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Who’s Missing From the Conversation?

January 2018

By Marta Perez Drake

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If higher education leaders choose to leave their comfort zones and model a big-circle approach, they can set the tone for campus inclusivity, encourages Beverly Daniel Tatum, NACUBO’s 2018 Leadership Series speaker.

In her significant work to advance the dialogue about race in America, Beverly Daniel Tatum, scholar, educator, administrator, and past president of Spelman College, tackles tough topics. She has written about the impact of continued segregation in public schools; urged leaders to use their spheres of influence to break the stereotype cycle; and encouraged administrators to note who is missing from the table, the discussion, and the succession pipeline.

As the ninth president of Spelman College, Atlanta—a historically black college for women—Tatum helped elevate the institution to a widely recognized liberal arts college. During her tenure (2002–15), Spelman created the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement; and, in 2008, a $17 million gift established the Gordon-Zeto Endowed Fund for International Initiatives.

Tatum oversaw numerous other improvements, including campus expansion and renovation that always incorporated environmental sustainability, with all new construction and renovation required to be completed at no less than LEED Silver standards.

Tatum’s recently updated 1997 book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race (Basic Books, 2017) was recommended by The New York Times as required reading for private school teachers and administrators in the New York area. The book, for the most part based on Tatum’s experience in teaching, provides guidance for opening up conversations about race that can lead to a commitment to understand others’ points of view.

At NACUBO’s signature programs—Endowment and Debt Management Forum, Student Financial Services Conference, Higher Education Accounting Forum, Planning and Budgeting Forum, and Tax Forum—Tatum will discuss the topics of leadership and racial identity in higher education.

In this interview with Business Officer magazine, Tatum provides a preview of the upcoming presentations.

You’ve been active for decades in advancing the conversation about race in America, and in your new book, you’ve reflected on how things have changed during the past 20 years. You highlighted some areas of unrest in the areas of race and diversity, that resulted in demonstrations on college and university campuses. What do you think leaders at those campuses can do in this environment to more openly address issues of diversity?

One of the best things that campus leaders can do is to model a willingness to talk about these issues. If you look at the two examples in my new book—one being the University of Missouri, the other being Amherst College—the key difference between the responses of the two presidents was a willingness to talk.

At the University of Missouri, the system president avoided the conversations for a long time, until the situation erupted and led to his stepping down, along with the chancellor of the flagship campus. On the other hand, the president at Amherst College was very responsive, not necessarily agreeing with everything that the students had to say, but willing to engage in dialogue. She did so early on, as opposed to letting the tension build up over time.

But, even if we stepped outside those two crisis examples, and considered students in the midst of a more general protest, campus leaders can sometimes diffuse the situation by their willingness to converse about the students’ issues.

I describe another example in the book. Franklin and Marshall College conducted a day of dialogue, in October of 2016, to which President Dan Porterfield invited me. He and I held a public conversation, explaining the focus of the day and conducting a welcome ceremony. President Porterfield was engaged with me in this conversation about why dialogue is so important, why these conversations matter—in front of hundreds of students and members of the campus community. He did a fabulous job, not only in talking about why it was important to the campus, but, as a white man, why it was important to him. Some of his early experiences and learnings helped inform his view of why diversity was so important, and how to embrace it, as opposed to pushing it away. It was a powerful example for his students, the faculty and staff, and other campus leaders. It doesn’t always have to be the president, but more campus leaders could model that kind of personal commitment and vulnerability, and how it is possible to have these conversations and to do so productively.

In the context of my experience as president of Spelman College, the conversation was not so much about diversity in terms of race, but more in terms of, for example, religious diversity or sexual orientation. It made a difference to the campus community when I talked directly about those things in my campus speeches; or wrote about them in columns in the alumnae magazine; or, sometimes, attended events such as one organized by a group of Muslim students to help educate the campus about their faith. Being physically present in the room signals a kind of support that students appreciate.

We received a gift at Spelman during my time there to help digitize the archived papers of Audre Lorde, a well-known black feminist, so that scholars could have easier access to them. Lorde was a lesbian and wrote about her sexual orientation. As part of a campus convocation speech, in acknowledging the gift, I talked about its significance and made reference to Audre Lorde, not only as an important figure in black history, but to the fact that she was a lesbian. When I mentioned that part of her identity, I could hear uncomfortable chatter in the audience. Yet, I thought it was an important thing to mention because, of course, it was critical to who she was in her writing. It was also important to say that these are things we can talk about.

