Friday, November 13, 2020

On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the following months, Black Lives Matter protests took place in every state and across the world, echoing the protests that began in 2013 after the murder of Trayvon Martin. Across the country, people cried out for the nation as a whole to look at the systemic racism and inequity throughout society, including in our systems of education.

Several faculty, graduate students and alumni of the University of Iowa College of Education have dedicated their time, research focus, and careers to examining the inequity that exists in education, systemic barriers that block Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) from accessing higher education, and the ways education leaves BIPOC students behind at every level. They are starting nationally-recognized conversations about racism in higher education, working to change the way education policies are made nationally, and bridging the gap between institutions of higher education and the communities that surround them.

Barriers to Education

Barriers to higher education for students of color begin in the K-12 classroom, where students often experience implicit and explicit messages of racism from teachers, other students, and curriculum materials, leading them to feel like they do not belong in higher education.

“The first narrative that these young Black boys receive is that you have three options: athletics, music or jail,” says Charles Martin-Stanley II. “We don’t talk about how we can be doctors, lawyers, or work in higher education. These narratives have a powerful impact on these impressionable young Black boys. Representation is important because it fights against the narrative that there are only those three options.”

Martin-Stanley II notes culturally-competent teachers can help students by counteracting these narratives. Cultural competence requires interpersonal awareness, cultural knowledge, and a skill set that promotes impactful cross-cultural teaching with historically underserved students. Additionally, research has proven that diverse teachers increase graduation rates and academic success, and decreases discipline referrals for students of color.

Martin-Stanley II, a Black doctoral student in Higher Education and Student Affairs, researches the persistence and retention of African American men at historically white institutions, like the University of Iowa.

“High school guidance counselors may be implicitly limiting opportunities for young Black students by saying that college might not be right for them or community college might be better for them,” says Martin-Stanley II. “Then the students who do make it into higher education might feel like they don’t have a place and leave the institution,” says Charles Martin-Stanley II.

In today’s world, higher education, ranging from technical school, to community college, to a four-year institution, is critical to economic and job stability. However, BIPOC students face a number of barriers that make education after high school less accessible.

“A high school education simply isn’t enough to survive recessions and economic downturns. Those downturns disproportionately impact people without some kind of higher education,” says Molly Hall-Martin, a citizen of the Kul Wicasa Oyate (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) and doctoral student in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Spearfish, South Dakota.

Hall-Martin’s research centers on higher education policies and government structures related to and impacting Indigenous students in the United States, with the hopes of making higher education more equitable to minoritized students.

One major barrier to higher education is state disinvestment, leading to increasing tuition. In addition to raising prices, many institutions focus on merit-based aid over need-based aid, so students who succeed academically get scholarships, but those are not always the students who need scholarships to afford school.

Hall-Martin says that standardized testing can be another barrier to students of color.

“Research has shown that standardized tests are biased towards white, wealthy students. So, if you are from a lower income background or you are a student of color you are not as likely to do as well on those tests just because of how they are written,” says Hall-Martin. “Research has also shown that these tests are not always a good predictor of success in college or graduate school.”

Racism after entering higher education

These implicit and explicit messages of racism follow students throughout their educational and professional journey in higher education, leading to issues of retention, exclusion from academic opportunities, unequal pay and unequal work, and more.

“Of Black and white students, Black men are the lowest in regards to retention, it is something that is systemic in nature and institutionalized,” says Martin-Stanley II. “These systemic barriers created by racial microaggressions, and hyper-surveillance, and stereotyping, limit the success of Black men and students of color in general.”

In June, the hashtag #BlackinTheIvory went viral on Twitter, with over 10,000 people sharing their experiences with racism in higher education, ranging from being asked whether they belong on campus spaces like labs and libraries to experiencing physical or sexual abuse and then not being believed. #BlackinTheIvory quickly became more than just a hashtag, becoming a movement connecting Black students and faculty who had faced racism throughout their time in higher education.

Alumna Joy Melody Woods (MA ’19  Schools, Culture, and Society) and colleague Shardé Davis co-created the hashtag with the intent to share their personal experience as Black women in higher education. 

Woods is currently a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin and Davis is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut.

“We were shocked by the amount of people who were using the hashtag, but we weren’t surprised by any of the responses. What we were seeing with the hashtag and everyone telling stories about their experiences was that we are not alone, we were just separated on campuses and across the country and siloed because often times we are one of the only people of color,” says Woods. “We are just trying to be a resource in whatever way that we can for Black people in the ivory tower whether you are staff, undergrad, grad, post-doc, or faculty.”

BIPOC students and faculty are often expected to answer all race or diversity questions that come up in classes or in their institutions. Woods herself is one of three Black people in her department, and is often the only Black person in her classes.

