Chapter 4: Race in Higher Education

by Gregory Washington, Ph.D.

Posted on November 17, 2021

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We are in Washington, D.C., in the year 2028. It's the 20th anniversary of the election of Barack Obama. Equality in America has finally been realized some 409 years since enslaved individuals first reached America’s shores. African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are nominated and elected to public office at percentages similar to their respective populations.

At the nation’s most prestigious universities, students from these groups enroll and graduate at percentages similar to their respective populations, and upon graduation all earn salaries equivalent to their White American counterparts. There is no disparity in degree attainment among people of different ethnicities, and upon graduation all land jobs in alignment with their degree and performance. 

Homes in African American and Latino neighborhoods, when adjusted for various factors that impact housing prices such as crime, education, and structural characteristics, are now priced at levels equivalent to similar homes in White neighborhoods. 

Even incarceration rates for individuals committing the same crimes are equal amongst all races and ethnicities. Technological advances and training have all but eliminated police officer-involved shootings and, when these do occur, they occur at equal rates for people of all races and ethnicities. 

This is the America we all dream of, and I can only imagine that it's the America envisioned in Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. 

Now let’s talk about reality: 

Last year, The New York Times conducted an analysis of the 922 most influential and powerful people in the country. They lead our most powerful companies, “pass our laws, run Hollywood’s studios, and head the most prestigious universities. They own pro sports teams and determine who goes to jail and who goes to war.” More than 80% of these individuals are White, and the majority are male. 

African American and Latino students at our 100 most prestigious universities are more underrepresented today than they were 30 years ago when you consider their population growth.

African American and Latino students at our 100 most prestigious universities are more underrepresented today than they were 30 years ago when you consider their population growth.  

According to the Brookings Institution, when adjusted for various factors that impact housing prices such as crime, education, and structural characteristics, homes in Black neighborhoods were priced at 23% less nationally—about $48,000 per home—than those in White neighborhoods. This disparity amounts to a cumulative total of about $156 billion in lost assets, nearly double the cost of the opioid crisis.

The American Council on Education reports that “large differences in educational attainment exist at all levels by racial and ethnic groups.” Even when some ethnic groups achieve degrees, additional hurdles exist. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, on average, a White worker with a bachelor’s degree in engineering earns $90,000 a year. A Black worker must complete a graduate degree in engineering in order to earn, on average, $87,000. The same applies to Latino workers, who must complete a graduate degree in engineering in order to earn, on average, $92,000. 

The Center on Education and the Workforce further reports that achieving racial equity in some areas could take 76 years for all Black and Latino workers and up to 256 years for Black workers alone. 

On average, adjusted for the population size and demographics, in nearly every state, African Americans face a significantly higher risk of being killed by police officers than White Americans, with Black Americans being two-and-a-half times as likely as White Americans to be killed by the police

Clearly, we are nowhere close to the equity that King envisioned. This is where universities come in. Universities carry the responsibility to explain these concepts in a lucid manner because academic institutions represent one of the last bastions where there can be real discourse and debate on issues. However, issues of diversity in academia span moral, ethical, and economic boundaries, and this last refuge of discourse is under real threat from both the left and the right. 

My goal is to outline for higher education leadership some of the issues relative to race. To some, this discussion will be a primer. To others, it will be controversial. If it contributes to a national conversation in which I’m able to both educate and learn, I will be forever grateful. I, too, struggle with many of the issues highlighted in this chapter. 

I will address what I consider to be the most difficult topic related to racial equity in higher education and then conclude with some strategies that have worked in my career at North Carolina State University, Ohio State University, the University of California-Irvine, and what we anticipate will work at George Mason University. 

The Tyranny of Hiring the Best

We definitely should be committed to hiring the best faculty and staff. As a community, however, we need a more comprehensive framework for what constitutes “best.” 

All organizations need a North Star—a vision of what their best can be. George Mason University’s North Star is that our institution should reflect the rich diversity of our students, the broader Commonwealth of Virginia (whose tax dollars support it), and the nation. 

This is not code for establishing a quota system. It is a recognition of the reality that our society’s future lies in multicultural inclusion. By mid-century, when today’s undergraduates approach mid-career, they will take leadership of a society in which, for the first time in the American experience, there will be no ethnic majority. They will be required to lead and live differently than we do, so we must offer them a learning environment that looks like the world they will enter, not the one they will leave. As so many leaders remind us, it’s hard to be what you do not see.   

