How Institutions Can Move Toward Equity by Addressing Whiteness
In a recent Academic Leader article, Jordan Harper described an approach for campus leaders to locate whiteness in higher education. In this piece, I provide practical examples of how these issues manifest in academic affairs and what senior administrators can do in their daily work to address whiteness. I will focus on practices that go unexamined and can play a role in preserving inequities. At the outset, it is important for me to acknowledge that I see decolonization—the act of unsettling oppressive structures and power centered on whiteness—as intricately intertwined with institutional practices that must be recognized in order to move away from cultural norms based on whiteness. As I focus on practices, I will use both whiteness and decolonization to describe what needs to change at our institutions to create a more equitable environment where all can thrive.
It is important to note that this is a challenging time for campus leaders engaged in combatting whiteness. Institutions are being besieged by anti–diversity and equity initiatives from some elected state leaders (e.g., Florida, Georgia, Iowa), including bans on critical race theory. Yet, the work academic administrators do to understand how whiteness permeates the institution remains critical to help all students succeed and to create an inclusive environment for faculty and staff.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, institutional actors expend much energy on preserving the status quo. Sometimes this is called “tradition”; other times, it is about a small group maintaining power. In either case, those who dissent can be marginalized. This is the dynamic that Harper describes as complicity “employing a conscious ignorance” that reaffirms rather than challenges the status quo that inhibits creative thinking and change. It is important to acknowledge that campus stakeholders are often deeply connected to traditions, making it difficult to challenge and change this organizational dynamic. This connection ensures that whiteness sits at the center of daily functioning of most campuses. To challenge campus traditions, we need to understand how they shape campus cultures. To change traditions is to change the culture of the campus and expand who belongs.
As most leaders in academia can relate to this, changing the culture of any institution is difficult. Yet leaders must be prepared to engage with anxiety and resistance when initiating change. The hesitancy to avoid conflict within academic administrators is what sustains the whiteness-oriented status quo. To understand this from a different perspective, this is the frustration most non-white, untenured, and marginalized people feel every day as they interact with our institutions. Having to confront microaggressions on a daily basis is exhausting. Therefore, to retain faculty from non-white and marginalized groups, institutional actors must also experience the daily work bringing about a less whiteness-oriented culture requires.
Efforts to make campus culture more inclusive can be found at every college and university. These efforts, however, tend to be carried out through small initiatives and seldom influence the whole campus. If institutional leaders truly seek to address whiteness on their campus, then interrogating campus-wide culture is required. As Kezar (2019) explains, it “is not enough to alter historically embedded patterns that seep into policies, facilities, resource allocations, and daily decision-making. What the research points to is the need for culture change” (pg. 2). The idea of interrogating campus culture to encourage change that decolonizes whiteness would require interrogation of the following:
- Why do we maintain traditions? Do they serve all individuals in the same manner?
- How can we encourage dissent and hear what is intended?
- How can we reconsider the hierarchies inherent in bureaucracies and systems of faculty rank? Does an academic rank really give someone power?
- Do our admissions standards privilege certain types of students? Do institutional aspirations reinforce whiteness or promote equity?
- Does whiteness or a status quo perspective center efforts to attract and onboard new administrators?
Asking these questions is the starting point for engaging in authentic change toward decolonization. The types of discussions that they elicit can be difficult but promote awareness about how to make an institution more equitable and welcoming for all. Each question points to practices that center whiteness and maintain the status quo. By asking these questions, administrators set the tone for deep change.
Some readers may object to upending some traditions that may be desired. I agree—but these tend to be the minority of traditions. A recent Inside Higher Ed article (Alonso, 2022) highlighted a seemingly desirable but inequitable tradition: requiring students to wear branded regalia. This type of decision making could be seen as what Harper named the “white gaze” of leadership by creating the standard of how institution can change. When renting academic regalia can cost between $100 and $1,000, what kinds of actions are institutions taking to assure equitable access for low-income and first-generation students? This need has prompted institutions to create regalia closets for students who cannot afford to rent or buy graduation caps and gowns. When an institution decides to brand itself with certain regalia, how does it consider the increased cost to students? Instead, the assumption is that all students can afford this cost or worse, they can take out more loans to pay for this cost.
Another example of centering whiteness is when academic leaders treat tenure as meaning there is no way to address behavior. During a mandatory hiring workshop focused on diversifying the applicant pool, the facilitator stated that it was important to expand the ideas around which graduate programs are acceptable for hiring faculty. Without missing a beat, the faculty member sitting next to me leaned over and said, “We know that only graduates of three institutions are successful in our department.” It was clear that this training was not going to change this committee member’s—perhaps their entire academic department’s—values or ideas about excluding some applicants. In these situations, the typical response from an academic administrator to such elitism is to provide rationale for why this cannot be challenged. Academic administrators tend to react with thoughts like, We can’t control a tenured faculty member! or, This faculty member is a national figure in the field; there is not much that we can do. The real issue is that academic administrators are not willing to have the difficult conversation needed to address behavior that can support equity changes. Being a tenured professor does not mean the person can do anything they want. Administrators use “tenure” as an excuse for not addressing behaviors. The “do nothing and see what happens” approach to administration embeds whiteness and sets up an expectation that nothing will change. While we are forced to address illegal behavior, why do we allow inconsiderate and strong-arming behavior to become the norm? Moving our institutions toward decentering whiteness is not easy, but a necessary part of what must happen to create an equitable environment for all. Remember that silence is complicity.
Alonso, J. (2022, December 8). Walking a mile in someone else’s gown. Inside Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/12/08/donating-graduation-caps-and-gowns-students-need
Kezar, A. (2019). Creating a diverse student success infrastructure: The key to catalyzing cultural change for today’s students. Los Angeles: University of Southern California, Pullias Center for Higher Education.
Vasti Torres, PhD, is a professor and executive associate dean in the School of Education at Indiana University Bloomington. Her research is focused on the success of marginalized students in higher education.