Welcome to Race on Campus. If you’ve been reading this newsletter over the past month, you know that our reporters — Sarah Brown, Katie Mangan, and me — have been following up with a few colleges that made racial-justice promises after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. This week, Sarah offers a window into that reporting process and what it says about the state of the racial-equity movement.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Skepticism and Hope

We know from experience that colleges have made racial-justice promises before, and they’ve often fallen by the wayside. Diversity task forces have released reports that went up on a shelf, and initial investments in faculty diversity have become the victims of budget cuts.

When I spoke with college leaders and faculty members of color last year about the new wave of commitments to antiracism that followed Floyd’s murder, I heard both skepticism and hope — hope that this time would be different.

So was it? Yes and no.

Most of the colleges we examined have sustained some of the momentum of summer 2020. Racial-equity training is more widespread. Some building names that honored people with racist views have been changed. Working groups have been formed to advance long-term priorities, like hiring more professors of color and diversifying the curriculum.

A few people I spoke with said that some white allies — though not enough of them — remained committed to learning about and dismantling systemic racism. That’s a crucial part of changing the culture at predominantly white institutions.

But when we followed up with college leaders who publicly promised to champion antiracism last year, some of them refused to talk to us.

A Mixed Bag

Fernanda hadn’t actually planned to report on Duke University for the newsletter issue she wrote last month. She’d originally wanted to focus on the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, to see how racial-equity conversations were playing out in a red state mired in debates over teaching about race.

Donde Plowman, Tennessee’s chancellor, pledged in July 2020 to increase faculty diversity, recruit and retain more students of color, and build better relationships with the surrounding community, particularly with law enforcement. The university posted a list of diversity initiatives and indicated that some of them began or took place in 2020 and 2021.

But when Fernanda reached out to people across the campus to see how those efforts were going, almost nobody responded to her. Only the communications office got back to her — on the day her newsletter was due, offering no substantive answers to her questions.

Meanwhile, I checked in with Bates College, in Maine. Clayton Spencer, the president, had made detailed antiracism promises in June 2020 and promised to post updates twice a year, but none had been published since last fall. I also learned that Noelle Chaddock, the college’s vice president for equity and inclusion, had quit over the summer.

The same day I reached out to the communications office and asked to talk with Spencer, The Bates Student, the campus newspaper, published a story about faculty and staff departures, and noted that three staff members hired in summer 2020 to lead racial-equity work had quit in addition to Chaddock.

Several days later, a spokesman for Bates told me in an email that the college was “in a moment of transition” because Chaddock had left, and said he’d be happy to connect me with the new hire “when the time is right.” He also said the college would post an update on its racial-justice efforts soon.

But I kept reporting and let the communications office know that I was moving forward with a story. On Thursday, September 23, Spencer posted a progress report on the college’s antiracism efforts, a week after I first reached out to Bates and 10 months after the college’s last update.

In Katie’s case, the University of Louisville’s president was eager to talk about the progress she believed the university had made on reshaping its relationship with policing. But the student activist who called for those changes — Maliya Homer, who led the Black Student Union — was not.

Last year, the university community was reeling from the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville police officers. And Neeli Bendapudi, the president, couldn’t promise the one thing Homer wanted most: to cut ties with Louisville’s police department. Bendapudi said that wouldn’t be realistic; Homer said the decision was a “slap in the face.”

When Katie followed up with the Black Student Union last month, she didn’t get a response — from Homer or anyone else in the campus group.

“As soon as the university came back and said, I’m sorry, we can’t do what you’re asking us to do, she just didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” Katie said.

What This Means

Tabbye Chavous, director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, attributed some of the stunted racial-justice progress to the “parallel pandemics.” Covid-19 has forced some staff who would have been working on DEI efforts to switch gears, and long-term planning has taken a backseat, Chavous said. So she’s trying to have some grace.

But some of our reporting experiences demonstrate a common pitfall, Chavous said: college leaders’ making promises without a full understanding of how to advance them. “Awareness and good intentions and affective commitments are not enough,” she said. And too often, she said, college leaders are reactive — waiting for external pressures to hit before moving forward on diversity initiatives — instead of proactive.

Chavous separated institutional actions into three categories: relief, recovery, and reconfiguration. For a college to succeed on its DEI goals, steps must be taken to immediately relieve the burdens that people are experiencing, she said, like emergency financial aid for students disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Another example would be compensation for faculty and staff members who’ve shouldered extra responsibilities in recent months, such as designing new antiracism workshops.

Relief and recovery actions lay the groundwork for reconfiguration, she said — in other words, long-term strategic priorities like making the curriculum more inclusive and diversifying the faculty.

When colleges hire new diversity staff members, like Bates College did, Chavous said, campus leaders also need to make sure that they’re clear with new hires about the vision for the position, so there’s no disconnect between expectations and reality.

Our Takeaways

Our series has left Race on Campus reporters with a lot to think about. “No matter how hard a university tries to improve something, there will always be a group advocating for more change,” Fernanda said. Ultimately, that’s what is supposed to happen on college campuses, she said, describing them as “places where there is eternal discussion.”

College leaders often end up in difficult positions where there’s a lot of pressure to respond to students’ demands, Katie said. Louisville officials wanted to avoid making promises they wouldn’t be able to keep. At the same time, that left student activists like Homer dissatisfied because they didn’t feel that the university went far enough.

In my reporting at Bates, I found that there were passionate faculty members and students who were moving some efforts forward, like a required course on race. But without stable diversity leadership, it’ll be hard to sustain the kind of structural change that experts say a true commitment to antiracism requires.

Read Up

  • Do you know about the Bear River Massacre of 1863? Historians sayit’s the worst massacre of Native Americans in U.S. history. (The Washington Post)
  • Police killings have been undercounted by more than half in the last four decades, according toa new study. (The New York Times, The Lancet)
  • In Durham, N.C., a group is trying to reconstruct an African American burial ground. This effort shows just how complex questions of representation can be. (The New Yorker)

—Fernanda