Beyond Suspicion: How American Colleges and Universities Can Reduce Profiling Through Programming

It is believed by many Americans that on the night of February 26, 2012, seven-teen year old Trayvon Martin was profiled, stalked, and ultimately killed as a result of the ‘perceptive-suspicion’, which often invades the lived experiences of African American males in American society. In addressing the findings of the subsequent court case following the teen’s death, President Obama remarked: “there are very few African American men in the country who haven’t had the experience of being (profiled)… that includes me”.

In a study conducted by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, a review of FBI data specific to justifiable homicide found that in non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person. In Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent. In some respect these statistics suggest that within the context of how we as a nation determine guilt and innocence, it is far more likely to be believed that a minority person killed by a white person, is presumably more deserving of his/her fate, than would be believed true for a white person killed by another white person. In light these statistical imbalances, the question for our nation is how do we reduce and eliminate the experiences of ‘profiling’ and ‘assumptive-guilt’, to which many in our country are unfairly subject?

Much of the opportunity to provide frame and structure to the conversation, and achieve positive social change within American society, rest within the higher education community. Colleges and universities after all, have historically served to provide ‘thought-leadership’ to American society, and represent arguably the most significant time in the developmental journey of pliable, young adult students seeking to form their own identities, and life paradigms as they transition from largely ‘dependent’ life realities and world-views, to ‘independent’ realities and world-views within the context of the ‘college-bubble’. In general terms, colleges take in young adults for whom parents are responsible, and graduate adults who should ultimately be responsible for themselves, and the betterment of society.

And frankly this most recent polarizing example of ‘profiling’ could not have come at a better time for American higher education. As questions of cost, relevance, and the meaningful use of the ‘college experience’ remain at the forefront of national discussion and debate, colleges and universities have a unique opportunity to play a critical leadership role in correcting the punitive dynamics of race in our nation, while concurrently achieving the realization of a more sensitive, broadminded, and ethnically aware citizenry within the United States.

Given the current landscape of American higher education, and the nature of the opportunities that lie ahead to improve the lived experience’s for African American males, and other minority groups within American society, I offer three imperatives upon which higher education must act in order to seize this opportunity to lead efforts toward positive change, from the American campus, to the larger American culture.

1. Focus the learning experience on the intercultural and global competencies needed for success in today’s diverse society. In today’s global environment, colleges and universities bear a tremendous responsibility to construct and deliver educational programming that not only equips students to compete and succeed intellectually across academic disciplines, but also intelligently across a number of cultural expressions and experiences. In short, higher education bears a large portion of the responsibility for the emergence of a fully integrated person, post matriculation. Persons who are emotionally mature, and embody the wherewithal to think critically and compassionately across a myriad of far reaching societal issues. Moving forward, colleges and universities must continue to prioritize curricular and co-curricular programming that intentionally exposes students to a global context, and the realities incumbent therein. Diversity in new student recruitment, study abroad programming, diversity education programming, real-world simulative experiences, etc, must be positioned as ‘mission critical’ to the learning experience, and not positioned as merely ancillary components of the larger academic experience. Diversity education must become imperative to the full completion of the educational process, and a permanent part of our educational identity.

2. Ensure that the use of emerging technology within the educational experience incorporates the opportunity to build community. As we continue to move things online what happens to our opportunity to build community? In considering the rise, placement, and the scalability of delivery through Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), Dan Greenstein of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, raised questions as to whether or not higher education is suffering from “innovation exhaustion”. While others like Cathy Sandeen, Vice President for Education Attainment and Innovation, at the American Council on Education (ACE), have raised concerns about the “meaningful use”, and “appropriate placement” of the advanced technology in higher education. As technological advances continue to provide expanded platforms upon which to deliver educational programming, colleges and universities must take a serious look at how they will maintain the vital essence of ‘community’, which has historically been a critical under-pinning to both the college experience, and the social development of students. Much of the ‘student development’ and paradigm formation that occurs during the college years hinges on the historical, yet brilliant concept of human interaction and personal engagement, both inside and outside of the classroom; as cultural expressions and experiences collide, and students organically develop the framework for how they will articulate ‘community’ within their unique spatial circumstances. And as the demand to offer more insular learning opportunities increases, colleges and universities must find new ways to integrate the ‘human’ touch in both curricular and co-curricular learning, and must continue to help students provide meaningful response to the following: (a) Who am I, (b) Who are my peers, (c) How do we live in community, (d) What will my life produce, (e) and What will be my legacy. Colleges and universities are in a unique position to define what knowledge about the world graduates take away with them, and must ensure the continuance of meaningful and introspective dialogue with students.

3. Leverage collective influence to ensure that diversity remains a legal priority in college admissions. Although it is clear that our nation has achieved great strides in improving the lived the experiences of minority populations, there remains an even greater opportunity to expand the reach of diversity and inclusion even further. The recent Supreme Court ruling in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case, in many ways left more questions than answers, and provided little if any guidance for how colleges and universities should manage efforts to achieve student diversity in higher education going forward. In a 2009 speech to a Joint Session of Congress, President Obama noted that the educational levels of our citizens, puts our nation at risk for economic decline, noting that “countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow”. Much research has conclusively shown that diversity in our learning environments improves critical thinking, research and innovation, and is an overall economic asset. Colleges and universities must identify ways to wield their collective influence to shape the policies that govern admission practices to ensure that diversity in college admissions is protected as mission critical to our advancement as a nation, and not merely viewed as a social cause for minority populations.

American higher education has a tremendous opportunity to shape the future of American society, and positively address many of the ‘ills’ that plague our nation. Providing the appropriate educational experiences to our emerging young citizens will enable them to move beyond uninformed biases, and the limiting stereotypes that often accompany those biases.

Maintaining this focus will be critical to ensuring that future generations have the intellectual dexterity and awareness to engage both society, and the marketplace with an informed global consciousness; and further ensure that they are poised and prepared to thrive in the world of diverse ideas. Colleges and universities should lead the way in framing the path to achieve these outcomes. No other institution in American society is more qualified to do so.