In the months since the assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis, racial retaliation has engulfed U.S. leaders across American higher education issued bold appeals for social justice and outlined preliminary action plans on their campuses. Universities have rushed to create clusters to hire teachers, revise liberal education curricula, and create new initiatives to support the efforts needed to bring their institutions and communities closer to the ideals that are said to be at the heart of the nation.
Despite these seemingly progressive efforts as scientists Hakim Jefferson and Victor Ray notice, with each racial calculation comes a white reaction in different forms. We have witnessed a wave of anti-critical legislation on racial theory, laws against “divisive concepts,” and a resurgence of efforts to weaken the protection of property rights and academic freedom. Another case in the Supreme Court is to possibly eliminate race-based confessions will argue in the future term of the trial starting this fall. Universities face pressure on the survey political affiliations and “diversity of views” of teachers. Leaders of colleges and universities need to balance these challenging situations around the demands of social justice with the ever-evolving political contexts of what a decision in support of racial equality can mean for their institutions.
The main concern is that universities will abandon their commitments because the prevailing view of racial inequality in society and organizations is that it mostly the result of bad actors with bad intentions. Such an institutional tunnel vision of interpersonal interactions may represent a false sense of progress.
Data and their best use can play a more important role in monitoring and maintaining the commitment of higher education to racial equality and justice amid growing political pressure to provide answers and justify such decisions. The continued inclusion of data in the decision-making process in this political climate is crucial to meeting the commitments made over the past two years.
One of the barriers to improving data usage is ignorance of what and where data exists on campus.
One of the barriers to improving data usage is ignorance of what and where data exists on campus. Student surveys do not exist in the same office, nor do enrollment or employment data. Some universities have sophisticated analytical programs that combine multiple forms of data to identify barriers to progress and even to prepare course reports.
Creating a complete list of available data and their locations allows campus managers to use available data quickly and efficiently to make decisions. However, these lists should not be limited to quantitative data. Librarians, historians and educators need to be approached to find quality data. Connecting each room used with the voices of campus community members who experience inequality and injustice is important to contextualize and deepen analysis to make more effective decisions.
Due to the fact that universities are facing changes in key positions, documentation and institutional memory of data can evaporate quickly. Improving documentation helps to understand how archival data was created and what questions can be answered with it, and which communities on campus may be affected by disproportionate use of certain data due to collection limitations. For example, categories of race and ethnicity are constantly changing, with some universities using extended categories that do not match past data collection and do not recognize all groups on campus. It’s been a challenge to study diversity over the years to see if access to campus is affected by policies such as optional or flexible admission tests.
Before a college uses data on race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, it is necessary to document how different data have evolved and how they can be combined. It can detect and avoid harmful assumptions about groups, individuals, and inequalities when analyzing data to improve on-campus equity. All of this can improve the transfer of results and limit the persistence of inequality behind good intentions.
Universities need to improve their analytical capacity by building networks of analysts on capital within and between campuses
Finally, universities need to improve their analytical capacity by building networks of capital analysts within and between campuses. These networks can use the full range of available experience to examine what progress has been made towards racial justice and what changes are needed to further it.
Relying on a single staff member of an institutional research office or periodically turning to multiple faculty members does not provide an integrated or sustainable approach to data-driven solutions or equity in a broader sense. Hiring capital analysts and building a network of collaboration between faculty and staff to support institutional efforts are stronger structures for equity on campus. Involving students – who are often more inclined to the notorious heartbeat of issues of racial equality and justice on campus – in research groups can build their skill sets and the dynamism of the campus to accomplish their stated missions and goals.
While these seemingly simple steps to improve the use of data to support institutional efforts, they are crucial in order to remain flexible and responsive in a very volatile era. Political pressures can hamper efforts for racial equality and equity in higher education, which requires interaction with these methods, which were not necessarily provided for in the initial collection of most data. Equity-focused data analytics requires more people to collaborate around data and use it to make decisions on campus.
If we want to continue to pursue the ideals of racial equality and equity in higher education, we must face how our shared organizational approaches to data use can limit what we understand about the injustice and inequality of our campuses, and what we can and should make them move forward.