3 vital steps for uprooting racism on university campuses

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kseniia Pirnavskaia, Research Assistant, KAIST-Korea Policy Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution & Cornelius Kalenzi, Postdoctoral Researcher, KAIST-Korea Policy Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution


  • Amid continuing racism, educational institutions must be judged by their words, actions and results on equity and inclusion.
  • The 3D-R frameworks focuses higher education institutions’ efforts in combatting racism.
  • The three poles are defining racism; defending victims; and developing accountability.

Let’s face it – higher education is still confronted with perpetual structural racism. Black populations have been systematically excluded from attaining higher education since the 20th century, with multiple universities only paying lip service to this crisis. Similarly, during World War II, many Japanese students were denied education, with leaders acknowledging and correcting this wrong much later. Currently, “Chinese-looking” Asian students endure COVID-19-inspired racism, with many institutions not speaking up against it, resulting in millions of students and their parents worrying for their lives and safety while pursuing studies in their preferred destinations.

We must remember that racism manifests itself systemically, i.e., through “racism-by-design,” through clever and elaborate institutional mechanisms built over centuries to deny minority groups a chance for upward mobility through higher education systems. This has been achieved by “redlining” (systematic exclusions) in admissions, tuition and scholarships, and human resources on college campuses. Further, “reactionary racism”, with roots in the quiet hate of societies but initially triggered by an event (Pearl Harbor for the Japanese, COVID-19 for Asians, or “suspected counterfeit $20 bill” in the case of George Floyd) has manifested physically through assaults and abuses suffered by Asians and Blacks. In the US, such atrocities have grown exponentially in the past two years.

Therefore, fighting racism demands confrontation at all levels on college campuses by uprooting racist institutional designs inherent in campus-wide admissions systems, recruitment, scholarships, cultures, and histories. The branches of racism’s physical manifestations must be cut through policies designed to identify, isolate, punish quickly, or re-educate the racists among us. Educational institutions and leaders must be judged by their words, actions and results on these levels.

We propose a 3D-R systemic framework to facilitate higher education institutions (HEIs) addressing systemic racism. We look into the latest trends in frontier HEIs to explore how other universities can learn or unlearn from them. Leaders using our framework must ask three key questions: First, how can HEIs understand perpetuating systemic racism which has evaded HEIs and societies for centuries? Second, how can they support affected communities? Third, what is missing in the key conversations surrounding systemic racism and associated hate in HEIs?

1. Define and understand racism

To effectively solve racism, universities need to invest resources to define and understand the depth and scope of the unpleasant experiences that Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students endure. Student organizations’ voices may be instrumental in understanding racism on campus. For instance, at MIT, minority students proposed adequate instruments for facilitating minority groups. Moreover, organizations such as the Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus at Harvard Kennedy School, have platforms to engage in meaningful discussions about minority challenges and the value of diversity among university communities.

Further, HEIs need to understand racism using data-driven methods, which are critical to identifying racial “climates” in institutions and community sentiments. To illustrate, Stanford committed to conducting regular surveys to track the current racial climate among its stakeholders; its Office of Faculty Development, Diversity, and Engagement publishes annual reports of faculty demographics to scrutinize such progress. Similarly, the University of Ottawa launched the Campus Climate Survey on Diversity and Inclusion to identify more inclusive policies to promote diversity.

Finally, institutions must conduct vanguard research to identify new approaches in the systematic battle against racism. The Harvard Initiative for Institutional Anti-racism and Accountability (IARA) cultivates cutting-edge solutions for advancing its existing policies, discovering innovative ways to diversify their community, and promoting anti-racist culture and policies. Another exemplary case is the Center for Racial Justice at Stanford Law School, which connects law students and community leaders to conduct research on societal injustices.