You’ve talked about leaders who embrace this kind of honesty and personal commitment. Vulnerability can hold leaders back, this concern about reputational risk and not knowing what to say. What else might explain why leaders sometimes are resistant to model this dialogue, and what advice might you give them? 

I was with a group of presidents at a recent conference. And, one thing that we talked about was the fact that, in this age of social media, you can be caught saying something that wasn’t the best choice of words. Or, if you make a mistake, it can quickly go viral in ways that feel very risky. I don’t want to minimize that; it’s a real possibility.

If we can talk about the fact that none of us is perfect, that we all have something to learn, and we all have something to teach—we can share our respective experiences in ways that can enrich the conversation. This has been my experience over the 40 years of my career. If you are consistent in your effort, and if you make a sustained effort, it doesn’t mean that you won’t sometimes make a mistake, or something might happen that makes people angry with you. That is, perhaps, unavoidable. But, people will likely recognize those efforts and give you credit for them. That can create a kind of trust, so that you have some social capital when things go awry.

Even though we have many predominantly white institutions, our student population is becoming increasingly diverse. While we try to confront racist histories and the structure in which racism remains instilled, we still have a lot of predominantly white leaders and faculty at the helm of our colleges and universities. With possible tension among leaders and students, how do we allow for better dialogue and the possibility of increased understanding around race and inclusion, and diversity?

One of the things that we need to always ask is, “Who’s missing from the picture?” The student population is changing rapidly, but at our institutions, the employee population is not changing at the same rate. Faculty stay in their tenured roles a long time. And, the turnover, even at the staff level, is often not that frequent either.

So, the fact that faculty, staff, and administration do not reflect the rapidly changing student population is going to take some time to change. We need openings that give the opportunity for increased diversity, and we need to build a pipeline. At the faculty level, we’ve been working at this for quite some time. And, slowly, but steadily, you can see improvements in terms of graduate school completion and more people being prepared for leadership opportunities, as they open up. But, it is a slow process.

If we get into the habit of asking who’s missing from this pipeline, and who’s missing out on new opportunities, it can help us become more creative in identifying diverse candidates and to bring other voices to the table. In the classroom, sometimes that means guest speakers; other times it means community talent.

Since I taught at predominantly white institutions, most of my students were white. For my class on the psychology of racism, it was important to my white students to hear from other white people talking about how to come to terms with their own identity as white people, recognizing their privilege, and using that advantage to work against racism. Even though I could talk about the same things, and tell them that it was possible for some white people to do that, as an African American woman, I couldn’t model it for them.

When I asked about who’s missing from the conversation, it was white adults with the described experience. So, I invited white speakers to come to the class and talk about those issues, because my students wanted to know about them. While I could assign readings, and talk about the issues, I couldn’t speak from my own firsthand experience.

In your book, you talk about amplifying the missing voices that can help students understand their white privilege. What have been some aha moments, when you’ve begun to see that you are making an impact and helping people better understand themselves and their reactions?

The structure of my class was not unlike the structure of the book. The two are correlated, since I first wrote Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race as a response to my years of teaching the course and feeling that I really wanted to capture in written form what I was learning from my classes.

The book, as well as the class, consists of three parts: What? So what? And now what?

The what is, “What is racism?” How do we think about that? What’s the difference between prejudice—those individual attitudes that we all have—and racism—the institutionalized policies and practices that, while sometimes not visible, structure the way that we interact with each other. In the past, and certainly continuing in the present, those practices also systematically advantage white people and disadvantage people of color.

The so what refers to, “What does racism mean? How do we think about ourselves as human beings living in a social system, and how do we view other people? That’s what the identity development section of the book is about: helping all of us understand not only how we think about ourselves, but how people different from ourselves might be thinking about who they are in the context of a race-conscious society.

Finally, the now what asks, “What can we do about it?” Now that we understand these things, how can we use our own spheres of influence to begin to interrupt the cycle of racism, if that is what we feel moved to do?

How did your teaching inform the way you elaborate on these three concepts in your book?

Whether I was teaching traditional-age students or adults, who were taking the course for professional development, the most important part of the learning was an increased awareness of their own self-knowledge. For white participants, in particular, the notion of privilege and systematic advantage is often an uncomfortable idea. That’s because most people simply don’t notice. If they are not being followed around in a store, they don’t think: “Nobody followed me around today.” Or, if they are driving and not being stopped by police, they don’t say, “Wow, I got home without anybody stopping me.” Privilege is often unnoticeable to the person who’s receiving it. It just seems like ordinary life.

