Former Spelman president: We must teach college students to open up about bias

Spelman College President Beverly Tatum in 2015 at her final Commencement ceremony before retiring. (Special/John Amis)

Beverly Daniel Tatum is president emerita of Spelman College. She is directing a new Diversity, Civility and the Liberal Arts Institute for the Council of Independent Colleges, an association of private colleges and universities throughout the country.

The institute will take place in June in Atlanta.

Tatum is also author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race.”

In this piece, Tatum talks about the need to help students become more comfortable with talking about bias and diversity, especially in light of the campus protests erupting over controversial speakers and topics.

By Beverly Daniel Tatum

We’ve all read the stories about student protests on campuses from Missouri to Middlebury. Not surprisingly, college campuses reflect all the sharp, often uncivil disagreements about politics, group identities, and social change in the United States today. What is surprising, perhaps, is how unprepared many students are to engage intellectually with the social issues fueling campus unrest.

Raised and schooled in racially and often socioeconomically segregated communities, they arrive on campus with little experience interacting with those whose life experiences and perspectives are different from their own. According to a national survey of young millennials (aged 14-24) conducted by MTV in 2014, nearly all the respondents had witnessed examples of bias, defined by the survey as “treating someone differently—and often unfairly—because they are a member of a particular group.”

Yet only 20 percent indicated they were comfortable having a conversation with someone about bias, and nearly 80 percent worried that addressing bias would create conflict or make the situation worse.

It is not just millennial students who sometimes retreat into silence. Professors and administrators, like their students, don’t always know how to talk about social issues that are painful or perhaps make them angry. And when campus constituents—whoever they are— are unable or unwilling to engage in productive dialogue, tensions can quickly escalate.

Some colleges and universities have tried to solve campus conflicts arising from bias incidents with new policies (that may limit free speech), new administrative structures, new identity-based centers and programs, or other efforts to provide additional social supports for marginalized students. While such interventions may have merit, few make full use of the most powerful tools in higher education: teaching and learning.

At the Council of Independent Colleges — an association of 657 small and mid-sized private colleges committed to undergraduate education—we think we have a better solution. This month CIC introduced a new Diversity, Civility and the Liberal Arts Institute for faculty members and administrators from CIC institutions, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The first Institute will be held in Atlanta next spring.

I serve as the director of the Institute, and my fellow presenters include some of the nation’s most distinguished scholars of history, identity formation, higher education, political speech, and social change. Our belief is that sometimes everyone on campus needs to know more about the context and history of controversial topics. This is especially true where professors must teach and advise students outside of their academic disciplines. The Institute faculty want to help participants understand and apply recent scholarship and enduring concepts to issues that concern students right now.

This includes:

∙Exploring significant trends that are reshaping our colleges, including shifts in student demography, a world suffused by social media, and challenges to academic authority. Cathy Davidson, an expert in digital pedagogy at the CUNY Graduate Center, will open the institute with a discussion of her latest book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux.

∙Introducing a mix of time-tested and cutting-edge scholarship—in history, economics, linguistics, psychology, religion, sociology, and other disciplines—to help frame discussions of controversial topics. Historians David Blight (Yale) and Craig Steven Wilder (MIT) will examine legacies of race and inequality on campuses and across America. Political philosopher Danielle Allen (Harvard) will relate classic theories of justice and democracy to contemporary perceptions of injustice. And sociologist Eboo Patel (founder of Interfaith Youth Core) will consider religious identities as potential sources of both conflict and common ground.

∙Helping participants incorporate what they learn at the Institute once they get back to campus. CIC is committed to improving entire colleges. We believe that sharing complex, challenging, and engaging scholarship with participants will help them, in turn, develop knowledge-based responses to campus activism and promote diversity and civil discourse among their students. They will be able to implement meaningful changes in their classrooms, such as expanding the diversity of perspectives, and outside their classrooms, including in the context of advising and student services.

As a clinical psychologist who has studied racial identity development for decades, I know that educational institutions must affirm students’ identities if they are to engage them fully in their intellectual development. Helping students to see the past more clearly, to understand and communicate more fully with others in the present, and to imagine a more inclusive future is transformational. That is a lesson in civility and diversity that America needs now, more than ever.

