Leaving Legacies: Transforming College Campus Histories of Exclusion into Futures of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Advancing Vital Campus Conditions through Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts are central to how colleges and universities across the country are grappling with histories of discrimination and injustice. DEI efforts include affirmative action and the advancement of opportunity and representation of underrepresented groups, but also integration of diverse intellectual and educational perspectives and voices. These efforts are often spread throughout a vast bureaucracy of directors, students, and staff. Conversations about DEI typically center around race, but identities regarding gender, age, ability, student-status (first-generation, etc.), sexual orientation, and religion are also essential.

DEI is critical not only for advancing racial justice, but also for advancing diversity of thought in institutions of higher learning. Students who are presented with opportunities to explore culturally diverse views and who interact with people from different backgrounds become better critical thinkers, problem solvers, and more accepting members of society. The demographic makeup of the country is changing, and institutions need to reflect and support this diversity. Integrated classrooms reduce student interpersonal bias, translate to better long-term economic outcomes for students, and prepare students to work in a diverse global economy. 

A campus culture that makes space for diverse voices and advances a framework for action will allow students to thrive across all vital campus conditions. As institutions recover from the financial pressures of the pandemic, many may be tempted to recruit students who can pay full tuition—who are predominantly white, upper-middle class. It is critical that higher education contributes to prioritizing equity through admissions and financial aid for minority and low-income students. A campus culture that mirrors the diversity of society and values the contributions of all students and staff offers more opportunities for mentorship, critical thinking, and mutual understanding. Students on diverse campuses are less likely to experience harassment, discrimination, and microagressions, and colleges with strong DEI infrastructure are better equipped to address incidents when they arise.

The pandemic exposed and exacerbated structural barriers to equity facing communities of color, of which higher education is a microcosm. The ‘triple threat’ of 2020—the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism in the United States, and economic inequity—demands placement of DEI at the heart of institutional practices and policies. Addressing DEI issues and applying an equity-minded framework more routinely can prepare universities to respond to campus needs in future crises, while expanding educational and career opportunities today. 

Additionally, DEI efforts can create positive social environments for students, which support students’ ability to  thrive. Inclusive, welcoming environments benefit physical vitality, mental and emotional thriving, belonging, inclusion, and transformative learning. Conversely, students who face discrimination on campus experience higher rates of depression, stress, hypertension, and increase risk of suicide and substance abuse; thus, DEI is inextricable from physical and mental well-being.  By cultivating a culture of caring and belonging, institutions can promote greater student satisfaction, motivation, and self-confidence.

Why Representation Matters: Diversifying Higher Education from the Inside Out

Colleges effectively focus on diversity in a variety of ways, often starting with allocation of human and financial resources. Average national funding dedicated to DEI budgets increased by 33.7 percent from 2014 to 2019, making it a new priority in higher education. Most universities have specific units that provide services and programming for students of particular gender and ethnic identities; examples include multicultural, LGBTQ, and religious affairs centers. If well-meaning DEI efforts are to be more than statements and action plans, DEI must be prioritized, centralized, and implemented with the same intensity as other academic offices. DEI can help higher education address the need for sustained support to uproot and disarm a system of oppression that has operated within education for centuries.

Academia is predominantly taught from a white, male, heterosexual and Protestant lens that no longer meets the expectations students have of their educational experiences. Implicit bias in recruitment of faculty has led higher education to be predominantly White, which leaves students of color without mentors or representation. In order to implement real DEI, universities must re-evaluate what they teach and how they teach it. This includes decolonizing curriculum while highlighting authors and figures of color, incorporating cross-cultural conversations into instruction, and considering students’ diverse learning needs and multiple ways of knowing. Students are more engaged when they see themselves and their experiences reflected in their courses.  Simply acknowledging legacies of inequity by releasing memos or removing statues is not enough—confronting ingrained, historical inequities in higher education demands reimagining, reconstructing, and critically reflecting on the role higher education plays in perpetuating systemic inequities. Only then can DEI efforts bring substantive benefits to students, rather than only satisfying public demand for greater accountability. 

Acknowledging Legacies of Discrimination

Minority students face countless challenges, both in the admissions process and when they arrive on campus. As Dr. Lavonna Lewis, Associate Dean of DEI at USC, articulates, “White students are admitted for their potential, while students of color are evaluated based on their existing achievements.” The Varsity Blues scandal in 2019 revealed that wealthy families lied about identity to get their children into highly-selective institutions, sometimes along racial and ethnic lines. The admissions scandal highlighted how racial and economic inequality and discrimination put less wealthy students at a disadvantage when it comes to getting into college. Preference is often given to athletes, legacies, children of donors, and children of faculty, which disproportionately benefits white applicants. 

Generational wealth—usually among white families—makes it easier for families to relocate to better school districts, pay for standardized test preparation, and pay for college. The cost of college attendance has far outpaced the growth of household incomes; the average outstanding student loan balance is $34,144, a 62 percent increase over the last 10 years, for a national balance of over $1.4 trillion dollars. This burden has fallen disproportionately on students and families of color and first-generation students, exacerbating other social inequities in income, employment, and access to health care. Student debt continues to hold borrowers back from building intergenerational wealth and poses a racial and economic crisis.

Looking further upstream in a student’s educational journey, students of color are less likely to be referred to “gifted and talented programs” and more likely to be suspended or expelled, and this is after controlling for test scores, health, socioeconomic status and school characteristics. As a result of systemic barriers faced by students of color in the U.S., they are more likely to fare worse on traditional metrics for admissions. In some states, prohibitions and restrictions on affirmative action rid admissions of any consideration of race at all.

