A few weeks ago, the President of Connecticut College announced her resignation, effective at the conclusion of this academic year. Her announcement arrived less than a month after students commenced a ten-day occupation of Conn’s central administrative building, constituting the fourth – and by far the longest – student occupation in the college’s history.
On the surface, student protests arose in response to an earlier announcement regarding the resignation of Conn’s dean of institutional equity and inclusion. That the protests maintained momentum, and garnered support from many corners of campus (including an overwhelming vote of “no confidence” by the faculty), suggests widespread disaffection and distrust, rooted in broader institutional and sectoral realities that run far beyond than any single event or individual.
Being an adjunct instructor at Conn this year, a student and teacher of Asian American politics, and someone professionally engaged in enhancing institutional diversity and inclusion myself, I watched these developments with keen interest. Given my professional background and academic training, I was curious to explore what public datasets may reveal regarding any of the student activists’ enumerated demands.
One point struck me as especially ripe for further investigation: the “immediate prioritization of hiring more BIPOC faculty and staff throughout all offices.” A quick review of fall 2021 data (the most recent available), submitted by higher education institutions to the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), does confirm that Conn stands out a bit in the demographic homogeneity of at least a couple staffing categories.
Across those employees classified as “Student and Academic Affairs and Other Education Services,” 86% of staff at Conn are white, compared to 63% at Trinity, 52% at Wesleyan, and 62% at Yale. And, among those categorized under “Librarians, Curators, and Archivists,” not a single such staff member at Conn identifies as a person of color. I interpret these numbers as suggestive that Conn’s students of color may be less likely to encounter those who look like themselves when seeking support outside the classroom than are similarly situated students at peer institutions in the state.
Conn’s challenges notwithstanding, however, one would be remiss to give other elite institutions in the state too much credit. While colleges and universities may have had varying degrees of success in diversifying the racial demographics of their student bodies, and perhaps even in the hiring of some lower- and mid-level student-facing staff positions, their institutional hierarchies continue to remain exceedingly racially homogenous, a fact that holds true across most of U.S. higher education.
According to the most recent Census estimates, 64.6% of our state’s residents identify as “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino.” And, yet, the proportion of full-time management positions held by individuals identifying as white stood at 80% at Connecticut College, 78% at Trinity, 83% at Wesleyan, and 77% at Yale, in the fall of 2021. Even Trinity and Yale’s marginally better numbers look less impressive when considered in light of the diverse demographics of their respective metropolitan areas.
Lest one imagine such demographic discrepancies are limited to the wealthiest institutions, consider that the racial composition of administrators at the state’s other national institutions looks as bad or even worse relative to our state population. The proportion of those in full-time management roles identifying as white is 83% at the University of Connecticut, University of Hartford, and Quinnipiac, 87% at Sacred Heart, and a rather remarkable 92% at Fairfield.
To be sure, representation alone will never be sufficient to improve campus experiences and outcomes for students of color, but it is a very necessary and long overdue first step. The relatively stagnant composition of college decision-makers across the various fiefdoms of the academic bureaucracy at all of our most prominent institutions of higher learning gives rise to the understandably ubiquitous sentiments of feeling unseen and unheard among students and staff who belong to populations that continue to be marginalized and minoritized at elite, historically white institutions.
Moreover, representation without power and influence is just window dressing – diversity as performativity, neither inclusive nor equitable. The widely publicized prevalence of high turnover among professionals in various diversity roles on campuses across the country is likely also attributable to lack of institutional support and impact. Many administrators of color feel overworked and overlooked, their contributions under-compensated and their voices silenced.
What lessons might be learned from thoughtful consideration of recent events at a small liberal arts college in New London? After more than two decades working in higher education, I believe the protests at Conn should serve as a timely reminder of the much wider extent of failed diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across most higher education institutions in our state (and our country).
In the end, it’s not simply about having a smattering of token Black and brown faces here and there, but about having enough of us in the right places – in meaningful numbers across an organization, with meaningful power and influence. A single individual in a highly visible chief diversity officer role (whether they stay or go) cannot possibly effect change in the absence of the broad support that can only be realized through a serious and sustained organizational commitment to inclusive and equitable hiring and promotion practices throughout an institution.
We can only hope that the next president of Connecticut College will demonstrate such seriousness of purpose – and set an inspiring and desperately needed example for all of our state’s colleges and universities.
Sourav Guha is a member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.