To address that, I’ve tried to help people step back and take a look at how ordinary life can seem very different, depending on your racial category. I gave assignments that involved “self-generated knowledge.” Rather than asking skeptical students to take the word of an article, a professor, or anyone else, I’d give them a field assignment. Go to the mall and spend an hour observing people. Walk into a department store and pay attention to who is being followed around in the store and who’s not. Or, observe, when you are paying for something and want to write a check, the amount of identification the clerk asks for. Is that the same ID required of the person in front of you, who may be racially different from you?

Students would make note of their own experiences and share them in class, and people would have differing experiences to share.

What I found most helpful was to acknowledge the main source of resistance that I noticed: They don’t want to feel blamed or attacked. They don’t want to feel like someone is accusing them of being a bad person. Being privileged has nothing to do with an individual’s character; it is simply a comment on the way society operates.

It’s a way of helping people understand that misinformation, stereotypes, and distorted information about certain groups are so pervasive in our society. It’s like smog in the air. If we live in that environment, we can’t avoid breathing the smog.

The most important question is not about breathing dirty air; it is, “What are you doing to clean up the air?”It is not your fault that we’ve lived in smoggy places. But, we all have a collective responsibility to think about how we can clean up the air.. And, certainly, we don’t want to make it any dirtier.

Understanding the impact of history is also critical. Colleges and universities are in a great position to help students do that. If we know and understand the history of our country, what we see happening today should be no surprise. It is simply a reflection of the past and the present coming together in a cumulative way. But a lot of people don’t know the nation’s history, and fail to make these connections.

You explain in your book that the back story of the Black Lives Matter movement is relevant to the millennials who populate our colleges and universities. The tension that millennials felt as they watched demonstrations become front and center—and the way some of their leaders were reacting to high-profile national cases—affected them deeply. Talk a little bit about how we can work with intergenerational perceptions, understanding, and awareness as it relates to race relations. 

The young people who started the Black Lives Matter movement are certainly of the millennial generation, as were many of the people we saw out on the streets. Certain other characteristics are also in play.

For example, Black Lives Matter is a much less hierarchical movement; there’s not just one leader. There’s no Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X, or Jesse Jackson, whom everyone looks to. It’s also self-governing, in the sense that there are a number of organizations around the country that are loosely connected through social media, but are not necessarily all under one umbrella of leadership. And, if you think about how young people today engage in their social lives, it’s like that. There’s a lot of group activity, where people text each other about meeting up at a certain place, where they’ll spend the evening. It’s a loose social connection, not highly organized, and totally part of that generation’s culture.

In thinking about the college protests of 2015, they became intense, in a matter of minutes, because students heard immediately about what was happening at one campus and could rally their friends via Twitter to meet up and do the same thing, because they were also concerned about these issues.

Another important point relates to the political moment. If you were born in the late 1990s, you came of age at a time after President Obama was elected. People were saying that his election marked the end of racism in our society; that perhaps now we are now a post-racial society because we’ve elected the first African American to serve as president of the United States.

While that was certainly an important moment, symbolically, for lots of reasons, we also know that it didn’t solve the problem of racism in America. That became very apparent with all the highly visible shootings of unarmed black men and women. If you were a teenager, hearing that racism is a thing of the past, and also watching the black leader of the free world on television with his family, you’re thinking that things are supposed to be better. And, then, much to your dismay, it turns out they are not.

For those and other reasons, there’s less faith in the political process. I think there’s this sense of urgency that something else has got to happen. We voted for change, and things didn’t change, and voting rights themselves are under attack. The millennial generation feels a kind of impatience, a tiredness about waiting, that manifests itself in the way they protest.

What about the young people who are going to start entering college in the next two to three years. How does a university or a college campus prepare for the influx of a new group of students whose identity development has occurred partly while Barack Obama was president, and, now, as Donald Trump is president? How do we prepare for those students, given where we are? 

Leadership does matter. As human beings, our brains are organized in a way that categorizes information about things as well as people. We tend to categorize people in a very simplistic way: “us” and “them.” Who is part of my group? Who is outside of my group?

