Improving Social Justice on Campuses Automatically Improves Society, Says U.Va. Diversity Chief

February 02, 2006

February 2, 2006 — In his first major public presentation since becoming the University of Virginia’s vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, William B. Harvey told a standing-room-only audience at the Harrison Institute/Small Collections Library on Thursday, Feb. 2, that actions taken to improve social justice on college campuses automatically improve society.

Harvey added that, to improve our democratic society, predominantly white universities and colleges should be educating students, white and minority, about topics in history and society, including racial and ethnic groups that have been excluded or oppressed in America.

Harvey, who joined the University three months ago after serving as vice president of the Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity at the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., said that racism — “that dreaded national disease” — seems uglier on college campuses because adults like to think young people will inherit strengths more than weaknesses. But, he observed, students bring their learned prejudices to the halls of academe, too.

Harvey labeled as a “sad situation” the tendency for white students to stay mainly insulated in their own groups. He cited the need for more structured learning opportunities for interaction and engagement with peers from other groups.

Referring to highly publicized racial incidents at U.Va. during the fall semester, Harvey said what was most troubling to him was that no one has “had the courage” to come forward and talk about who the perpetrators are. “Students have responsibility to police themselves,” he said, adding that faculty also have an obligation to demonstrate that this is an environment where individuals are respected and included.

The “drastic under-representation” of African Americans, as well as other minority members, on the faculties of predominantly white institutions has barely budged in the past 25 years, according to Harvey’s analysis. He said he knows of no U.S. institution that has done exemplary work in creating a diverse culture over a sustained period of time.

“All concerned educators … must redouble their efforts … in working to make this a truly just and democratic nation,” said Harvey, who has worked on half a dozen college campuses during 30 years of working in and with higher education.

The situation of racism will not improve if administrations say that the institution is committed to diversifying the faculty, but faculty on search committees who are responsible for recruiting and interviewing candidates are not committed to the same goal.

The presence of minority faculty on a campus serves to debunk the myth that scholarship is for this elite group of white males, noted Harvey. While minority faculty are role models, Harvey said that they should be given the chance to be seen as regular people, not just “exceptional overachievers.”

During a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, Harvey said that universities do have an obligation to partner effectively with K-12 in efforts to increase opportunities.

“We have a really wonderful situation, those of us who have made it to these hallowed halls of academe,” he said. “We have an opportunity to sit on top of the mountain and wait for people to come to us to participate in the opportunities and to share in our wisdom.

“The problem is there are a lot of people who don’t get here. Unless we find some ways to make sure that there is a smoother and easier path for them, we are not fulfilling our responsibility. We have to find ways that we are connecting with young people at an earlier point.”