Report on Racial Justice Statements and Campus Equity Efforts [podcast]

min read
Community Conversations | Season 2, Episode 6

Jill Dunlap and Alexa Wesley, research directors from NASPA, about their findings from a content analysis of racial justice statements made in the spring and summer of 2020.

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John O'Brien: Welcome Jill and Alexa. I'm excited to dig into this report, moving from words to action, the influence of racial justice statements on campus equity efforts. So this is a deep dive into the racial justice statements that were made by campuses in 2020. Really looking at key findings from those statements, looking at the kinds of follow up actions and changes that followed the statements. Let's get started. So I think this is a really important report given the work done literally by all of our associations, organizations, colleges, and universities, literally around the world. What was the inspiration for this research?

Alexa Wesley: Sure. So thanks for having us and giving us spotlight on some of this. So what we saw was that there was a flury of public statements made by college of university presidents following the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery shortly before him. And while making those statements on racial justice is not a new practice, the widespread response that we saw by students in other communities last year, paired with the backdrop of a global pandemic disproportionately affecting black and brown communities really seemed to present a new context in which to better understand the decision making process behind making those meaningful statements and ways institutions may or may not be following up those commitments with action.

Jill Dunlap: Yeah. I might just add too to Alexa's comments that I thought it was really interesting to see, especially how higher education specifically responded to the events of May, 2020. Given that institutions have a history of this issuing statements during times of national crisis. So it's not the first time that institutions have weighed in on this subject. But I think it's important to note that this time around, I think part of what our research found is that many students, faculty and staff now really see these statements as the first step in a process rather than the only thing that institutions should be doing. So these stakeholders are saying to campus leadership that they appreciate that they recognize the problem, but that they are also want campus leaders to recognize how those institutions are part of the same problem, especially with regard to systemic racism and that those campus leaders have the power to address it. So for me, that was an interesting reason why we dug in on this project.

John O'Brien: So part of the inspiration is just recognizing statements only go so far.

Alexa Wesley: Absolutely.

John O'Brien: We all think in paragraphs, so statements are easy. It's the work that follows that is the hard part. Well, what would you say are some of the top findings that you'd highlight most of all from this report?

Alexa Wesley: So I can start by giving a little review of the methodology for context, and then I'll turn it over to Jill to dive more into that. So we first conducted a content analysis of statements from 230 institutions, and we took the perspective that there is not necessarily a perfect formula for how to make a statement, but that there are certain elements that can make a statement seem stronger than others. So we incorporated some of these elements into our analysis to see how frequently they came up. And some of those elements included whether statements explicitly named George Floyd or the issue of institutional racism, whether they not only expressed solidarity, but whether they also articulated and communicate plans for auctions that the institution was going to take. So we built upon these findings to inform a national survey that in partnership with National Association of Diversity Officers to gather both vice presidents for student affairs and chief diversity officer perspectives about statement making and the timing and range of actions that have been taken.

Jill Dunlap: And I might just add too that part of the findings that we had, we were really careful to... And this is I think, entirely due to Alexa's insight. We were really careful to ask about action statements that followed or action efforts that followed the statements that institutions issued. But we asked about the timing of them because we didn't want to come in and do a survey and say, oh everything that you're working on with regard to racial justice on your campus must be as a result of the murder of George Floyd in May, 2020. Institutions have long been working on racial justice efforts. And so we wanted to recognize that some of the things that we asked about, and the 45 different action items that we asked institutions to assess, whether they were tackling or not, were in response to the incidents and national crisis that followed the murder of George Floyd in May, 2020, or whether or not they were sort of ongoing.

And then also we realized that our survey came out in May of 2021. A lot of these things may not have been completed yet. So we wanted to give respondents to the survey and opportunity to say, yeah, we've started this, but it's not done yet. Because some of the work that we're talking about is not sort of a one and done kind of thing. It involves lots of long term assessment and work by multiple stakeholders on campus. So I think some of the findings that we found really interesting were that most efforts prior to May, 2020, that institutions were involved with education and training for students and faculty and staff, new initiatives related to DEI and hiring additional staff for DEI offices were things that were sort of shorter term. So they happened between May, 2020. So the murder of George Floyd and the statements that were issued, and when we did the survey analysis. And then some of that survey respondents indicated were underway, but not yet completed were longer term things like looking at curriculum changes, increasing the diversity of BIPOC faculty and staff, as well as campus leadership.

