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Seeking Justice and Hosting Dialogue

At This Crucial Moment, AAU Campuses Can Play an Important Role in America’s Racial Reckoning


The United States is facing three of the most significant crises in our history simultaneously – the worst pandemic in a century, Great Depression-era levels of unemployment, and civil unrest born of a long-overdue reckoning with our nation’s shameful history of racial injustice. As with the COVID-19 crisis, America’s leading research universities can and must lead our campuses, communities, and nation toward a better future on race relations.

It is our responsibility to lead the nation by example, take concrete actions, and recognize that we must still do more to ensure our students, faculty, staff, and community members are safe, included, and heard.

Many of our professors are experts in the more than 400-year-long history of the enslavement and legalized oppression of African Americans as well as its continuing negative impacts in our communities. Meanwhile, thousands of our students experience police brutality and other forms of this systemic racism while serving on the frontlines of activism against racial inequities in policing. Our campuses continue to uphold the longstanding tradition of service as facilitators of free speech and thoughtful conversations, especially those involving difficult topics.

In the past, AAU’s members have stood firmly in favor of racial justice by supporting affirmative action, “whole-person” admissions , and diversity and inclusion in higher education and scientific research . But the last few weeks in American history have made it clear that our past activism is only a start; American colleges and universities have both the ability and the responsibility to move the dialogue forward. I would recommend to you this recent conversation featuring University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce and this thoughtful reflection by University of California, Davis Chancellor Gary S. May on how systemic racism affects even the most successful African Americans.

Our universities can’t merely lead the public in difficult conversations, though; our campus administrators, faculty, staff, and students must participate, too – and participation in difficult conversations on racial justice starts with listening. One good place to begin learning about the realities of life for African Americans in academia is by following the #BlackInTheIvory hashtag on Twitter, co-launched by University of Texas at Austin doctoral student Joy Melody Woods .

There are other ways our universities should lead, and are leading, in this moment of crisis. For example, some schools are reexamining their relationships with their local police departments. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel announced that the school would strictly limit and re-examine its longstanding relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. Other universities are considering similar moves, and many are also reflecting seriously on their own campus police forces and the policies under which they are governed.

There are no quick “fixes” to a massive structural problem four centuries in the making, and these examples are only beginnings. Now is the time for our leading research universities to take on a bigger role in the fight for equality and make a difference in our society. None of us can remain satisfied with the status quo in America.