The Collegian
Thursday, February 22, 2024

OPINION | From PWI to inclusive community of learning: The path UR must walk

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's note: The authors of this op-ed requested that The Collegian make an exception to AP style and allow the capitalization of white when referring to race in this piece. The authors decided to follow the APA style in capitalizing white because not doing so in the context of capitalizing other races and ethnicities serves to uphold white as the standard. The Collegian will continue to follow the AP style in its reporting. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.   

Recent events on campus expose a university in a fundamental crisis of identity. Once again, ignorant displays of White privilege have caused students of color profound harm, and once again, it has fallen on students of color to undertake the work of calling our institution to account.

We have seen this movie too many times. It’s time for anyone who is invested in this place to ask some fundamental questions: who are we, and what are we doing? 

Some terms of the equation are fixed. This is a private liberal arts university. There is an institutional commitment to being a nationally recognized academic institution. The nominal tuition is high, and the resources devoted per capita to students are also high. 

The business model of the University of Richmond, so to speak, depends on a significant number of students coming from wealthy families; families that can afford to pay full freight. Data published several years ago on UR students born in 1991 found that 15.1% of students in that cohort came from households in the top 1% of earners nationwide. 

So, UR — like virtually all of our peer institutions — draws disproportionately from highly affluent households. This isn’t a bug, it’s a fundamental feature of our institution.

UR also seeks to become a more diverse campus. We have all the buzzwords anyone could ever want. And we have more students of color on campus than in previous decades. 

What we don’t have is the ability to credibly say we are offering all those students the educational experience they deserve, or were promised. 

That inability is fundamentally connected to the institution’s identity crisis. Everyone understands it’s not acceptable to be a campus only for rich, White students. For one thing, if that’s who you are, you won’t stay rated in the top 25 national liberal arts colleges list very long.

So, the “shadow values” that drive this university — namely, prestige and a positive reputation — mandate that some effort is made to have a diverse campus.

But what hasn’t yet been worked out is what exactly the endgame is for UR: Is the goal simply to continue as a Predominantly White Institution that just happens to have some students of color on campus, and then try to improve those students’ experiences without fundamentally altering the Whiteness of the university? We believe this has been the implicit approach to date — an approach that has predictable (and painful) limitations. 

The alternative — far more attractive, but difficult to achieve — is to imagine UR as a genuinely inclusive, democratic community of learning, in which Whiteness is not (explicitly or implicitly) privileged, and in which there is a deep commitment to assuring that every student learns about human experiences other than their own.

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To be clear, for an institution designed by and for White people to become genuinely inclusive of all races, this entails fundamental transformation. UR has invited greater diversity by opening our doors to a wider demographic of students, but we have shirked inclusion by requiring them to assimilate to or tolerate an institution that centers Whiteness. 

Let’s imagine for a second how we might think about recent events on campus (and the longer pattern of which they are a part), viewed from the second lens. The implicit or explicit focus of many Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging efforts is to help students of color “fit in” better, provide more “support,” as well as “respond” when something goes wrong.

But if our goal is a community in which no identity is privileged, the group that clearly needs the most attention is actually White students. Specifically, many White students need to be challenged on their default views that Whiteness is a synonym for “normal” or “better,” and related views that just because they have not personally participated either in historical crimes against people of color or in overt acts of racism, they are therefore innocent of racial privilege.

This is the viewpoint that might allow one to believe that another racial, ethnic or national group is an appropriate source of humor or mockery. It is also a viewpoint that, when combined with class privilege, might lead one to believe that one can act disrespectfully toward a non-White visitor to campus.

Right now, UR tells students (including White students) not to be racist, but it gives the bulk of White students almost no intellectual resources to understand what that really means, to understand the historical and moral baggage tied up in Whiteness, or what it means to be part of a community in which you are not automatically privileged. 

This, somehow, is what must be confronted and ultimately changed. 

The ignorance of many White students (“Predominantly White Ignorance,” as one student speaker at a recent protest aptly put it) is a profound threat to the well-being, mental health and educational experiences of students of color. They are being put in harm’s way by being exposed to students who have no clue either about their own privilege or their own responsibilities as members of a diverse community. 

This is what Black, Asian, Latinx and other students of color are saying at this moment. It is not an easy thing to hear, because there are no straightforward “fixes.” 

What’s needed, before there are any new programs or interventions, is a fundamental reorientation of how we are thinking about the problem. We call on our community, and particularly our leaders, to imagine what an institution that is not fundamentally and essentially designed for White students would look like. How might the structures, systems and procedures of our institution need to change if, for once, we centered those who are least advantaged at our university?

We simply cannot become a democratic community of learning without also challenging White and class privileges at their root.

And until UR is willing to name that truth, and act on it, we are not optimistic meaningful change will be achieved.

Dr. Thad Williamson is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Philosophy, Politics, Economics & Law. Dr. Crystal L. Hoyt is Professor of Leadership Studies and Psychology and the Colonel Leo K. & Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership.  

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