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Former Spelman president: We must teach college students to open up about bias

Beverly Daniel Tatum is president emerita of Spelman College. She is directing a new Diversity, Civility and the Liberal Arts Institute for the Council of Independent Colleges, an association of private colleges and universities throughout the country.

The institute will take place in June in Atlanta.

Tatum is also author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race.”

In this piece, Tatum talks about the need to help students become more comfortable with talking about bias and diversity, especially in light of the campus protests erupting over controversial speakers and topics.

By Beverly Daniel Tatum

We’ve all read the stories about student protests on campuses from Missouri to Middlebury. Not surprisingly, college campuses reflect all the sharp, often uncivil disagreements about politics, group identities, and social change in the United States today. What is surprising, perhaps, is how unprepared many students are to engage intellectually with the social issues fueling campus unrest.

Raised and schooled in racially and often socioeconomically segregated communities, they arrive on campus with little experience interacting with those whose life experiences and perspectives are different from their own. According to a national survey of young millennials (aged 14-24) conducted by MTV in 2014, nearly all the respondents had witnessed examples of bias, defined by the survey as “treating someone differently—and often unfairly—because they are a member of a particular group.”

Yet only 20 percent indicated they were comfortable having a conversation with someone about bias, and nearly 80 percent worried that addressing bias would create conflict or make the situation worse.

It is not just millennial students who sometimes retreat into silence. Professors and administrators, like their students, don’t always know how to talk about social issues that are painful or perhaps make them angry. And when campus constituents—whoever they are— are unable or unwilling to engage in productive dialogue, tensions can quickly escalate.

Some colleges and universities have tried to solve campus conflicts arising from bias incidents with new policies (that may limit free speech), new administrative structures, new identity-based centers and programs, or other efforts to provide additional social supports for marginalized students. While such interventions may have merit, few make full use of the most powerful tools in higher education: teaching and learning.

At the Council of Independent Colleges -- an association of 657 small and mid-sized private colleges committed to undergraduate education—we think we have a better solution. This month CIC introduced a new Diversity, Civility and the Liberal Arts Institute for faculty members and administrators from CIC institutions, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The first Institute will be held in Atlanta next spring.

I serve as the director of the Institute, and my fellow presenters include some of the nation’s most distinguished scholars of history, identity formation, higher education, political speech, and social change. Our belief is that sometimes everyone on campus needs to know more about the context and history of controversial topics. This is especially true where professors must teach and advise students outside of their academic disciplines. The Institute faculty want to help participants understand and apply recent scholarship and enduring concepts to issues that concern students right now.

This includes:

∙Exploring significant trends that are reshaping our colleges, including shifts in student demography, a world suffused by social media, and challenges to academic authority. Cathy Davidson, an expert in digital pedagogy at the CUNY Graduate Center, will open the institute with a discussion of her latest book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux.

∙Introducing a mix of time-tested and cutting-edge scholarship—in history, economics, linguistics, psychology, religion, sociology, and other disciplines—to help frame discussions of controversial topics. Historians David Blight (Yale) and Craig Steven Wilder (MIT) will examine legacies of race and inequality on campuses and across America. Political philosopher Danielle Allen (Harvard) will relate classic theories of justice and democracy to contemporary perceptions of injustice. And sociologist Eboo Patel (founder of Interfaith Youth Core) will consider religious identities as potential sources of both conflict and common ground.

∙Helping participants incorporate what they learn at the Institute once they get back to campus. CIC is committed to improving entire colleges. We believe that sharing complex, challenging, and engaging scholarship with participants will help them, in turn, develop knowledge-based responses to campus activism and promote diversity and civil discourse among their students. They will be able to implement meaningful changes in their classrooms, such as expanding the diversity of perspectives, and outside their classrooms, including in the context of advising and student services.

As a clinical psychologist who has studied racial identity development for decades, I know that educational institutions must affirm students’ identities if they are to engage them fully in their intellectual development. Helping students to see the past more clearly, to understand and communicate more fully with others in the present, and to imagine a more inclusive future is transformational. That is a lesson in civility and diversity that America needs now, more than ever.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.