Even when they are admitted, students of color are frequently deprived of the opportunity to succeed. The graduation rates of Black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native Students are leagues behind their white peers: 64% of white students graduate within six years, while that rate is only 40% for Black students. While graduation rates reflect some level of student success, education alone is not an economic or racial inequity panacea. An analysis by the Economic Policy institute found that whether they have a high school diploma or an advanced degree, Black employees make about 80 percent of the earnings of a white worker with similar or even lower education. Students of color are not failing, colleges are failing students of color. They are saddled with greater debt, receive lower returns on their educational investments, and often have fewer resources and less support through the entire education experience.

While campus should be a safe haven for students, many students of color at the University of Southern California, for example, have felt otherwise. This is depicted through the Instagram account “Black at USC”, a platform that emerged in June of 2020 for students and staff of color to share experiences with discrimination, microaggressions, and hostile learning environments. Students’ testimonies included seeing fraternity members wearing “blackface'' at parties, being racially profiled by the campus public safety officers, and feeling tokenized in their classes. Additionally, in a nationally representative sample of college students in 2019, racial ethnic minority and first-generation students reported lower belonging than peers at 4-year schools. 

These legacies of discrimination perpetuate achievement gaps, prevent low-income and minority students from getting into college, and decrease thriving on campus, but they can be re-made. Universities are the gateways to citizenship and economic opportunity; as such, they are responsible for making institutional change to remove barriers to well-being and full participation. There is hope, and the Vital Campus Conditions outline how campuses can cultivate a culture of caring and sense of belonging; reckon with legacies of discrimination and exclusion; and advance equity across vital campus conditions.

Engaging through Equity: Steps towards Campus Well-Being at USC

While there is still more progress to be made in co-creating new legacies of inclusion, USC has taken several steps to address campus wellbeing as it relates to DEI efforts. In the summer of 2020, amidst a national reckoning with structural racism in the U.S., University of Southern California President Carol Folt created a Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI) Taskforce to address gaps and provide specific recommendations for tackling racism at USC. The taskforce, and the comprehensive REDI Report that was subsequently published, focus on five areas of work: 1) Recruitment and retention, 2) Programs and curriculum, 3) Research and evaluation, 4) Culture and values, and 5) Support and resources.  The taskforce addresses diversity in faculty hiring processes, reviews curriculum and reports on microaggressions and campus incidents, and works to implement implicit bias training for faculty and students. I currently serve as the Master of Public Health (MPH) Student Representative on the 2021-2022 REDI council, which meets monthly to address issues and implement changes. Our task force is grounded in three key questions: 

  • What historical context or harm can we name and acknowledge?

  • What current work is already happening that can be built on?

  • What are concrete and specific recommendations for the future?

In July of 2020, USC removed the name of its fifth President, Rufus B. Von KleinSmid, a eugenics leader, from its tallest building on campus. In November of 2021, the University renamed the building after Josephine Medicine Crow, a Native American historian, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and renowned chief of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation. USC followed in the footsteps of universities and schools across the country who are examining and purging problematic names and symbols on campus to address the wrongs of the past. Students at USC are now calling for a re-examination of Joseph Widney, who established the USC College of Medicine. Widney’s 1907 book, “Race Life of the Aryan Peoples,” analyzed white superiority in the United States; he wrote that Black and white people “cannot live together as equals.” 

USC has also grappled with the legacy of Dean Cromwell, the track and field coach who led USC to 12 NCAA championships and was an assistant coach at the 1936 Olympic Games. He frequently expressed anti-Black views and eliminated Jewish runners Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman from the relay team. His legacy remains influential in campus culture; the USC track complex, which draws thousands of visitors each year, is named in his honor. As long as universities continue to heroize and ignore racist, homophobic, and other discriminatory people and symbols, vital campus conditions cannot be met.

While there is still progress to be made in co-creating new legacies of inclusion, USC has taken several steps to address campus wellbeing as it relates to DEI efforts. For example, the University implemented a mandatory diversity and inclusion training module in 2021, which teaches students about microaggressions and implicit bias using culturally appropriate and relevant scenarios and examples. Students must complete the training in order to register and enroll in classes; the hope is that they will be better equipped to participate in challenging classroom discussions and identify and report discriminatory behavior.

Furthering the work of creating an inclusive campus is the JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusivity) Peer Educator program, which trains students to teach workshops and curriculum on equitable practices for student organizations and clubs. This creates an internal campus culture of open dialogue, led by peers and trusted student leaders. Additionally, all residential education programs, which house students on campus, added Social Justice and Inclusion Chairs to their executive boards to fully integrate diversity into campus activities. At the faculty level, the University produced a series of training modules on conducting challenging discussions in the classroom and developing inclusive course curriculum. By focusing internally, on peer-to-peer interactions and the content being taught, USC has made a commitment to addressing legacies of discrimination. 

In taking on this kind of work, universities should not place the onus on the faculty, staff, and students of color, differing ability, or sexual identity who are already burdened by micro- and macro-aggressions. Rather, schools should critically examine the practices and policies in place that are preventing students from achieving their full potential, and leverage the national momentum to advocate for change. USC serves as a good example and continues to conduct annual DEI and well-being surveys, demonstrating a high degree of accountability and transparency that other institutions should mirror. DEI has become more than a buzzword on campus; it is a continuous process of racial reckoning to ensure that all students can thrive, no exceptions.

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