Surviving a Polarized Response to Equity Efforts in Higher Education

By Dr. Desiree D. Zerquera

This piece is a part of our Spark Series Miseducating the Public: Anti-CRT Movement Rhetoric, Policy, and Impact

Author Desiree D. Zerquera

In the past decade activists, scholars, administrators, students and community members have worked to advance a vision-in-progress for equity, building on the heels of generations of advocacy and change that preceded it. Highlights of these efforts include work to require and integrate diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice work into our spaces of higher learning; the incorporation of Black Lives Matter as an ethos driving racial equity work; curricular reform targeting the erasure of oppression for marginalized groups; and efforts to address inequity in access and representation through policies and practices. The progress we’ve seen has been flawed, but hopeful. While challenges against this progress have remained consistent, a more recent uptick in pushback against equity efforts has gained momentum at the state policy level. College and university actors have engaged strategies of resilience, survival, and persistence, to work to continue advancing equity for the betterment of their communities in this challenging time.

Hostility Against Equity Efforts in Higher Education

While framed in ways that foreground preserving parental rights to discuss issues of social matters and protecting individuals from feelings of discomfort regarding their own identities in relation to systems of oppression, Florida has recently advanced a set of bills that target and undermine key purposes of education. They are a current right-winged strategy in the waging culture wars of our times.

Amidst these attacks, House Bill 7, the Individual Freedom Act (previously called the Stop W.O.K.E. Act — “Wrongs to our Kids and Employees”) includes focus on colleges and universities. The act’s framing centers a notion of individual freedom, takes a stand against trainings and curricula that engage notions of privilege in discussions of race and historical legacy of the U.S., and frames Critical Race Theory as a form of indoctrination and “state sanctioned racism.” While the bill is still in legal proceedings of blocks and appeals, the impacts have been felt extensively. Across the state, there have been reports of faculty canceling courses out of fear for their own jobs and university administrators complying to prevent any threats to their funding. The policy makers leading this attack on education in Florida are not alone, but just one of a number of similar efforts across the U.S. that target the work of higher education to serve society through critical teachings of history, oppression, and social identity.

Navigating the Hostility

Amidst the challenges to progress the current policy context presents, administrators, faculty, and staff at colleges and universities across the country are responding in different ways. Some institutions, their staff, and faculty are navigating this context creatively.

The University of Iowa, for example, has resisted the imposed state policy limitations to topics able to be discussed in classroom teaching and trainings through legal interpretation of the law. In response to House File 802, Executive Officer and Associate Vice President of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Dr. Liz Tovar, issued a statement clarifying HF802’s focus on “mandatory training,” and underscoring policy mandate’s limited extension to non-mandatory training or course content. In reifying her support for the presence of critical engagement at UI, she says:

In our classrooms, conversations on divisive topics can and will continue because freedom of speech is protected within our constitution. These training tools and ongoing conversations are necessary to help us expand our community, collaborate, and treat each other with respect.

Some college presidents have also taken a firm stance in their equity work while adjusting within their contexts. Similarly leveraging their legal teams to support rewording and reframing of equity work, some institutions have maintained their college programming and initiatives that center equity, anti-racism, and focus on institutional gaps for students of color while at times communicating about them in ways that might be less divisive within their contexts.

In a public talk, President Greg Hodges of Patrick and Henry Community College in Virginia described the reframing efforts for their work to center institutional and community attention on closing institutional gaps for marginalized communities in their region. He noted how within the state’s policy context and hostility nationally, their approaches to communicating institutional gaps for marginalized students became distracting and polarizing. So they shifted, starting with an all students approach to lead in, then highlighting the focus on specific communities. About his strategy, he stated: “The work is aggressively moving forward. We’re just getting smarter about the work and how we talk about the work.”

In another example, in response to winning the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award in 2022 for the second time, President Gregory Haile of Broward College in Florida drew focus to a need for serving all students. Of winning the award in 2022, he said that the award was “an acknowledgment of the people at Broward College and their dedication to fostering a learning-centered community that celebrates inclusion and ensures that every student — regardless of race, age, nationality, gender or income — has what they need to succeed.” While this statement is consistent with his continued emphasis on equity that serves all students and the entire college community, the focus on “every student” as a qualifier, placed ahead of the social identities listed after, points to how the college has pushed forward to navigate the hostility and fear infused by the Florida policy context while working to serve its highly-diverse student body, staff and faculty, and broader region.

College administrators have commonly adopted an “all students’ matter” approach, however doing so strategically can serve as an entry point from which to then underscore the deep differences in how racial ethnic minorities are treated by our educational systems. Within state contexts where policy has been interpreted as a gag order, this lukewarm approach is innovative and provides a pathway for surviving a polarized response to the equity efforts they have engaged since long before summer 2020.

In this moment, entry points such as these might be helpful for opening the doors to address equity barriers in so long as the intentions are rightly aligned.

In a different example along these same lines, a new center aims to circumvent an explicit anti-CRT focus in training in the state. The organization, New Common Ground, was spearheaded by a faculty member at a college in Florida, Dr. Bruce Fraser, who sought to prepare faculty for supporting classroom discussions where there are divisions and conflict. The organization has since expanded to providing educational and corporate trainings, but with the same focus on finding alternative pathways towards creating inclusive spaces. The organization’s emphasis starts with neurological and communication science as opposed to learnings from social justice movements, but positions themselves as part of broader efforts for preparing individuals and their organizations for addressing ills within organizational culture and fostering inclusion. Carrying similar notions from the social change model of leadership to foster civility amidst conflicts around social injustice or the Courageous Conversations framework that seeks to deepen interracial dialogue to address racial disparities within organizations, their framing provides a different entry point to this shared effort towards spaces of understanding.

Looking Ahead

These examples provide insight into how higher education actors are working to advance equity agendas amidst contexts that flippantly use the word “woke,” target scholars and activists, and connect their conservative agendas to funding and political implications. In many ways, these efforts don’t fully align with what social justice activists have called for in terms of radical and transformative change, being explicit about naming inequity and racism within our organizations, and centering the voices and experiences of those most marginalized. And yet these institutional responses provide insight into how leaders interested in furthering equity do so in challenging temporalities, often using strategic positioning of their ideas in response to the hostility they face.

These approaches may suffice as a strategy to navigate short-term “controversies” laid out by divisive demagogues. Looking to the future, however, these approaches should not be sustained. Higher education cannot allow the sacrifices of student, staff, and community activists to have been made in vain. Fulfilling our role in higher education requires that we play our critical role in crafting the future of society. We know that color-blind approaches and strategies become shields for racism to persist. We know that an emphasis on all students can detract attention away from the real inequities marginalized groups experience. We know that centering the feelings and comfort of some at the expense of those who experience constant violence is dehumanizing and inhibits the dissonance needed for critical learning.

Thus, while they may be politically viable at current, these strategies cannot be committed to in the long term, nor can they exist at the expense of working to advance equity in higher education. Still, these examples above highlight the hope that remains within the darkest places of tensions in our country and the strategies of navigation. And they provide insight into how to forge ahead as these hostile policies are embraced across higher education.

Dr. Desiree D. Zerquera is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Leadership Studies in the School of Education at the University of San Francisco. Her scholarship centers on examining and addressing the structuring of inequity in higher education.



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