A Higher Education Response to the Death of Floyd

Another black man needlessly died under the yoke of Law enforcement in Minneapolis in the last few weeks and ignited a firestorm around the globe. It conjured up images of the civil rights movement of the 60s but with a fervor, portrayed by media as being different. For the African American Community, it served as a continuous and painful reminder that as US citizens, they do not enjoy equally the rights of citizenship afforded to whites. At every level, they remain victims of a democratic system that practices racial and exclusionary practices that serves to cripple and marginalize their existence economically,
socially, politically, educationally, and environmentally. Each waking day, large numbers of African Americans and other racial and ethnic minority groups run for their lives on one level or another. However, in every meaningful statistic valued by the white establishment, they fall short and are then blamed for doing so.

Why is it this way? Why should generations be doomed to such monstrous insanity? W.E Dubois’s prophetic statement, “the problem of the 20th century [now the 21 st century] will be the problem of
the color line,” gives us a clue. It carries significant weight in the 21 st century for people of color, which emphasizes “common experiences of systemic racism.”

George Floyd’s death is a tragedy and has sparked, for now, an interest in reform couched in the Black Lives Matter movement. What we as educators in higher education do with this moment is of crucial importance. Systemic racism extends into the hollow halls of higher education from faculty and management hiring practices to upward mobility opportunities, to research grants, to publishing
books and articles. And finally, to student access and success. The gatekeepers, on many levels, are not unlike what is on the streets. It is a different form of policing. Nevertheless, within the
system, the hit is the same for people of color.

Today, talk of reform abounds in nearly every sector of our society. Should we choose to honor this historical inflection, I submit to Higher education leaders, Governing Boards, Associations, and
students in higher education a few suggestions below. They coincide with a relevant and timely question posed by one of the country’s most respected leaders in higher education, George Boggs,
President CEO Emeritus of the Association of Community Colleges. He asks, Are We Really Serious About Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and I would add “Fairness and Justice?”

  1. Establish measurable and sustainable actions to ensure that students are taught by a racially and ethnically balanced faculty that represents who they are. It will help students to know
    and appreciate the worlds' multi-cultural, multi-ethnic populations, particularly those who are Black and Brown in this country. This act alone can improve our citizenship, empathy, and
    value for humanity.
  2. Leaders should establish and promote a measurable institutional culture of learning and growing in a culturally, pluralistic, diverse, and dynamic environment that stresses
    excellence, respect, cooperation, and fairness.
  3. Board of Trustees need to lead and veer away from concerns about their next election and fear of union backlash and hold themselves and their campus accountable for measurable
    change in the arena of race relations. Bold leadership from this entity is the clarion call and will test their resolve to create and implement, measurable and sustainable policies backed
    by consequences.
  4. Associations and organizations need to introduce new and bold, measurable, sustainable, and visionary programs that address racism just as they work to address budgetary needs and concerns. They should go beyond babble talk, safe, politically correct language found in their echo chambers designed to give the appearance of change while holding the reins tight on status quo and comfort zones
  5. People of Color in organizational silos, fighting for “their piece” need to abandon their suspicions of each other. They need to stop pretending that they are working together, dismantle their convenient structures and organize according to “one road with one belt” to serve the starving, racially ethnic populations in this country’s higher education system. Band together to be a united nation with far more power than silo behavior.
  6. Leaders need to lead and stop coveting their titles and salaries. They are the champions of the communities they serve and the students who have been entrusted to their care to achieve a higher level of education and training to facilitate their entrance into the world of work and preparation for local and world citizenship.
  7. Students need to understand that they have a voice, own the future, and continually should advocate for change, accountability inside and outside of the classroom. Also, they and others should realize that being a change agent is not an easy task nor a one and done activity.

If higher education chooses to honor this period in our history, leaders to make a difference must lead. They should create pathways that reflect a sustainable and measurable change across systems of higher education. In this way, maybe we will be able to look back three years from now and say, we can see a difference. To encourage us all in the struggle to be and become more effective change agents, I quote from William Ernest Hensley –

Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

Dr. Edward J Valeau is President /CEO Emeritus of Hartnell Community College District, President Emeritus of the California Community Colleges for International Education, and recipient of the
Association of California Community College Administrators’ prestigious Buttimer Award for Outstanding CEO Leadership. He is in the leadership team of the STAR Scholars Network, currently serving as the Vice President Of Executive Innovation And Workforce Development. He has a book due out in late winter 2020 entitled A Practical Guide to Becoming a Community College President.

Slider photo: George Floyd mural. Photo by Graham Kilmer. Courtesy: https://urbanmilwaukee.com/