Race, Ethnicity and University Life: Next Steps

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

To the 300+ Columbia students, faculty and staff who joined last week’s teach-in and speak out on race, ethnicity and university life – and to the many who have been part of related discussions and meetings this semester: Thank you.

The energy of these conversations reinforces our potential to make this not only a pivotal moment but also a shift toward sustained change in our community. The unprecedented coming together of 60 student organizations, centers and institutes, administrative groups and schools who cosponsored also affirms our collective capacity and our potential for progress.

The pathway from conversation to action is all important.  Here is some of what is in place already, with more to come:     

1.  The Office of University Life is convening a Task Force on Race, Ethnicity and Inclusion at Columbia that will concentrate on students’ experiences both in and outside the classroom.  This builds on the working groups on race, ethnicity and justice that the Office has convened at President Bollinger’s request since starting up last January.  You can apply to participate here.

2.  Ideas and Action provides a digital space for conversation among students, faculty and staff across schools at Columbia to complement the many, vitally important in-person events and meetings that are already ongoing.

3.  The University’s Center for Teaching and Learning has ongoing programs for faculty and graduate student teaching assistants on creating inclusive classrooms, including “Leveraging Diversity and Promoting Equity in Your Teaching.”

There is room for much more as we look in short- and long-term ways at taking what we know – from personal experience, shared knowledge, and research – and developing and implementing structural, environmental, and individualized strategies to enhance the inclusiveness of the University environment.

Speakers on the teach-in panel offered a wide range of observations and suggestions – you can watch the panel on our YouTube channel.  Students and faculty also spoke compellingly during the speak-out about their own experiences, observed discrimination, and ideas for action.  Please see below for a snapshot of the conversation. 

Universities can be challenging places in many ways – intellectually, socially, collectively and individually.  Yet, in addition to being unique places in our nation for research, learning and rigorous examination of ideas, they offer an opportunity to imagine and work toward a different and better world.  What would it be like to study, live and work at Columbia and in a world free from racism and free from other forms of discrimination and bias?  Through the Office of University Life and with colleagues around the University, I look forward to working with many of you on bringing us closer to this vision.

A Snapshot of the Teach-In and Speak Out

Speakers on the teach-in panel touched on many topics, including the value of brave spaces; the architecture of inclusion; the physiological and psychological costs of racially-biased comments, whether made intentionally or not; and the importance of both speaking out and learning skills to navigate racism. 

Panelists also addressed the Columbia College core curriculum’s consideration of historical arguments that have empowered movements for both oppression and justice; the long history of racialized incidents at Columbia and elsewhere; and the great costs of these incidents and experiences in and outside of class for individual students in their academic success and overall well-being, as well as to both faculty and staff. 

During the speak-out, students and faculty also spoke compellingly about their own experiences, discrimination they had observed, and ideas for action. Their insights addressed:  the experience as a black woman of feeling unsupported and at times, directly marginalized by the materials and discussions in class and in other settings; the risks and vulnerability in being visible and the need for more people of color and more diversity training in offices that interact with students; and the tremendous sadness, frustration, grief and anger caused by racist comments, even when unintentional, and the value of new learning strategies, such as double-loop learning, to address systemic problems. 

Other students and faculty highlighted the importance of talking about racism directly and targeting white privilege and racism in particular; a need for international student perspectives in these discussions; a recommendation for a better grievance system; a need for enhanced support and recognition for low-income and first-generation students; and a desire to have a space for hard conversations that are really about these issues.

Suzanne Goldberg is Executive Vice President for University Life and the Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School.