Bensimon: Race needs to be an explicit focus in higher education

CUE director discusses how institutions can improve equity

By Ross Brenneman

Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon

Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon

Earlier this month, Estela Mara Bensimon, professor of higher education at USC Rossier and director of the Center for Urban Education, delivered an address at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), on how institutional culture embraces race, how campuses can better understand and address racial issues and how that work can be made routine.

Like many higher education institutions, CSUN has a predominantly white faculty (65 percent), but whites only make up a quarter of the student population. ­

In this conversation, Bensimon summarizes some of the issues from that keynote address, and reflects on related issues.

How should students address racial issues among college faculty and administrators?

Race TalkThe philosophy of our center (the Center for Urban Education) is that, in higher education, we have always focused on remediating the students, so all of our theories of student success are that: student commitment to the goal of college completion, plus student effort, equals college success. Those are theories that are very individualistic, that put the onus of success on the student only, and we need to rethink our conceptual schema. What do we think about student success as institutional commitment on equity and institutional responsibility? Rather than remediating the students, we focus on remediating practices and structures and policies.

What we try to do is to change how faculty, in particular, think about their practices, and how their practices even unintentionally are contributing to graduation inequities.

The student-focused perspective has resulted in many ad hoc compensatory programs to essentially have the students fit into the “norm.” In K-12 it’s very clear that teacher effectiveness is tied to student success. But in higher education there is no such work. Everything is related to how to remediate students. So we are doing the opposite.

Although in K-12, teacher “effectiveness” is a contentious issue. A lot of people don’t agree on what it means. In higher education that’s probably even more vague.

We don’t even talk about it. The reason I’m a little bit familiar with K-12 is because I find K-12 literature very helpful. In higher education we don’t speak very much about instructional quality or pedagogical practices. We speak only about disciplinary content. And that may be OK in research universities, but in community colleges, which are teaching institutions that are open-access for the students who have probably gone to the least resourced K-12 systems, you need more non-disciplinary knowledge. You need to be able to understand the students and yourself as a tool for facilitating success.

And even instructors at the community college have adopted the normative model of being a faculty member—”My job is to convey knowledge and that’s it. It’s not my job to teach you to learn. To teach you how to read a history book.”

So as far as change goes, are there separate strategies for a private four-year college vs. a community college?

The general principles are not different: The use of data, the developing of equity-mindedness as a schema, a conceptual schema of student success and the use of inquiry methods where faculty and staff become practitioner-researchers and study their own practices. What does change is the context and what problematic situations they want to focus on at the institutional level.

Why talk about race instead of socioeconomic status?

We just did a webinar with institutions that are participating in a project for the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and as part of the webinar we had a poll asking if there is a perception at a participant’s institution that people feel that there is a risk talking about race or if such discussions would make them uncomfortable. And over 50 percent agreed that discomfort is an issue. They fear conflict.

People don’t want to talk about race because in higher education we tend to be polite—most of the time—and we believe in collegiality and we tend to be somewhat conflict-aversive. So when encountering a discussion of race, people are fearful that others will think that they’re racist.

Another issue: People often don’t know history. So CSUN is a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI). If at least 25 percent of your student body is Latino, you become an HSI. And I said, “You just didn’t become an HSI overnight. It derives from immigration patterns and a number of factors that occurred in this community.” But it is very possible that many people at CSUN don’t even know they’re at a Hispanic-serving institution.

So I guess my point is that race talk is also truncated or constrained by people’s lack of history, even history of the civil rights movement—and maybe that dates me, because I came of age in the 1960s. But there is also limited knowledge of how structural racism is enacted through everyday practices.  This is also true for leaders and policymakers.  Generally, the “race” question gets overlooked.

So if people don’t deal with racial issues in an explicit manner, they get ignored.

The “diversity” agenda has constrained race talk. When diversity ascended in importance as a result of the 2003 University of Michigan Supreme Court case, the argument presented in defense of race as consideration in admissions was the “diversity rationale” introduced by Justice Lewis Powell Jr.’s opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke back in the 1970s.  The unfortunate result of the “diversity rationale” downgraded the use of race as a remediation of past injustices. And in the most recent case, in Fisher v. University of Texas, Chief Justice John Roberts asked a ridiculous question: “Why does diversity matter in a physics class?” The diversity conversation has essentially put race talk in the background. Because we think about diversity now very broadly. Just about anything can be “diverse” nowadays. And it downgraded the notion of remediating for past social injustices. It downgraded the notion of equity.

Our work is about reinstating the equity agenda. Diversity is not California’s problem. If you look at the California State University system, I think that the majority of their campuses are now Hispanic-serving institutions, and if you look at community colleges, the issue was not about diversity; the issue was about equity and outcomes.

Those demographic changes among the students would presumably mean changes for the faculty, in some respects.

In our institutions, there’s a lot of talk about underprepared students. But much of that 65 percent white faculty has been there for a long, long time, way over 20 years. So what we have are underprepared students and underprepared faculty. CSUN was at one time a predominantly white institution. So even though it has become Hispanic-serving, the norms, the values, still go back to the way it used to be, and their challenge is to  catch up with that student change. And that’s true for most institutions.