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Leading the Conversation


If it’s hard for campus communities — and many other communities — to discuss race, maybe that’s because faculty and administrators never learned how to lead those conversations, even as they prepared for careers that would make such discussions essential.

Shaun Harper, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied higher education graduate programs around the country — the programs that train students to manage admissions, student life, strategic planning, and even diversity initiatives at colleges. His research — detailed in a forthcoming book called Race Matters in College (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) — finds that higher ed graduate programs aren’t promoting the tangible skills necessary to resolve racial tensions and create equitable campuses.

College graduates everywhere enter adulthood unable to hold nuanced, considerate discussions about race — and higher education master’s and doctoral programs often perpetuate the problem, finds Harper. The graduate students Harper interviewed reported that they often talked about race only with certain faculty members or in certain courses on diversity. Those few conversations, furthermore, were most often centered on describing the problems of racial inequities on campuses, rather than on how to solve them.

College graduates everywhere enter adulthood unable to hold nuanced, considerate discussions about race — and higher education master’s and doctoral programs often perpetuate the problem.

The result, says Harper, are “miseducated inequity sustainers,” who go on to assume leadership roles without ever acquiring the ability to help students understand race in America.

In a recent talk at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Harper, a professor of education at Penn, outlined a range of actions that higher education graduate programs and their leaders can take to train a new generation of professionals to lead conversations about race. Among those strategies:

  • Discover and communicate your own racial biases. Unrealized preconceptions can undermine authentic discussions about race. Harvard’s Project Implicit offers free online tests that can reveal the user’s racial biases. Once these are identified, users can collaborate with colleagues to work past them.
  • Normalize “race talk.” Make it clear to students that this is a campus where racial discussions are encourage. Too many students, Harper has found, have said that their college was one where professors, staff, and students “just didn’t talk about race.” Integrate these conversations across the curriculum, so that students see how to form solutions from any faction of higher education.
  • Purposefully assign racially diverse scholars who write about race. Ensure that students read articles and books not just on a wide range of subjects, but from a diverse group of writers.
  • Engage “live cases” in the classroom. If protests are erupting at another university, discuss those actions in your classroom. Talk about what those students hope to gain, what challenges their administration faces, and brainstorm possible solutions. If you can, connect with colleagues at that school and, as a class, relay your suggestions.
  • Commission peer review of syllabi. In the same way that faculty peer review each other’s papers to check for accuracy and loopholes, they could also review each other’s course syllabi, suggests Harper. A second pair of eyes can help ensure that professors are covering topics of race in a comprehensive and nuanced way.
  • Facilitate focus groups with alumni. Former students may be your best source to discover how your program best succeeds in preparing students and how it can improve.
  • Work through simulations in groups. In staff trainings, discuss possible racial conflicts that could arise on campus. In groups, act out how you would respond.
  • Develop and support the adjunct faculty. Remember to include adjunct faculty in any schoolwide initiative, and invite them to share any prior experiences and skills they have.

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