that has such racial disparities, don’t impact their teaching effectiveness. White students may pick up on these biases and it may reinforce their own negative assumptions about their peers’ academic abilities. It can reinforce stereotype threat. It can decrease student engagement and contribute to the lower graduation rates cited by Hansen. It can reinforce other negative stereotypes generalized to the broader group represented by the woefully few men of color on campus.

Connecting back to the initial point, the reality on this campus (and likely others experiencing similar circumstances) is that black and Latino men are at risk for being perceived as neither qualified for nor welcome on campus, and possibly even be viewed as criminals.

Of course, this is not just a problem for UW students. If affects community members and employees. It extends to other institutions as well. A recent example from UCLA highlights similar trends in elite public higher education. But if Inclusive Excellence is the overriding goal (Inclusion is excellent, excellence is inclusive), then is it fair to say that our institutions fail to measure up to the term elite, since we are reinforcing exclusion, and therefore not excellent? Perhaps this has always been what we’re best at: reinforcing a perceived meritocracy that is primarily about exclusion through competition for grades, degree program admission, and jobs after graduation. 

But hope is not lost! It is imperative that efforts to foster a more inclusive campus focus on helping faculty interrogate their instructional methods to make them more inclusive. Inclusive classrooms lead to greater creativity in problem solving and greater attainment of learning outcomes, to name two examples. But beyond the practical academic benefit, faculty and other instructors can better understand their own implicit biases and use pedagogical practices that have been shown to increase student learning and disrupt social systems of privilege. Research institutions should pioneer applied educational research to foster innovative and effective methods to increase the college enrollment and subsequent success of black and Latino students, with the added benefit of reducing the risk of committing crime.3 Madison and Dane County should be the laboratory in which we work, and if that’s not the Wisconsin Idea, then it’s really just a marketing scheme.

1.Targeted is an unfortunate term to describe their recruitment, since the targeting based on race/ethincity doesn’t stop once they matriculate. Instead many become the targets of microaggressions and even intentional acts of bias or hate crimes.

2.Sources: Lee, W. Y. (1999). Striving toward effective retention: The effect of race on mentoring African American students. Peabody Journal of Education, 74(2), pp. 27-43. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1493074. and Hernandez, J. C., & Lopez, M. A. (2005). Leaking pipeline: Issues impacting Latino/a college student retention. Journal of College Student Retention, 6(1), 37-60. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/196729924?accountid=465

3.A word on the crime disparities: Obviously context matters. Crime and criminality are not the result of some deviant genetic trait among people of color. Systems of socioeconomic (and behavioral) oppression lead to certain crimes in certain situations, as well as the criminalization of certain behaviors deemed deviant or dangerous. These categories are subjective, determined by people with power, and over time they have had a disasterous effect. Students who are more engaged in school, both K-12 and post-secondary, and feel that they are on a path to legal economic success, have less–no?–incentive to commit property crimes.