This is a letter I sent to Purdue’s Board of Trustees this morning regarding the formation of a task force to address racial equity on campus.
My name is Stephanie Masta and I’m an assistant professor in the College of Education, with courtesy appointments in the College of Liberal Arts and the School of Engineering Education. I write to you from a vulnerable position—I am one of the few Native American faculty members on campus and I am untenured. However, a substantial part of my research agenda focuses on the experiences of Indigenous students in predominately-white schools, particularly at the college and university level. My work highlights the importance of institutional accountability in terms of racial justice. It is from my position as both a Native scholar and educational researcher that I share some thoughts regarding the formation of the task force to address racial equality.
Several years ago I read the book Pym by Mat Johnson. The book details the experiences of an African-American professor, one of which is refusing to serve on the diversity committee at his college. He shares “The diversity committee has one primary purpose: so that the school can say it has a diversity committee. They need that for when students get upset about race issues or general ethnic stuff. It allows the faculty and administration to point to it and go, ‘Everything is going to be okay, we have formed a committee.’ People find it very relaxing. It’s sort of like, if you had a fire, instead of putting it out, you formed a fire committee.” The task force needs to be more forceful and powerful than a diversity committee.
We do not need another task force to simply study the impacts of racism on higher education, as the research on this already exists (see Cabrera, 2018; Feagin, Vera, & Imani, 2014; Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Patton, 2016). There is a long-established body of research that points to the inequity experienced by Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students at historically white colleges and universities (see Masta, 2018; Minthorn & Shotton, 2014; Patton, Haynes, & Croom, 2017; Yosso, Smith, Ceja, Solórzano, 2009). In my own research, I’ve found that Indigenous students in higher education experience social and cultural isolation, are expected to defend and justify their existence to peers, and are tokenized by faculty.
History shows that institutions are endlessly forming task forces, making recommendations, implementing a program or two—but with almost no material shift in campus culture or climate. This pattern makes it easy to believe that at some level, universities are more invested in maintaining the status quo than they are in embarking on the radical transformation needed to make our institutions places of racial equity.
The Purdue community deserves a task force willing to rise to the challenge of the current times and address Black, Indigenous, and Latinx student, staff, and faculty needs. Doing real work means admitting there is real work to be done and committing to all the steps it requires, discomfort and all.
As such, I encourage the Board of Trustees to consider the following suggestions when convening and charging the task force:
- Create a task force make-up that consists of and prioritizes the voices of racial equity scholars, graduate and undergraduate students, and Black/Latinx/Indigenous community members, and also includes individuals with institutional decision-making power (e.g. financial).
- Conduct a careful review of peer institutions’ diversity task forces and programs to know what has worked and not worked at similar institutions.
- Provide ongoing and public financial and institutional support for initiatives put forth by the task force.
- Include a review institutional policies and practices to identify those that harm Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students and a make a commitment to address these policies and practices.
- Communicate frequently with students, staff, faculty, campus stakeholders, and community members about the status and progress made by the task force.
Thank you for your time.
I would like to thank Jess Roff, Elizabeth Leonard, Amy Ariel, Anne Kosseff-Jones, Sollie Flora, H May, and Mary Parker for their comments and suggestions on drafts of this statement.