We must adopt a broader, shared understanding of what “best” means when recruiting faculty and staff. Professional experiences will always be vital in recruiting our workforce, but so must lived experiences. Each quality prepares us in different ways to educate students for the demands of the world to come. 

If you have two candidates who are both “above the bar” in terms of requirements for a position but one adds to your diversity and the other does not, then why couldn’t that candidate be better, even if there may be a small differential in credentials? Let me be clear: this assumes both candidates “exceed” the requirements for the position. 

Study after study have proved that the most diverse organizations, which recognize the importance of maintaining a diverse and inclusive environment, are the best-performing organizations. This is just as true in academia as it is in business, as studies by the Center for Talent Innovation, the Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey & Company have shown.  

For a topic that is often labeled complicated, the essence is quite simple: we either believe that diversity and inclusion can improve our performance, or we don’t. If we do, then we must take these two steps:  

  • Include inclusive excellence in the criteria we use for hiring. This does not mean just hiring anyone we can find from historically disenfranchised communities. A better mechanism is to set cultural norms and expectations by requiring inclusive excellence statements alongside teaching and research statements in your hiring process and then using rubrics to evaluate candidates based on all criteria. Can we truly claim that inclusive excellence is important while not factoring it into the criteria we use to recruit our workforce?  
  • Change our search processes to be more equitable. This begins with a recognition that intelligence and talent are universal, but that opportunity is not. Here we are confronted with another profound but simple choice of beliefs: either we believe that we are all created equally, or we don’t. 

When the playing field of life is tilted systematically for entire populations, achieving equity is about providing everyone with what they need for success, and that requires offering different things to different populations based on their individual lived experiences. Treating everyone exactly the same may stop the advance of inequities, but it also perpetuates them by freezing them in place rather than correcting them. 

Our search processes must actively seek the types of candidates we need, and those needs go well beyond our disciplinary foci. In essence, our mission of educating and preparing the future leaders of America’s economy and society demands that we recruit people with the full breadth of lived experiences as well as professional backgrounds that our students encounter. If we want to be truly diverse, then we must understand that our current processes will only achieve our current performance.

Policies and Procedures that Work 

Here are several techniques and best practices to achieve diversity and inclusion from my own experiences at N.C. State, Ohio State, and UC Irvine:   

  • Identify potential candidates in conferences and workshops. If you see a Ph.D. candidate giving a great talk, invite them for a seminar at your institution. 
  • All departmental seminar series, whether an active search exists or not, should include strategies for targeting women (if they are underrepresented in your unit) and candidates from other underrepresented (UR) groups in addition to those individuals who are normally targeted. There should be an active seminar roster with slots for individuals who are targets of opportunity even though they are not actively pursuing a job. There are several national lists and listservs of UR Ph.D. students or post-docs in almost every area. 
  • Be flexible with your search criteria, and don’t be afraid to broaden the search if it’s too narrow to obtain diverse candidates. Facing a limited candidate pool, the search committee members should ask themselves: do we really need a candidate with a narrow focus? Are there related areas that are in alignment to the specific search that could yield a broader cross-section of candidates? 
  • Place your ads in publications where diverse audiences are looking. There are a host of comprehensive lists online if you don’t have one.  

Finally, address the question of what is best for your campus and your state. This begins with an honest reckoning of your history. As difficult as it is to accept, the truth is that well into the mid-1900s a large portion of the country had laws and policies in place that systematically excluded people of color from obtaining college degrees. A half-century later, some of the ripple effects remain with us. 

In student recruitment, many institutions have made significant progress, establishing a national reputation for ethnic and cultural diversity. For faculty and staff, however, too many campuses remain at levels comparable or below the levels in the 1970s. 

The information highlighted at the top of this piece is disturbing, but there are areas of real progress. The outpouring of support expressed in the aftermath of the Floyd, Taylor, and Arbery murders, by not just ordinary Americans but by most corporations, universities, and the government, has placed the country on a path toward “systemic equity.” Even the U.S. Senate, an entity that is as politically divided as it has been in modern times, unanimously passed a resolution establishing June 19th as Juneteenth National Independence Day. 

So there are encouraging signs. But the challenges are real, and the issues extraordinarily complex. College presidents must model equity by how we run our institutions. Faculty must dissect these grand challenges. And it is up to all of us to educate, inspire, and equip the students on our campuses and our respective communities to find complex solutions to achieve a new reality.