Sarah Hill

Universities Step Up Research for Social Change

Before the Black Lives Matter movement, there were already committees and organizations at colleges around the country trying to change the systemic racism that, much like the virus, had worked its way into every facet of our American life – including within our institutions of higher education.

But important seed funding for diversity and inclusion – on average about $1 million per institution – followed the movement which exploded into the collective consciousness following George Floyd’s death. It’s a little over a year later and we have a verdict in the Floyd case, but the racist implications pervading our nation continue. Our institutions of higher education must do better by their communities, being progressive pantheons of learning, respectful discourse and well-sought knowledge.

Diversity Seed Funding

Grants to Enhance Research on Racism is a new research program launched at the University of Houston. The second most diverse Tier One research university in the most diverse city in the country, UH is particularly well situated to respond to this current and long-term crisis with a program of research, scholarship or artistic expression to address the causes and consequences of racism and ethnic stereotyping, and to develop implementable and society-based solutions.

Seed funding at the University of Houston yielded projects in many different areas. Virginia Rangel, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the College of Education, and her co-PIs, Charles Lea and Juan Barthelemy, studied ways to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. “Instead of looking for ways we can change youth, we want to start by enacting change in a broken, inherently racist, system,” said Lea.

Different disciplines approached racism within their specialties in different ways. For instance, Kellen Zale, UH associate professor of law, studied how numerous property law doctrines treat similarly situated tenants and owners in disparate ways that have largely gone unacknowledged and which disproportionately impact people of color. Mary Love, in the College of Nursing, looked at the correlation between strokes in the Black community and racism to better understand quality of life issues.

The racial unrest in our country prompted the Ohio State University Research, Diversity and Inclusion, Outreach and Engagement and Academic Affairs divisions, and the colleges of Education and Human Ecology and Social Work, to take a look into their own institution’s inclusive practices. A new paradigm for equality started out last year with the University’s Seed Fund for Racial Justice, setting aside $1 million over two rounds of funding.

The first 10 projects were announced last year, and this year’s projects will be announced by early June. Additionally, the Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme (GAHDT) provided 1:1 matching, up to $250,000 over two rounds, for proposals that feature arts and humanities methods, orientations and interventions. The two projects that GAHDT helped match funds for were Arts-Based Anti-Racist Initiatives in High Schools and Hidden Figures Revealed: Dynamic History and Narratives of Black Mathematicians at Ohio State University.

The University of Florida awarded nearly $1 million internally to 12 projects across their campus. One such award went to psychology Professor Emeritus Carolyn Tucker whose team will survey 300 older Black men and women in Gainesville and Jacksonville to gain insights into their perceived barriers to utilizing traditional health care options. They will also try to understand how telehealth can be used more effectively with this community.

Seed funding for research projects that have to do with structural and systemic racism has been dispersed at the University of Michigan, as well. The Poverty Solutions and the Center for Social Solutions additionally announced an inaugural faculty grants competition to pursue action-based research aimed at ending systemic and institutional racism. The awards, which ranged from $10,000 to $50,000, were open to faculty at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses.

Tabbye Chavous, National Center for Institutional Diversity director, associate vice president for research and professor of education and psychology at the University of Michigan, said: “In the coming months and years, we anticipate many opportunities for other events, projects and offerings based on outreach to a variety of stakeholders and their feedback,” They went on: “Key to the collaborative’s success is engaging with and learning from our current community to create new connections, conversations and collaborations of research and research-based action.”

Historic Markers and Hiring Initiatives

Rutgers University had its first Black chancellor Jonathan Holloway lead the charge in a historic retelling of the founding of the University. The Scarlet and Black Project, started in 2015, chronicled the troublesome black and Native experience at Rutgers and aimed to educate the community about how this colonial college acquired its initial land through slave holdings.

“For instance, in historic Hardenbergh Hall, there will be a sign describing how Jacob Rusten Hardenbergh’s extended family owned abolitionist Sojourner Truth and her parents, Bomefree and Mau-Mau Bett,” said Rutgers’ website. “While some of the students have called for renaming buildings, Rutgers’ Committee on Enslaved and Disenfranchised Populations in Rutgers History made the recommendation that detailed markers be erected instead.” The question of renaming versus a more comprehensive approach like detailing the names of enslaved persons is one which requires much more argument and debate before it will be settled.

But how many Black chancellors or professors, for that matter, are hired across the nation? Sarah Brown, at The Chronicle for Higher Education, did a “deep dive” into the way racial diversity is worked into the hiring practices of many colleges.

Brown concluded, “that campus-diversity programs and efforts tend to be one-offs and add-ons, instead of baked into the day-to-day operations of colleges. So, one department might hire one or two professors of color, but that alone doesn’t change anything about the department’s culture, nor does it affect all of the other departments that continue to do hiring their own way.”

Most diversity hiring programs look like the one initiated at the University of Michigan. At UM, there is a center called the Poverty Solutions and the Center for Social Solutions that is ensuring, along with the Provost’s office, that more faculty of color are hired. Their call to action includes the following: “This three-year hiring initiative will bring at least 20 new tenure-track faculty, no more than eight in year one, with scholarly expertise in racial inequality and structural racism to schools and colleges across campus.”

Discovering the Past

William and Mary College was founded in 1693, and only white males attended then. The William and Mary campus has a “fraught” relationship with slavery according to its website for “The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation.” This project, named after a slave who was owned by William and Mary, is meant to pay respect to educate the campus and greater community about the history of slavery as it relates to the college. Archaeologists have recently made a stunning discovery – a house on the William and Mary campus was once, from 1760-1774, used as a Bray school.

A Bray School educated enslaved and emancipated Black children – they were taught, in fact, to accept their positions in life – often by teaching them according to the teachings of the Anglican Church. The research that faculty put into discovering this unsettling history was arduous and the unveiling one of mixed emotions. While the historical aspect was significant, it is not known how many enslaved children were indoctrinated on the campus.

At the Georgia State University, a committee called the Commission for the Next Generation of Faculty was tasked with identifying strategies to address faculty diversity, equity and inclusion. One of the things that came out of that Commission was the creation of a new university center for studies on Africa and its diaspora. Educating the community and partnering with a new student-led committee called the African Diaspora Student Advocacy Coalition, this newly formed network of chartered student organizations is committed to “empowering and advancing members of the African diasporic community in the student body,” reads Georgia State University’s News Hub.

Looking to the Future

Perhaps one of the most telling projects seed funding across the country has brought about: Cleveland Hayes, of Indiana University, received a grant from his university’s Racial Justice Research Fund to study a very pressing question: Why now?

As an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) professor and academic dean in the School of Education, Hayes “was struck by the number of white Americans protesting and wondered what it was about this moment in American history that caused so many to ‘wake up’ to the injustices experienced for centuries,” said Indiana University’s Research Impact online magazine.

We may surmise it was the political climate or general decency in the face of atrocious crimes, but we will never truly know. Perhaps Hayes will shine a light on the subject in a way we never would have thought.