Posted on April 21, 2015

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

Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, 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. {snip}

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.


“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.”