America is undergoing a reckoning as the pain, suffering and setbacks caused by years of systemic racism is coming into full view. This heightened awareness around racism, sparked by death and injustice, must result in the development of real pathways to eliminate systemic racism, or it will be a lost opportunity for our generation to do our part in—to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—bending the long arc of the moral universe toward justice. Higher education, like all other institutions in our society, must do its share of bending the arc.
My academic path, and that of other Black people and people of color, is riddled with instances of both egregious and subtle forms a racism. When this happens to Black people in our academies, it threatens the wellbeing of all of us by limiting access to the creation of knowledge and innovation that flourishes when a diversity of minds is present. Drawing from my own experience as a scientist, professor and administrator, I believe there are a number of ways in which colleges and universities can advance and improve the lives of all our students—and especially students of color.
First, we must do more to increase diversity in our student body. This not only creates more opportunity for our students from underrepresented communities, but also increases the variation of perspective and lived experience that we know produces a richer learning and social experience for all students. We can achieve this by stepping up our recruiting efforts that target high schools serving Black, Latinx and Native American populations. To further support building diversity, we can look at new approaches to sustaining our financial aid practices in light of the economic pressures of the pandemic, restructuring current programs to yield more aid and pushing our alumni and corporate partners to increase scholarship and grant opportunities. Supporting organizations like the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, for example, broadens opportunities.
Creative and strategic team-building is another way to ensure success and positive experiences among our diverse students. At Olin, part of how we transformed engineering instruction was by developing student-centered programs that rely on teams working on projects. While these teams are created to be self-sufficient in sharing and experiencing learning, our instructors intervene to ensure that inherent biases do not unknowingly arise in things like the assigning of tasks or how information is shared with professors.
As we work on the diversity in our student population, it is equally important that we make every effort to increase diversity in our faculty and staff as well. Black faculty account for a mere 6% of all full-time faculty in the academy. I know from personal experience that no matter how excellent a department’s faculty and support staff may be, it is hard for students of color to imagine a future in which they can succeed without the distinct modeling and mentorship made possible from professors and counselors who look like them and who have had many of the same life experiences. (As a new faculty member at Northeastern University in 1989, lacking mentors and role models of my own, but recognizing their importance, I served as a role model and mentor in the NEBHE Role Model Network for Underrepresented Students and as a consultant to NEBHE’s equity and diversity programs.)
One of our most important roles in the education and lives of our students is preparing them for, and connecting them to, the world at large and their path to success. Very often, students of color do not have the connections that lead to opportunities like internships and summer jobs in their field of interest. We can build bridges to successful careers by ensuring that our career centers are operating at the highest level possible and are able to establish connections with companies that are eager to help diverse students. This process can be helped by making every effort to connect diverse students with the career center and promoting its value to them. As colleges and universities operating in New England, we are fortunate to be in a vibrant regional economy made up of established companies, innovative startups and leading healthcare and research institutions. By developing stronger partnerships between our schools, regional businesses (many of which provide internships and other work opportunities) and the business community leadership, we can leverage these connections into career-focused opportunities on behalf of all of our students, which would be especially helpful in creating life-changing opportunities for our diverse students.
Even though higher education institutions are facing significant operational and financial challenges created by the COVID pandemic, we nonetheless must take action today to ensure that we are moving beyond words and demonstrations and taking real action to ensure that equity, diversity and opportunity exists and benefits young people of color—not only within our quads, residence halls and classrooms—but in the larger world as well.
Gilda A. Barabino is president of Olin College of Engineering and professor of biomedical and chemical engineering.