Colleges Respond to Racist Incidents as if Their Chief Worry Is Bad PR, Studies Find

April 21, 2015

College administrations react to hate crimes, hate speech, and other high-profile incidents of bias by focusing mainly on repairing their institution’s reputation, two new studies conclude.

The administrations’ responses generally paper over underlying prejudices in the campus culture, leaving the victims at risk of further harm in the future, argue the researchers, who presented the studies’ findings on Monday in Chicago, at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.

"College presidents are willing to address the racist but rarely the racism," says a paper summarizing one of the studies, based on a rhetorical analysis of presidents’ statements in response to bias incidents.

The second study, based on interviews with members of colleges’ bias-response teams, found that most of the teams spend relatively little time on their primary stated functions — trying to educate the campus community about bias — and instead devote their efforts mainly to punishing and condemning the perpetrators of specific acts.

The teams’ emphasis on publicly responding to individual incidents serves to divert attention from broader problems of bias in the campus culture, stifling systemic change, a paper on the study’s findings says. (Neither paper is yet available online.)

The second paper says bias-team leaders, many of whom are midlevel administrators, appear to see themselves as accountable to "senior-level administrators concerned with institutional reputation" and to students and others who report bias and, often, "desire to see punishment enacted." Their dealings with targets of bias appear more focused on helping those people navigate the campus culture than bringing about cultural change, the paper says.

What’s Unsaid

The study of presidents examined public statements by 30 colleges’ chief executives in response to racial incidents over the past three academic years. It focused on speeches, or letters addressed to campus constituencies and made broadly available online, that were drafted in response to incidents that drew the attention of people beyond the campuses themselves.

The researchers’ analysis of the college leaders’ statements considered three key elements: the statements’ intended audience, how they discussed the racial incidents to which the presidents were responding, and how they discussed any constraints they were up against, such as racism in the campus culture.

In terms of their intended audience, most of the presidents’ statements spoke to the broader campus community. Several also delivered messages to the offending student or students, usually telling them they did not belong there.

The researchers cite, for example, the response by David L. Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma, to a March incident in which members of a fraternity on the campus were videotaped singing a racist anthem. He tweeted: "You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves ‘Sooner.’ Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots."

Few presidents’ statements publicly discussed the targeted person or group of people, says the paper by the scholars who conducted the study, Eddie R. Cole, an assistant professor of education at the College of William & Mary, and Shaun R. Harper, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and executive director of its Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.

Of the 30 statements the two researchers analyzed, only 16 directly mentioned the racial incidents to which the presidents were responding, and just eight discussed the incidents in any detail, the paper says.

"We find it problematic that several of the initial responses from the presidents do not acknowledge that racism is a problem," the researchers wrote. "Instead, the presidents place attention on ‘individuals,’ ‘those students,’ or ‘those few of us’ who are outliers to the inclusive values of the campus. This approach suggests that academic leaders may be more interested in the public-relations battle than the fight against racism."

Only five of the 30 presidents’ statements made any reference to constraints at all. Among the minority who discussed the obstacles they faced, Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst acknowledged in a 2014 response to racist messages on students’ dormitory doors that "there is no easy fix" for eliminating bias and bigotry. William D. Underwood, president of Georgia’s Mercer University, discussed the challenge of moving beyond centuries of racism in his 2012 response to a flier calling for a celebration of "White History Month."

Constraints such as a racist culture on a campus or throughout the society "have the power to make a president’s statement ineffective," the paper says.

Prejudice and Punishment

The study of bias-response teams involved extensive interviews with the leaders of such teams at 17 colleges.

Such team leaders tend to hold midlevel administrative positions, with their bias-team responsibilities added to their primary duties, the researchers’ paper on their findings says. "Simply put," it says, "team leaders often lacked the time, resources, and support to go beyond responding to incidents on a case-by-case basis."

Although most bias-team leaders saw their team’s missions as primarily educational, they often described their team’s work as serving a public-relations function, "to reassure campus communities that administrators were addressing bias." Many said their colleges felt compelled to create the teams to respond to "a perceived demand that the institution become visible in condemning bias incidents."

Although the teams were limited in their power to punish those accused of acts of bias — especially if no laws or college rules had been broken — many team leaders nonetheless discussed their activities using terms associated with criminal-justice work. They spoke of the "victim," the "perpetrator," and the "offender," and talked about holding individuals accountable for specific actions. The process by which they dealt with complaints often mimicked the procedures of campus police or judicial bodies, even in the absence of violations of the law or campus policies.

Three of the five researchers behind the bias-team study are at the University of Texas at Austin: Ryan A. Miller, director of campus climate and student engagement; Tonia Guida, a graduate student in higher-education administration; and Stella Smith, coordinator of the Longhorn Link student-support program. The other two authors are Elizabeth Medina, dean of students at Concordia University in Texas, and S. Kiersten Ferguson, a clinical assistant professor and program director for higher education at Southern Methodist University’s education school.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at