Arcadia University is the feature of the Chronicle of Higher Education's Nov. 9 Race on Campus newsletter. The Chronicle spoke with President Ajay Nair, Provost Jeff Rutenbeck, and Assistant Vice President for Access, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Angela McNeil, who are all quoted in the article. The article discusses Arcadia's JEDI and anti-Black Racism Initiatives; how the University's efforts to combat anti-Black racism fall into three categories: personal, professional, and institutional; and that "racial justice for African Americans will translate into a more-just society for all."
Subject: Race on Campus: One University's Plan to Combat Anti-Black Racism
From: Sarah Brown
Welcome to Race on Campus. Ajay Nair, president of Arcadia University, does not want his new Anti-Black Racism Initiatives to fall by the wayside, like other diversity plans in higher ed. That’s why he has outlined more than three-dozen action steps and assigned a senior administrator responsibility over each step. Our Sarah Brown has more.
Ajay Nair has seen many failed diversity committees and plans in his 25-year higher-ed career.
Nair, president of Arcadia University, outside of Philadelphia, wants to make sure his Anti-Black Racism Initiatives don’t meet that fate.
The focus on combating anti-Black racism is an explicit choice. The premise, Nair said, is that “racial justice for African Americans will translate into a more-just society for all.”
In fall 2019, a year after Nair arrived at Arcadia, he convened a group of professors, administrators, and students to help chart a path forward on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Nair had big goals: infusing equity and justice into the university’s day-to-day operations, and getting the entire campus involved in diversity work.
A few months in, Nair attended one of the commission’s meetings. The group was struggling.
When issues like curricular diversity, leadership diversity, and bias incidents haven’t been talked about for years, Nair said, starting those conversations “brings up a lot of emotion.” The commission was trying to move quickly, but its members hadn’t built trust first. Their meetings had revealed “unresolved baggage that really needed to be processed,” he said.
Then George Floyd was murdered. And Nair concluded that the sweeping systemic change he’d initially envisioned wasn’t the right starting point for Arcadia.
Instead, driven by the societal outrage over police officers’ mistreatment of Black people, the university would start by specifically addressing inequity affecting its Black students, faculty, and staff members.
“Ultimately, our goal must be nothing less than radical change at Arcadia and beyond,” Nair wrote in a June 2020 letter to the campus community.
That same month, Nair outlined Arcadia’s Anti-Black Racism Initiatives, incorporating feedback from the campus community. The plan described more than three-dozen action steps, each of which had a senior administrator responsible for it. The steps included establishing a center devoted to studying race, diversifying the faculty, improving institutional support for Black students, and reviewing policies “that may be a root cause of discrimination and racism.”
In May 2021, for instance, the university said officials were moving forward with plans to diversify the student body, improve the representation of students of color in STEM majors, and teach students to have difficult conversations about racism and systemic discrimination. The update also said the university would hire a new staff member devoted to diversity in the counseling center.
This summer, Arcadia worked on curricular diversity, with faculty and staff members hosting a series of workshops on how to revamp syllabi and how to talk about race and racism in the classroom.
Understanding what students want is crucial, Nair said. But he’s being careful about how much he’s asking of students.
“We have a tendency to put our students to work around these issues without taking full responsibility and ownership of them,” he said. Creating change and communicating effectively about that change, he said, should be on senior administrators.
The Anti-Black Racism Initiatives are led by a core group of project managers who meet once a week. Each project manager leads a working group that’s devoted to a particular issue — like student success in STEM. Eventually, there will also be liaisons for individual offices and departments, said Angela S. McNeil, assistant vice president for access, equity, diversity, and inclusion.
McNeil, who’s been at Arcadia for 30 years, started this role in June. One challenge she’s encountered is trying to get faculty and staff members involved. Working groups won’t be effective if people aren’t actively engaged with them, she said.
But McNeil sees promising signs. People on campus are now calling out white supremacy and using phrases like “systemic racism,” she said. They are talking candidly about the issues that African Americans and other people of color face at predominantly white institutions.
McNeil said the university has moved faster to advance change in the past two years than in the previous 20 years. One shift she’s noticed is the growing role of white allies as interruptors. She pointed to Jeff Rutenbeck, the provost, as one of them.
Rutenbeck said the university’s efforts to combat anti-Black racism fall into three categories: personal, professional, and institutional.
Because Arcadia is a predominantly white institution, he said, the university’s leaders, faculty, and staff need to learn and grow on a personal level, through training opportunities and campus programs.
Last year, Arcadia hosted what Rutenbeck described as a “community of practice” focused on white supremacy. It was powerful, he said, for people to become aware of how their whiteness is experienced by others. Elsewhere on campus, groups were formed to provide support and resources for faculty and staff members of color.
The next tenet is professional, Rutenbeck said: how to fold those principles into people’s jobs. Officials recently overhauled the university’s annual review and goal-setting process, as well as its teaching evaluations.
Finally, there’s structural change, Rutenbeck said. Currently, he said, that means reviewing a lot of policies — “literally going through one by one.”
The pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted some institutions’ DEI goals. But at Arcadia, university leaders say they have tried to fight the impulse to back off.
“We felt the kind of age-old pull toward slowing down with the uncertainties of the pandemic, the financial challenges,” Rutenbeck said. “And we actually as a group just used it as a time to reaffirm the commitment.”