The 3D-R framework for confronting racism
The 3D-R framework for confronting racism Image: Cornelius Kalenzi/Kseniia Pirnavskaia

2. Defend and empower victims

Colleges need to support affected minorities at various levels. The MIT Student Mental Health and Counseling Services instrument facilitates in-person, phone and online support for students – highly relevant in the pandemic times; similar services are available at King’s College London (KCL), and University of Ottawa (uOttawa) for all academic community members. The latter case employs a stepped-care model, ensuring that various student needs are supported. Minority groups should benefit from various opportunities to enhance their academic and professional growth within the college community, such as the Imperial College London’s Presidential Scholarship for Black Students and its Imperial Positive about Cultural Talent development programme for Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff members to further their careers.

Support in the form of community education may conquer the root of racism, requiring educating people to eradicate their hate. To this end, approaches may vary: First, interactive and engaging sessions, such as at MIT, could be employed. Second, more specific and professional long-term courses such as KCL Diversity Matters Training developed for their staff members can be introduced. Third, community-oriented educational opportunities, such as listening sessions at Stanford that aim to hear and share real stories connected with racial climate on campus and Town Halls addressing anti-Black racism at uOttawa, could be initiated.

Furthermore, convenient and victim-friendly reporting mechanisms and policies should be introduced. According to the Tackling Racial Harassment: Universities Challenged report, numerous students and staff did not report racial harassment citing a lack of confidence in whether the case would be considered, or fear of retaliation. To this end, at MIT victims can abstain from participating in investigation processes if they so prefer. Moreover, they can report from anonymous email addresses. The MIT Non-Retaliation Policy further defends victims from adverse implications for reporting.

Lastly, high-level institutional investment efforts are crucial for sustaining introduced mechanisms. At KCL, the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion programme (EDI) has grown rapidly with extensive funding over the last six years. Currently, all KCL’s faculties have embedded EDI expertise, with the programme enjoying influential university-wide leadership. Additionally, KCL and the ICL have jointly devised the Race Equality Charter, which provides a framework for institutions to work jointly and reflect on barriers that BAME staff members and students face on campuses. Internal advisory groups, such as Imperial As One at the ICL comprising BME staff, can aid in examining policies and promptly report about issues to the highest level.

3. Develop institutional accountability and periodical reviews

Despite talking about racism for decades, BAME are still underrepresented in HEIs. For instance, KCL’s EDI 2019–2020 report, though designed for the UK, paints a general representative picture on under-representation in this area. BAME staff has moderately increased from 20% to 24% since 2014; however, the under-representation of BAME teaching and research workforce has remained, with significantly less representation in senior positions: 8% appointed as professors vs. 25% as researchers. In the same vein, though the situation with undergraduate students seems to have improved with 33-34% BAME students enrolled over the last two years, the percentage of postgraduate students (16%) falls short of the expected benchmark.

A similar trend with graduate/postgraduate BAME students and senior staff is observed in the Stanford IDEAL Dashboards. The figures show that universities’ strategies are sufficient for undergraduate level students or junior level staff and faculty. However, these instruments do not target graduate and postgraduate student groups and more senior-level faculty.

To improve the situation, HEIs need to commit more strongly to diversity at higher echelons of the institutions. A diversity barometer can track such progress and hold university leadership accountable. This will, most certainly, not be enough. University leaders should consider establishing institutional mechanisms to hold themselves and their establishments accountable. And should be augmented with periodical reviews on racial improvement progress.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.

The Forum’s work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.

The Platform produces data, standards and insights, such as the Global Gender Gap Report and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0 Toolkit, and drives or supports action initiatives, such as Partnering for Racial Justice in Business, The Valuable 500 – Closing the Disability Inclusion Gap, Hardwiring Gender Parity in the Future of Work, Closing the Gender Gap Country Accelerators, the Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality, the Community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers and the Global Future Council on Equity and Social Justice.

This systemic plague requires systematic remedy. The 3D-R framework should not be read as exhaustive, but rather serves to give institutions an agile framework to confront racism roots, cut racist branches, and promote diversity and inclusion at all levels.

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