“When conversations of inclusion or diversity or anything that is not white-facing are brought up, I am looked at to be the person to answer those questions for everyone. But I can’t speak for everyone, I can only speak for myself,” says Woods.

Woods says that many nonwhite academics also experience feelings of nonbelonging, being asked if they plagiarized their work, missing out on awards and recognition because of their race, and being told that their research was too limiting because it was focused on race.

“When people of color research issues specifically related to people of color, it’s called ‘mesearch’, as opposed to research, whereas when white people study white people it’s not called mesearch because it’s the norm,” says Hall-Martin.

In higher education, BIPOC faculty members are often expected to do significantly more unpaid and unrecognized work than their white counterparts. This includes mentoring students of color and being asked to serve on multiple committees, including diversity committees.

“Black and Brown faculty of color are often mentors to students of color outside of their advisees and programs,” says Woods. “When I was at the College of Education, two Black faculty members looked out for me and they did not have to do that. I could go to them and ask for advice, and that is a lot of unpaid labor that is not taken into consideration for tenure or raises.”

Woods says that the recent Black Lives Matter protests resulted in increased attention for #BlackintheIvory, as people across the country reckon with racism embedded in many of our systems.

“This movement hit at the right time because Black people are exhausted because of the treatment that we get. Black people are dying at higher rates than white people, we are losing our jobs, we are being considered essential but not being paid as essential. If Black lives matter outside of the university, then they should matter inside of the university,” says Woods.

Changing the System

While education is facing overdue scrutiny right now, the University of Iowa College of Education’s alumni, faculty, staff, and students are dedicated to changing the system to become a more diverse, equitable, and just place.

Dellyssa Edinboro, a doctoral candidate in Schools, Culture, and Society from Georgetown, Guyana, says that community engagement is one way to combat racial injustice and create more welcoming and diverse spaces. Edinboro was an intern at the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, an artist residency program that reimagines the futures of marginalized people by creating dynamic workspaces for artists of color, as part of the Obermann Humanities for the Public Good initiative.

“This internship solidified the value that I have for community engagement and forming connections and bridges with those outside of academia,” says Edinboro. “I see that an institution is not only sustained by the team, but also the community. That is a part of the conversations we are having right now, that is a part of change.”

Edinboro says that while having more diverse representation is necessary in education, simply having more teachers or professors of color is not enough.

Nationally, in higher education, the majority of full-time tenured faculty members are white. Thirteen percent of full-time faculty members identify as Asian or Pacific Islander, 6% identify as Black, and 6% identify as Latinx. Indigenous faculty members make up less than 1% of full-time faculty members. Non-tenured faculty members receive less pay, are more susceptible to pay cuts or layoffs, and move from institutions more frequently.

People are calling out institutions for the lack of support, lack of compensation, lack of capacity to realize their potential,” says Edinboro. “It’s good to have inclusion and the presence of black voices in institutions, but at this point to really move forward, we need to be looking at what institutions are actually doing for Black people when they are there.”

When staff and faculty members of color leave the institution, it has a deep impact on students of color who relied on those faculty and staff for support. Having staff and faculty of color on campus communicates something about the institution’s commitment to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“As students, we create these bonds with Black faculty, staff, and administrators and then they leave. Then we create bonds with the next individual and they leave, it is a cycle,” says Martin-Stanley II. “There have been too many instances where we have people who could create impactful change who have left for better positions. Why can’t the University of Iowa be that better position?”

Another way institutions can work to improve the way they serve diverse populations is through analyzing their financial and budget structures.

“Institutions put their money where their priorities are,” says Hall-Martin. “If you care about race, equity, and inclusion, your budget structure needs to reflect that and you need to pay for structures and people that will help you move forward.”

Martin-Stanley II agrees that institutions should create space in their budgets to meaningfully support students of color.

“There are several different student organizations at the University of Iowa like Hubbard Scholars, Sista Speak, and the African Student Association, but they are mostly for undergraduates. Their time and energy are all voluntary. They have class and work and on top of that they are trying to cultivate these communities. It can be hard to be a student and a fighter for racial justice on campus when really you are just trying to graduate. Why not try to do everything the university can do to retain students of color,” says Martin-Stanley II.

Right now, diversity, equity, and inclusion are at the forefront of conversations in education institutions across the country, and national education policies. It is crucial to continue that work moving forward, and to root diversity, equity, and inclusion in the ways institutions function.

“Oftentimes we have DEI work as a branch of a department or a branch of a college,” says Martin-Stanley II. “But when you have it as a root, in the mission statement, the vision statement, from the president down, and you are making sure that you hire people who have the same ideology that diversity, equity, and inclusion are important, then that is when real change happens.”

Read more from the Annual Report 2020