Reconciling with the Past: Addressing Institutional Connections with Slavery
In a series of blog posts, I have discussed the origins and developments of postsecondary efforts to address institutional connections with slavery. This final blog post will discuss how institutions can push beyond their historical entanglements with slavery to address the current legacies of institutional racism. While a growing number of institutions have sponsored historical inquiries examining their own institutional involvement with slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, and many have issued statements decrying systemic racism following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, few have drawn a direct link between current challenges and their own historical ties with slavery and white supremacist ideologies.
To reconcile past and present, institutions should move beyond short-term and symbolic efforts to deeper commitments to strategic initiatives and tangible efforts to redress past injuries.
Improving the student experience through an anti-racist lens
To be clear, it is critically important for institutions to commit real resources to further studying their own entanglements and histories with slavery and institutional racism. The fact that more than 14 institutions have joined the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium since Summer 2020 suggests continued progress on that front.
In the aftermath of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders, many institutional leaders also announced new committees and initiatives to discuss immediate action steps responding to national conversations regarding systemic racism. These first steps were important in creating space for these conversations. However, what emerges from these initial dialogues, and how it translates into longer-term strategic and comprehensive plans, will prove most critical.
An early step must be connecting the past with the present: explicitly specifying how the enduring legacies of slavery and systemic racism persist and create differential experiences for minoritized groups. The following questions (derived from Meacie Fairfax) are a starting point:
- Are students of color engaging in the same co-curricular activities of their white counterparts?
- Does the institution regularly assess campus climate and sense of belonging, particular for Black, Indigenous, and students of color?
- Does the institution regularly assess access and affordability for students of color? Does it re-commit to this goal as a priority?
- Do students of color receive necessary support in academic advising, mental health counseling, and other university services? Does this include access to food and housing security?
- How is the institution assessing the relationship between students of color and law enforcement and the broader community?
Faculty, Staff, and Leadership
Beyond considering how to utilize anti-racist frameworks to mitigate biases that Black, Indigenous, and students of color experience, it is also essential that calls for dismantling white supremacy coincide with diversifying leadership and sharing power across racial and ethnic lines. As noted in “Anti-Racism in Higher Education: A Model for Change,” although past efforts to increase support resources for students of color and increasing racial and ethnic awareness is important, sharing power alongside racial lines with faculty and senior leadership of color is critical: “As this leadership shift occurs, policies will shift along with the power, and campus communities will begin to reflect not only racial diversity but also the kind of racial justice that has been long waiting on college campuses for centuries.” Some questions to consider on how institutions can address systemic racism as it relates to faculty, staff, and senior leadership include:
- Are discussions of race and ethnicity incorporated into programs of study? In particular, are there discussions on the legacies of slavery and racism within these programs of studies?
- Is training provided to migrate faculty biases in instruction or mentorship? Are there ongoing evaluations of faculty biases in student reviews and grades?
- Does the institution regularly assess equity in faculty and staff hiring, pay, promotion, and opportunities like research or fellowships?
- Does the institution regularly assess equity in leadership representation?
Therefore, it is important that Black, Indigenous, and people of color have equitable opportunities for advancement and in hiring in order to further goals of improving racial and ethnic equity. Recently, the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) noted that traditional evaluation criteria has valued the work done by white faculty (with a particular focus on scholarly productivity) over the work of faculty of color who are more often asked to teach, mentor, and perform other departmental service work. Therefore, as noted by COACHE, if leaders are “intent on institutional transformation, they will work with faculty to reward in tenure and promotion all of the contributions that faculty from diverse backgrounds make to the university.”
Justice for past wrongs through reparations
In addition to working purposefully to dismantle systemic racism in the way the institution operates today, institutions with historical ties to slavery and white supremacy ought to tangibly seek to repair the damage of their past wrongs. It is also important that, in considering redress for historical wrongs, institutional leaders consider the intertwined nature of slavery, Black codes and Jim Crow laws, and current disparities in racial and ethnic representation in higher education.
While there are many institutions of higher education that benefited from slavery and its legacies, very few have committed to financial reparations. Examples of those that have include Georgetown University, which announced that it would raise about $400,000 per year and that descendants of enslaved people owned by the Maryland Province of Jesuits would receive preferential admission consideration. The Virginia Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary took a broader approach by announcing reparation funds that would support African American clergy, programs promoting inclusion, and assistance to any descendants of slaves tied to the institutions. The Princeton Theological Seminary also announced that the endowment set aside will be used to fund a set of initiatives including scholarships, curricular reforms, and community outreach. More institutions should follow these examples.
The national conversations on systemic racism following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd has opened a space to discuss how slavery has shaped American society and institutions beyond the 19th century. As these conversations continue to be pushed forward, institutions should take a more holistic view on how slavery and systemic racism has shaped the present and how institutions will need to continuously evolve in order to become anti-racist institutions.