So some of the things that we asked about were things like how diverse or are you trying to diversify your senior leadership on campus or your Board of Regents, in addition to faculty and staff? And so those are some of the things that the survey respondents indicated were underway, if not yet complete by the time they answered the survey.

John O'Brien: I remember during the height of some of this, I had a conversation with a university president about a statement, because we were working on a statement and they were working on a statement. And one of the conversations we had is when do you not do a statement? Sadly, and the reality and the urgency around all this is there have been multiple outrages following the initial one with George Floyd at my old hometown that you've mentioned. So do you do a statement every time there's an additional incident? It becomes a really interesting challenge. When do you not do a statement?

Jill Dunlap: I think for us, the reason that we saw so many institutions issuing statements is the rapid fire succession of the atrocities that we were seeing. And so one of the things that we assessed for in looking at, in doing a content analysis this of all those statements is, did they mention George Floyd, but also did they mention Ahmaud Arbery? Did they mention Breonna Taylor? And so I think it was sort of the... There wasn't even a time to take a breath between all of the murders of these black people specifically. So, I think it was sort of a snowball effect, I think from many institutions to say, what is happening almost weekly around us and is now is an important time to say something.

Alexa Wesley: Yeah. That's right. I think I would just add that... That's a good question. I think institutions can proactively plan at least try to maybe lay out some criteria of when we will or will not make a statement, which of course needs to be flexible. But I think having something to refer back to, to really justify whether a statement is made or not, and then really, if you are going to make one, are you able to back up your commitments and express values with those actions? And I think that's a big part of what this research is really looking at too.

John O'Brien: Was there anything in the research that surprised you?

Alexa Wesley: Yeah, I think one thing that I was really expecting or maybe even hoping to see is that institutions had more clear action steps laid out in their statements. And unfortunately we found that very few of those initial statements really did include those plans. So this also aligned with our survey analysis, when we asked about what the primary goals were, the institutions had, when they were deciding whether to issue a statement. And only 23% of those cited articulating a plan as that primary goal. However, when we asked about whether they made follow up statements of those who did make a follow up statement, they cited spelling out that action as the primary goal. So it kind of speaks to the timing of it. Maybe if you're issuing a statement really quickly with the greater sense of urgency, you just want to really just communicate solidarity, but then a followed statement. That's when you have a more clearly outlined plan.

Jill Dunlap: Around the time that we were getting ready to publish this, there was another report that came out that was highlighted in Inside Higher Ed that was talking about how students perceived their institutions in response to the murder of George Floyd. And they had very different interpretations of action steps that the institution was taking. And so I think for me, I was surprised to find the actual, like broad range of different action items that institutions are undertaking in response to their statement that they issued. And in order to address racial justice gaps at their institution. So we assessed in the survey, as I mentioned for 45 different action items. And I was impressed and surprised by both the breadth and also the depth of different initiatives that they were undertaking. I also think it's really heartening. One of the findings that we had, we assessed for within each of those action statements, who's responsible for implementing them.

And so I think it's really easy for institutions to say, oh, we've got a task force or, oh, we've got a working group or, oh, we have a DEI office. And so then it becomes the responsibility of a singular person or a singular office to undertake a lot of these types of efforts that we were assessing for. And what we found was actually that there were faculty that in charge of certain initiatives and there are DEI offices that are in charge of certain initiatives, campus leadership were tackling other initiatives. So it really became an indication of a culture shift that institutions I think are attempting to make in terms of it's everyone's responsibility to be addressing some of these concerns around racial equity. And so I think that was both surprising, but also a really heartening finding that we came up with as a result of the survey.

John O'Brien: Many of our institutions made statements that was months ago. What do you think? Are our campuses following up when it comes to addressing racial equity gaps on their campuses?

Jill Dunlap: I would say having followed a lot of campuses racial justice unrest I think back to what happened at Mizzou in 2015, that I think previously institutions were heavily reliant on statements and that sort of being the one and only thing they did. Like, hey, we'll say that we're in solidarity with, or we understand the struggle of... And then there wasn't a lot of follow up. So I think, for me, I don't think institutions are there yet. I don't know where that there is, to be honest, but I think that they're working towards making inroads in a lot of these concern areas. I think they're doing a better job of listening to students and faculty and staff of color, especially around what they'd like to see. And so I think they are making good inroads.

