Attacking Systemic Racism in Higher Ed

James H. Johnson, Jr. and Donna-Marie Winn


By James H. Johnson, Jr. and Donna-Marie Winn

If predominantly white institutions of higher education are serious about eliminating systemic racism on their campuses, they must begin with an honest and transparent benchmark assessment of who cleans, who teaches, who attends, who plays which sports, who gets research support and who holds leadership roles that control decision-making and shape policy.

This information must be widely disseminated to the public through the same channels used to publicize major gifts. At the same time, the assessment must drive strategic initiatives and shifts in policy to rectify racial disparities and devise key performance indicators to monitor progress toward racial equity. 

In the meantime, PWI leaders must take four actions to improve the racial climate on campus:

  • Create physical spaces that are visually welcoming and affirming.  Remove all pictures, statues, building names, and other honorific depictions of known slave owners and staunch segregationists. Infuse campuses with depictions of honorable Black contributors. Reserve depictions of athletes to athletic spaces; create separate spaces that tell the entirety of their impact on university communities.
  • Swiftly penalize anti-Black racist language and behavior. Revamp policy to increase penalties for using anti-Black, racist epithets, language, items or gestures in the campus community. Streamline investigations to ensure fairness, timeliness, and justice. A confirmed first student offense should trigger a one-year suspension from the university. A second offense not only will result in dismissal from the university but also a permanent notation on the transcript explaining the violation. Develop parallel sanctions for faculty and staff.
  • Ensure course content is fact-based. Correct the narratives and content in all courses about Whites, Blacks and Indigenous people. Eliminate content that overemphasizes White contributions and ignores, truncates, minimizes, dehumanizes and/or pathologizes Black contributions. Add narratives and content that accurately depict how the original sins of this country against Indigenous and Black people have persisted and evolved, but have not ceased. Similar to the Institutional Review Board, which is responsible for ethical and regulatory oversight of research involving human subjects, establish a Curriculum Review Board to audit existing courses and screen proposed offerings for half-truths and/or racist content.
  • Engage students in efforts to eradicate systemic racism from campus life. Start by offering freshman seminars that seek answers to the question: “What can I do to root out any bias that I have and who can hold me accountable?” Continue these courageous conversations throughout students’ college experience.  

PWI leaders also must take three specific steps to broaden Black students’ access and enhance their academic experience:

  • Broaden admission criteria. Discontinue reliance on admissions tests that poorly predict successful matriculation for Black and White students. In an increasingly diverse education marketplace, leverage the latest research on racially and culturally appropriate admission criteria and align the necessary academic supports to ensure academic success of Blacks and other students of color. Create a profile of Black students admitted and not admitted each academic year. For both groups, generate separate profiles of native-born and foreign-born Blacks. Foreign-born Black students report more positive educational experiences than native-born Black students who attend PWIs.
  • Embrace consequential leadership diversity. Ensure that the demographics of the board of trustees, senior leadership, and department heads reflect the broader community. It is critically important and self-affirming for Black and other students of color to see people who look like them in weighty leadership and decision-making roles and not just check-the-diversity-box roles. 
  • Repair a tiny fraction of the incalculable harm. Fund the education of all historically, Black-identifying descendants of enslaved people who built PWIs or were forced to work for institutions’ administrators and faculty.5To address the enduring legacy of racial discrimination in education, employment and housing, do the same for the children of current Black employees whose earnings often do not allow them to cover the basics for their families. To ensure transparency, publish data yearly, beginning with a 20-year retrospective, on how much scholarship funding children of faculty and administrators as well as university alumni and major donors receive, in contrast to that received by children whose parents clean and tend to PWIs.

Properly implemented, these recommendations will go a long way toward creating a more inclusive culture on PWI campuses, one that creates a greater sense of belonging for Blacks and other people of color

James H. Johnson, Jr. is William Rand Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Donna-Marie Winn, a licensed clinical psychologist, researcher, strategist and trainer, is president and CEO of Kaleidoscope Pathways, LLC.

This article was first published in Higher Ed Works,, a non-partisan public charity that supports public higher education in North Carolina.

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1 Comment on "Attacking Systemic Racism in Higher Ed"

  1. Ellie Kinnaird | July 28, 2020 at 4:25 pm | Reply

    What happened to Danita Mason-Hogans’ proposal for reparations to descendants of slaves who built the university? Ay response from the University?

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