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Four ways to decolonize and build antiracist universities

This article presents four strategies found to be effective in the field of research on educational equity. While this list is not exhaustive, it provides an overview of key issues and strategies gleaned from articles in the Race, Research, and Policy Portal (RRAPP).

By Sabrina Wong

The movement to decolonize universities initially gained traction in the UK and Europe as a means to challenge how colonialism impacted these societies and their universities, but the movement is highly relevant to the U.S. context as well. In the U.S., historically white colleges with predominantly white male faculty often include a ‘hidden curriculum’ of norms and policies that reinforce white racial privilege at the expense of minoritized students. How can university school leaders affect institutional change to challenge these norms? 

This article presents four strategies found to be effective in the field of research on educational equity. While this list is not exhaustive, it provides an overview of key issues and strategies gleaned from articles in the Race, Research, and Policy Portal (RRAPP). These works highlight how school leaders can help introduce and sustain antiracism in universities by redesigning curricula, rethinking leadership, and changing institutional practices.

1. Redesign curriculum to teach about race and racism

When students enter college, they bring with them assumptions about race. Often, white students’ racial privilege prevents them from having these assumptions challenged, especially if they never were in their K-12 education. Research shows that offering courses explicitly on racism and antiracism can help stop this cycle. Experts also recommend redesigning existing courses to explore the history of social movements and racism that underlie core topics.

The work of white scholars is generally viewed as more valid than that of Black, Indigenous, and scholars of color. Researchers show that a curriculum that substantially includes racially diverse readings and voices can successfully challenge these views, and offers greater intellectual complexity.

2. Lead with collaboration and reflection 

For university leaders, data on racial inequities is important, but can also do more than be listed in a  report. It can start conversations on how existing policies may perpetuate racial inequities. Research suggests that university and college leaders should embrace and learn from data in their strategy to address racial inequities. For example, disaggregating student performance by race and ethnicity can help leaders better understand challenges with student retention.

Academic advisors and mentors can drive institutional change by recognizing and naming racism if it manifests in professional interactions (e.g., combating the ‘nice counselor syndrome’) and reflecting on whether their enforcement of university policies reproduces racial disparities.

3. Think beyond the university campus

Universities in the U.S. can learn from the efforts of schools around the globe. Research shows how creating an international network of schools committed to building antiracist universities can drive progress. For instance, through international conferences, U.S. scholars can learn from the successes and shortcomings of how South African universities have challenged their own dominant culture of whiteness.

Studies find that, in the face of rising college costs and decreasing financial aid packages, Black students report higher debt levels upon graduation than white students. Racial disparities in parental wealth and labor market discrimination for Black students post-graduation contribute to this gap. Universities can challenge broader societal wealth disparities by creating more robust college funding sources and career support for Black students.

4. Value and support HBCUs as peer institutions

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were built to provide Black students educational opportunities given their exclusion from historically white universities. Unfortunately, they remain needed even today as many universities and colleges across the U.S. are white-dominated spaces. Additionally, many predominantly white institutions continue to undervalue HBCUs, including their role and critical contributions to Black students’ learning and success.

Instead, researchers document that focusing on HBCUs’ unique strengths in media depictions goes a long way. Key benefits that HBCU school leaders can emphasize, and that predominantly white universities can recognize, include how HBCUs support Black students’ leadership development and provide strong support systems for low-income students.

The future of antiracist universities

The 2020 protests propelled the U.S. and countries around the globe into greater public reckoning with historical harms. The growth of technology and social media has meant that certain race based atrocities are now “in our face,” yet as the research in RRAPP indicates, there are many “hidden” layers of how systemic and interpersonal racism functions in society and especially university settings.

Universities themselves have sought to do such historical reckoning work beginning in the early 2000s. In 2003, Brown University established a Steering Committee composed of faculty and students to explore the university’s relationship to slavery and created a new Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. In 2016, The University of Virginia created the global “Universities Studying Slavery” consortium to foster learning across universities that are seeking to develop educational truth-telling projects on their legacies of racism. 

As the research states, teaching about race and racism and changing institutional practices are critical when undertaking these efforts.


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