And as I mentioned, I think the idea that for so many of our respondents to the survey, these efforts are the responsibility of a broad range of stakeholders on campus, to me says that they're moving in the right direction. So, I do I think that they're doing perfect? No. Do I think they've solved racial justice on campus? No. But I think that in terms of looking at culture shift and the ways that transformation happens, they they're are working in that right direction.

Alexa Wesley: I would definitely echo that point, and also share that even though we saw that institutions have been making more resource investments in terms of making change, that there are still really big challenges in place for implementing those efforts. And one of those is related to establishing a common understanding at a campus about how systems of oppressing and racism show up in higher education, and really identifying where those short term and long-term efforts to mitigate those effects should be made. So survey responses also suggested that challenges here and a place where related to the sheer pace of change, that this can be really overwhelming and exhausting for campus administrators. And that ultimately, even though despite this, the intended impact of change to advance racial equity and to create these affirming environments for students is really worth it. But more can always be done.

John O'Brien: As someone who has worked to draft a statement. I know how valuable this research is and will be for those writing statements. But what about for staff who are simply looking for advice on how to talk to other staff about these issues? Can the research be useful for that as well?

Jill Dunlap: Yes. I think this report can absolutely help that. I think we are pretty clear in the content analysis that we did around what makes statements more or less powerful. And so again, I think there are some institutions that are wary of either seeming too political or not wanting to say the wrong thing. And so they went down the road of using a generically language. So they would say things like we stand with people of color. And then what we would hear is that they got pushback from their students and faculty and staff saying, but what you really mean is black people, right? Like that's what we're talking about in terms of the murder of George Floyd. So being specific in what you're saying. I also think that you know, nobody can predict what the next crisis is going to be, that you're going to need to issue a statement on.

But as Alexa mentioned earlier, I think having a plan for when you issue a statement and when maybe something does arise to the level of issuing a statement is important, but also knowing why you want to issue a statement is I think really integral. Like, are you really just trying to stand in solidarity, or are you saying want to hold ourselves accountable to making some sort of change as an institution or an organization?

And then finally, I think including some voices from those who you are addressing, I wouldn't want to be an organization leader or a campus administrator feeling like I could issue a statement that would resonate with people if I haven't checked in with those folks. And that for me, if I was on a campus with the students, if they're the intended audience or staff members, if they're your intended audience and particularly students and staff members of color, and not just when there's a crisis point, right. But sort of all along around, hey how is this impacting the community? What can we be doing? How would this resonate if we said something like this? And so I think having those folks and those voices around the table can help you make more authentic statements and really sort of hone in on what it is that you're attempting to say. And again, having a solid action plan, if that's part of why you're issuing a statement.

Alexa Wesley: And I would just emphasize, Jill, your point about including student voices too. This seems like a really big opportunity area that we heard from the research about the need to include students more in the decision making processes, and also being really transparent with them about what has or hasn't been done. And the target timeline for when a campus community can expect to see progress on those promises. Even if you look back at student activist group demands from the Black Lives Matter Movement that were made in 2015, many of those issues discussed, some of the same ones that are still being talked about today. So, there's like a need to create some more lasting reporting mechanisms and continuous feedback loops about what progress is being made and what implementation challenges are still in place there. And to really just meaningfully engage and include students in those processes. And that could just be a really valuable next step for institutions that may not already have those mechanisms in place.

John O'Brien: Well, I can't help but ask, is there a best statement? And we love all of our institutions, of course, but is there one statement that really jumped out to you as remarkably good?

Jill Dunlap: I'm going to be quick to say no, only because I think one of the other things that we pretty consistently hear from folks who ask us questions about this or report is, what are best practices? And I think that's so dependent on context, right? Whether you're at an organization or an institution, we found differences even in terms of which institutions issued or had more specific language. And sometimes it was very highly correlated with what their percentage of white students on campuses.

And so I think it's really important to know where you stand in order to make really effective statements. And for some people, they were like, if I'm an administrator what should I say? It depends on what your identity is and what your experience has been, and how you engage regularly with students. Because, if you don't have a presence on campus and then suddenly you think you're going to relate to students, they're going to read right through that. And so I think I could say that I would find a best statement, but it would absolutely be context specific on how that leader relates to their stakeholders, how frequently they're communicating with them, how authentic their statement felt. And, I think that it really is very context specific in this case, in terms of institutions.

