The parade of public statements emanating from colleges and universities following the brutal murder of George Floyd last year, and those released by large multinational corporations, shared common features.
They embraced the activist language of racial equity and social justice organizations; they proposed administrative and academic hiring campaigns intended to foster greater “diversity, equity, and inclusion”; and they addressed the ongoing consequences of systemic racism in consciousness raising lectures and academic courses.
Now that the trial associated with Floyd’s death has been adjudicated by the courts, dare we ask what these statements of solidarity have yielded in the past year and a half?
While it is tempting to offer an obvious critique of the utilitarian subtext of such statements and label them “virtue signaling” or “woke washing,” we believe there is something more insidious at work than lazy liberalism — and potentially more dangerous.
We come from three very different institutions and geographic contexts: an elite liberal arts college in suburban southern California, a historically Black college in Baltimore, and a flagship state school in Western New York. But we are united by academic careers defined by a commitment, in both our scholarly and pedagogical practices, to topics, regions and histories that have themselves been marginalized within our respective disciplines and academic departments.
We are a “Middle East” historian, an “Islamic architecture” specialist, and a revisionist historian of North American architecture at our respective institutions. We labor to introduce students to previously elided worlds, lifeways, and structures through curricula inherently “diverse” by virtue of its global and transnational subject matter.
We are also united in our concern that the current discourse of diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education has the potential to reinforce, rather than subvert, processes of marginalization and minoritization.
Amid recent calls to “amplify” marginalized and minoritized voices, we face a new imperative to expose and reverse implicit biases in the newly urgent calls to design anti-racist and globalized pedagogies and build more inclusive learning environments.
As we seek to work against discriminatory practices in our classrooms, our hiring strategies and our promotion standards, we believe it is necessary to be wary of four hidden dangers within higher education:
- The preference for Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) rubrics over reparations and other redistributive measures of justice;
- The creeping corporatization of higher education that reinforces “branding” rather than sustained institutional change;
- The tendency to define the Black experience” as one that is separate from, rather than a part of, shared national and global conditions of inequality;
- And the perverse irony present within new grants and funding campaigns sponsored by institutions that were themselves beneficiaries of and contributors to racialized hierarchies of privilege.
These hidden dangers share a common feature, one that is both well-known and structurally entrenched: the outsized role that corporate management models now play in shaping our learning communities.
The university is a peculiar institution, insofar as it is mutually informed by an idealized aspiration to model the behavior of the population in the standards of academic freedom and intellectual inquiry, while operating pragmatically as a corporation with a presiding board of trustees, expanding endowments, and marketing and compliance departments responsible for managing its public image. Increasingly, a university degree has also become the base qualification for all entry level jobs in our contemporary economy, which places even more pressure upon the vocational aims of the academic mission.
In light of these circumstances, we advocate for a communal model of university governance that is founded upon the principles of redistributed power, accountability and social equalization.
Although the language of diversity, equity and inclusion is not new, the discourse of “anti-racism” is a new power matrix within institutions of higher learning. Following trends in corporate America, this power matrix generates grants, workshops and training seminars that all too often enrich (quite literally) hierarchies of privilege. Resource-rich universities have captured large grants and legitimized scholarly endeavors via collaborations with minority institutions while simultaneously contributing to the minoritization of these institutions by treating them as secondary entities.
Lost, too, is the work by scholars attentive to racist constructions of privilege and global inequity generated from within fields and regions long marginalized in the Euro-American academy. If the newly defined discourse of anti-racism enables privileged institutions, geographies and fields to again seize control of the narrative, then we have learned nothing from the events of 2020. Simply adding new voices to syllabi or re-branding our scholarship is not enough to lead to structural change.
Such hierarchical visions of social justice and equity are also in danger of simultaneously trivializing and objectifying the meaning of the “Black experience.” As we have learned, race and colorism are not essential qualities, but rather categories meticulously constructed and then applied through economic and social policies to serve privileged agendas.
Such privileged agendas rely on monolithic definitions, such as the “Black experience,” and ignore our complicity in preserving precisely the conditions of inequity that we presumably seek to transform. Further, in objectifying the “Black experience” in the United States, we ignore first the transnational nature of past and present lived experiences and, second, the global and globalized nature of racialized constructions of identity.
In the emerging power matrix of DEI actions since May 2020 we have witnessed not the elimination of privileged hierarchies, but rather their reification. While minority institutions have long been on the front line of addressing conditions of inequity and racism in American academia they have once again been marginalized in this push for change. We recognize efforts to forge new collaborations and partnerships, and do not wish to deny the authenticity and impact of those with the courage to enact meaningful change. Yet if we truly seek to bring about the structural transformation required to build more inclusive learning environments, then we need to configure genuine partnerships that destabilize hierarchies of resource-rich and resource-poor institutions and work for long term impact rather than short-term re-branding.
Our students are especially sensitive to the dangers of hypocritical branding. They are quick to criticize the timid standards of corporate DEI rubrics that seek to add minority candidates without providing them with the resources and privileges necessary to disrupt the status quo of institutional operations. Their generation faces an uncertain future beset by entangled structural and environmental crises, and they have become fierce critics of re-branding efforts that do not yield structural change. Top-down governance structures have served to reinforce rather than to subvert discriminatory admission, hiring and retention policies because they often operate through a lens of demographic diversity and paternalism instead of collaboration and redistributive justice. In such models, there is no place for community partners other than as bystanders to the noblesse oblige of the university.
Short-term re-branding efforts driven by institutional statements or by already prominent colleges and universities stand in direct contradiction with the notion of diversity. We need a new participatory framework that starts with the constituents and embraces redistributive justice through horizontal rather than vertical alliances. Adopting a global lens in this effort would enable us to internationalize, as much as displace, colonial frameworks, which is a crucial part of diversification. Such an approach would not only help us diversify academia and make an impact on marginalized academic communities, but also give a platform to universities and faculty in non-English speaking countries caught in conditions of precarity and discrimination.
We are once again at a critical point in academia and we have many guides for the path forward. Institutional change is gradual, sometimes dishearteningly so, but it can also be inspiring. Transformational change requires us to look fearlessly at both hierarchical governance structures internal to our learning environments and at hierarchies of privilege within and between institutions of higher learning. We must supplant racialized systems with systems built on justice and compassion and a shared commitment to replacing hierarchies with equity.
Mohammad Gharipour (email@example.com) is a professor of Architecture at Morgan State University, Maryland. Heather Ferguson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, California. Charles Davis II (email@example.com) is an associate professor of Architecture at University at Buffalo, New York.