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Address the Problem, Not the Symptoms

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division
January 9, 2020 Ajay Nair Arcadia University

Neutralizing damage control isn't enough to prevent attacks on marginalized students; higher education institutions must address systemic injustices by incorporating justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion into their strategic development processes. 

Indiana University (IU) is facing an all too familiar crisis in higher education: how to address bias incidents and other injustices on our campuses. I was heartened to see IU display courageous leadership in taking an unusual and aggressive stance against hate—the sort of leadership that often is absent in higher education. However, attempting to neutralize the damage of a highly problematic individual will not suffice; the challenges associated with creating transformational change to support our diverse stakeholders should become part of higher education’s raison d'être.  

The inability, or unwillingness, to address our structural deficiencies manifests in extreme ways through a myriad of thorny campus issues. Our response to these issues tends to distract us from the transformational change that is required to both build the modern university and help all students realize their full potential. While much has been written about the lack of resilience among our current study population—and students must learn to navigate and negotiate challenging circumstances—it is inappropriate for institutions to tolerate or support structural barriers to student success.  

In the IU situation, free speech serves as a distraction from the structural impediments that inhibit student success. Undoubtedly, open expression must continue to be the bedrock of U.S. higher education. However, open expression is often viewed in conflict with cultivating a welcoming environment for all. Although this tension is longstanding, it has surfaced in profound ways in recent years. While the principle of free speech affords us all the opportunity for unfettered intellectual discovery, it also places the burden of hate speech squarely on the backs of the most vulnerable community members, not necessarily those with power and privilege. Even if remedies are offered to neutralize the bias of a particular faculty member, how will we neutralize the far more nefarious systemic challenges that plague our institutions?    

Hate speech can become a red herring for larger systemic issues that often go unaddressed in our campus communities. Many higher education institutions have or are revisiting their free speech and discriminatory harassment policies. While this work is critical, it will never fully alleviate the unfair burden free speech places upon marginalized community members. 

Institutional commitments are being called into question by diverse stakeholders. Syracuse University is facing a crisis as a result of racist incidents. Four years ago, the University of Missouri received national attention for student protests related to racist incidents on campus. Similar spotlights have been trained on other universities, leading stakeholders to comment on exclusionary traditions and systems.  

Peter Eckel, a senior fellow and director of leadership programs in the Alliance for Higher Education for Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, argues that for transformational change to occur, institutions must alter their culture by challenging underlying assumptions, behaviors, processes, and products. Arcadia’s grand experiment to reimagine our University with justice, equity, diversity and inclusion at the core of its strategic efforts has led to four simultaneous and interrelated movements to effect transformational change. 

First, an institution must define its mission, vision, and values through a community-wide effort. Too many institutions develop these ideas in a vacuum. Working collaboratively on this important work helps articulate a shared agenda among diverse stakeholders. Without this process, even small institutions are susceptible to unhealthy subcultures that operate on the margins, which can have a devastating impact on stakeholders. While an institution’s mission will rarely change significantly, the process is an opportunity to speak to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion within a university’s vision and values.  

Second, accountability is paramount; words without action are meaningless. At Arcadia, we have developed a President’s Commission on Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI). Commission members are a part of our strategy development process to ensure that our goals are viewed through the lenses of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. The accountability measures we develop through this process, which will help transform the way Arcadia operates, include key performance indicators and leaders who are responsible for shepherding strategic goals.  

Third, this work is nearly impossible without leadership that is committed to transforming culture and systems to create an environment where every community member can flourish. For this to happen, higher education must close its leadership diversity gap and establish diverse teams, which will help students eliminate barriers in their social and economic mobility, providing more students of color with top-level professional mentors, promoting diversity of thought and points-of-view throughout the university, and creating a campus where all students and community members feel fully supported. 

Finally, strategies must be adaptive and align with our rapidly changing world. We must continuously evaluate our structures to ensure that they meet the needs of our stakeholders. To do this, we must build an antifragile organization that grows from disruption rather than maintains the status quo through disruption. As our institutions confront challenges similar to IU, how do we demonstrate agility by solving problems as a community without putting the responsibility solely on the backs of marginalized students? How do we practice community? How do we enact shared values? How will our engagement as a community inform structural changes? These questions must form the foundation of our work as a higher education community.  

Systemic change is difficult for institutions to achieve because it requires a paradigm shift that may cause significant disruption. Higher education’s tolerance for disruption is very low; this is one of the primary reasons we face unprecedented challenges today. Many institutions are engaged in structural change efforts, but they are often fleeting attempts, as crises tend to distract us from implementing strategy. Instead, we are pushed to treat the symptoms, and not the cause, of systemic injustice, largely in an effort to placate stakeholders and protect our brand. As a result, our attention is placed on programming, cultural spaces, and other inclusion initiatives. These are all noble efforts, but when the same issues confront us again and again, we are reminded that we are simply placing band-aids on profound problems.

Dr. Ajay Nair, a nationally recognized expert in student affairs issues and an accomplished social justice, race, and ethnicity scholar, was inaugurated as Arcadia University's 22nd president on October 13, 2018. Dr. Nair is the first person of color to be appointed president at Arcadia, and is among the first college or university presidents of Indian-American descent in the United States. Read more.