John O'Brien: So the most effective statement is the one that works on that campus. Yeah. Were there any statements without saying who that struck you as remarkably less great? Like, you might well have not done a statement if that was what you got.

Jill Dunlap: I think what we heard from news reports were that there were some really well-intentioned white leaders who expressed really significant outrage and then got pushback after issuing a statement because they thought, okay, this is performative white outrage. And you're not actually saying that you're going to do anything, so you can be outraged all day. But what we want is for you to take accountability and talk about how you, as an individual, are going to do the work that is required to become more aware of these issues and how your positional authority allows you to address them. So, those are some of the ones that I think we heard fell flat. Again, some people are like, is it better to say something from a personal standpoint? Not necessarily. And again, I think those who said really vague things, I think came off as inauthentic, oftentimes rather than specifically saying, we're talking about anti-black racism in our country at this moment. And I think those were the ones that probably resonated more clearly with students rather than standing and solidarity with and the sort of more flowery, vague language.

Alexa Wesley: Yeah. I think that's something that we tried to look at by coding for different elements that were sorted along with strength continuum. So those who maybe were a level one statement conclude things like solidarity, respect for all, that kind of narrative, but then an even stronger statement would be one to Jill's point that really explicitly names, institutional racism and impact on black Americans. Talks about how the institution's going to be taking accountability for its own role in perpetuating those systems. And I think just even though we didn't see a lot of it, I think those did lay out action plans were more impressive.

John O'Brien: Are you already planning more research where you'll actually, one year later, go back and look at statements and follow up to see what action was actually taken?

Jill Dunlap: We absolutely want to continue this. I think it would be really beneficial for us to look and at another year out to see which of those institutions that we had surveyed previously and again, and not that we'll necessarily get the same respondents for that one. But to see across the landscape who has now completed curriculum reviews or some of the things that in the first iteration of the survey were indicated as being in progress, are those now done or are those sort of... Again much, much longer term efforts that institutions have to undertake. Or do they just sort to fall off after a certain amount of time? Like the pressure to get things done and be able to hold themselves accountable won't be there. I think we'd also really like to understand what students think about some of these action steps and whether or not they're aware that institutions are taking these action steps. And how effectively institutions are communicating changes that are being made since May of 2020, or even previous to that.

How are those being articulated to students? Because I think institutions don't do a great job of that. And that was, again, one of the opportunity areas that we identified in the report was how do you... Yes, you say you're going to do a thing in the statement. And then you make the task force and you have all these people doing all this work, but do you notify students when those curriculum reviews are done? Are you letting them know that you've hired X number of BIPOC faculty or staff, or changed the leadership in a substantive way in terms of representation? And I think that institutions are not really great about doing that. So I think we'd like to assess for what student perceptions are of racial justice efforts on campus.

John O'Brien: So if you're not writing statements, but you care about this issue, why should I look at this report?

Jill Dunlap: I think for me, I come from working at three different institutions over 14 years prior to coming to NASPA. I would be interested in looking at this report, especially at the 45 different action steps that institutions are taking. Because if I am your average staff person or faculty person, I would want to know what other institutions are doing so that I could take that list and ask my leadership what they're doing. And so even if my institution didn't issue a statement after May, 2020, I would use that as sort of a template to say, look at all the ways that other institutions are moving forward with racial justice efforts, what is my institution doing? And how do I as a staff member or a faculty member really push my leadership to articulate what it is that they're doing around racial justice and moving the needle forward for our own institution and holding ourselves accountable?

So I think I would take this as sort of a roadmap. And again, not that these are the only 45 actions that institutions could take. But for me, I would think that it's valuable to a range of stakeholders, students, faculty, or staff, alumni at any institution to say, I want to know I'm going to hold my leadership accountable for asking them what they are working on and how I can be a part of it.

John O'Brien: For those who want to read the report, where can they download it?

Alexa Wesley: Sure. They can visit our NASPA website at, and it should be under our publications and resources tap.

John O'Brien: Thank you. That's a lot. I looked at the executive summary, but I'm looking forward to digging into the full report. I really appreciate you taking the time to join us today.

This episode features:

Jill Dunlap
Director for Research and Practice

Alexa Wesley
Associate Director for Research and Policy

John O'Brien
President and CEO