 

Reader Comments 0

15 comments
Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

"Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?"

Maybe they are all members of one of the many "black" associations at the college.  Outside of college, you literally have hundreds of "black" associations - everything from the Association of Black Accountants to the Association of Black Zoologists.

Then you have the government handing out largess to "Minority Business Enterprises" and forcing affirmative action tokenism on every corporation who does business with the government.

Finally, the usual race baiters such as the NAACP, SCLC, Sharpton, Jackson, et al.


I'm sure the Diversity, Civility and the Liberal Arts Institute will soon be calling for an end to these discriminatory and racially biased organizations and associations.

{{{crickets}}}


Yeah, just as I thought.

USMC2841
USMC2841

I think the answer to her question, "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?", is because she is president emerita of Spelman College.  A female HBC.  Tell me again about diversity.

Jumbos2020
Jumbos2020

@USMC2841  she wrote the book in 1997, didn't become Spelman's president until 2002. So you thought wrong. 

redweather
redweather

Having spent over twenty years in the college/university classroom, I am troubled by Tatum's assertion that "educational institutions must affirm students’ identities if they are to engage them fully in their intellectual development."

If this means encouraging students in their intellectual development, no matter what their identity might be, I'm all for it.  Beyond that, I don't think educational institutions, and especially faculty members, have any duty to "affirm students' identities."  If as a faculty member I affirm one student's identity, then it seems I am bound to have to affirm every other student's identity.

For example, during a discussion of race in America I would have to affirm the identity of persons of color as well as the identity of racists. If discussing sexuality, I would have to affirm the identity of LGBTQIA as well as that of the homophobic. Some faculty members might be comfortable doing that, but I'm not one of them.  I could no more affirm a racist student's identity than I could a student who identifies as a sexual bigot.

In my view an educational institution must commit to providing an equal educational opportunity to every student enrolled irrespective of identity. Beyond that the waters get awfully muddy.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

Long way of saying that inside the classroom everyone's focus is expected to be on the course curriculum?

Common sense is much simpler and solves a multitude of problems. Might not help with the Institute's fund raising, though.

redweather
redweather

@DawgDadII The course curriculum, especially in humanities courses, often involves issues related to identity. So it's not like we can avoid the topic. I'm just not willing to affirm a particular identity.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

@redweather All good points. I am interested in attending this institute. You may be as well. It is in June of 2018.

bu22
bu22

@redweather @DawgDadII  It isn't the role of teachers to be judgmental.  It is to open the mind of the students so they can make their own assessments.  The institute sounds good as the author describes it, but it could also end up just being a PC indoctrination course.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

Well, I sure hope for their sake students aren't taking out huge loans to get a humanities education in identity.

Starik
Starik

Nobody likes trouble. People think politically incorrect thoughts (November 2016) but are afraid to state them lest they be labeled or ostracized.

alt2AJC
alt2AJC

Is it bias which causes black fathers to abandon their children at a rate far, far exceeding other fathers? And what can be the advantage of distracting us from that reality?

Nearly 3 out of 4 black children now grow up in homes devoid of father figures. In the 1960s the opposite was true. Was there less "bias" then?

When will you stop looking elsewhere for scapegoats?

Tom Green
Tom Green

Much to all of the students' credit, at the middle school where I worked, "all of the black kids" didn't sit together in the cafeteria when given a seating choice. It would have been impossible to more evenly disperse students had one tried.

Astropig
Astropig

Agree.Same with all the youth sports volunteering and coaching that I helped with over the years.Kids that age don't look at that stuff.They react to other kids based on how they are treated by those kids and whether they have some common interests.


It's been my observation that kids become radicalized and tribal once they become politically aware and start forming ideas of right and wrong,good and bad in late middle to late high school.By then,they have enough life experience to form opinions on the basic nature of their fellow man.Young adults with a strong family structure have the advantage of being able to discuss and get unbiased input from loving parents that can tell them when they are being played for political gain.