The negative impact of this thinking is that it can be so polarizing, something we observe right now. At the same time, human beings are social animals, not unlike wolves. We follow the leader. So, when we have a leader who defines “us” very broadly, drawing a big circle and including all of us in it, the leader is most likely to focus on making sure that everybody in our circle is doing well, and that there is an environment where everyone in the circle feels supported. And, people will generally follow that example.

If you have leadership that says, our circle is small and it’s just us—and we have to worry about those other individuals out there in the world who are a threat to us—we start to think in that way.

Certainly, we can talk about the impact of national leadership, but when we focus on campus leadership, it becomes very important that the campus leaders speak in an inclusive way, rather than an exclusive way. And, when you have campus leaders modeling a big-circle approach, it sets the tone for the campus, and students are likely to follow that leadership example.

Let’s turn to equity on campus and what that means for low-income, first-generation students who are often of color and other underrepresented groups, and who need resources to be successful. As a past president, faculty member, and researcher, what do you think people on campuses can do to embrace the students who really must beat incredible odds to just set foot on a campus? And, how do you keep them there? 

The first thing that institutions can do is ask students what their needs are. We often assume that we already know. And, of course, there are some obvious needs.

If I am applying to an institution that I can’t afford, I’m going to need the big-ticket item, financial aid. Many institutions are trying to figure out how to provide more aid, so that they can help support—from matriculation through graduation—those low-income, underrepresented students that are part of their campus community.

Other needs are less obvious. Students coming into an institution as first-generation students—maybe students of color, with low income—might struggle with a sense of whether they really belong at the institution. These students may be very talented with a lot of grit, which is how they got there in the first place. But, they may still feel that “everybody here knows things that I don’t know.” Or, “they read those books in high school that we didn’t read in my high school.”

A psychologist might refer to this as a stereotype threat—a kind of performance anxiety based on the individual’s feeling that others have stereotypical expectations, which they do not want to fulfill. Fearful of looking stupid or confused, that student might hesitate to take advantage of office hours or other support. Of course, if he or she doesn’t figure things out, there are likely going to be consequences.

What could a professor or an institution do to reduce that kind of anxiety? I’ve known professors who will require that any student who gets lower than a B-plus on the first exam must come for a discussion during office hours. Such a policy reduces the stigma of seeking help and becomes less about self-perceptions of individual inadequacy, and more about the professor’s policy. Once in the office, the student can feel more at ease, ask questions, and not feel stigmatized for his or her performance.

There are some best practices coming out of places like Georgia State, which has gotten a lot of positive press for its success in using data analytics to identify decision points where students get off track. For example, students might not check in with an adviser before dropping a troublesome class, not knowing that by dropping it, the student will not have sufficient course hours to continue eligibility for financial aid. Or, a student may be taking a course that is not in the sequence required for a particular major.

Georgia State is a particularly good model in using data analytics to catch choices that can potentially derail students, and then work to get them back on track quickly. In doing so, they have been able to increase retention, while reducing the graduation gap such that first-generation and low-income students of color are graduating at rates similar to those of white students in their population.

When we, as individuals or institutions, interact with our students, we may inadvertently, or unconsciously, jump to conclusions, returning to categories or stereotypes that we formulated at a very young age. These behaviors can influence, both positively and negatively, our students in ways that we might never imagine. What influences or support might have pointed you toward a positive higher education experience and your highly successful career path? 

I’ll tell you a little bit about myself, which might come as a surprise, because it’s unusual in the context of the African American community. I come from a very long line of educators, and am a fourth-generation college graduate and educator.

My paternal great-grandmother was the first black woman to graduate from Rhode Island State Normal School, in the late 1800s. She became a teacher and taught at Tuskegee University. Her husband, my great-grandfather, William Hazel, was the first head of the School of Architecture at Howard University. Becoming educators and educational leaders is part of my family tradition. My parents were both educators; my father was the first African American professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, where he started teaching in 1958.

Certainly, this gave me tremendous support. My parents were always quite involved in my education. That has been a huge advantage, and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge it.

That said, it is certainly the case that there are situations in which talented students are not identified, because of stereotypes. Or, sometimes, that talent is seen in a way that is discouraging—something that I saw when I was a faculty member advising a very talented young African American woman who was studying at a majority white institution. Her grades were uneven—A’s in some classes, F’s in others. She was on the verge of probation, although she was certainly capable of A-level work.

As we talked about her academic performance, she mentioned a particular class that she was taking toward her major in psychology. She’d gotten a C; I asked her what had gone awry. She explained that she’d gotten an A on the first exam, and when the professor handed the exam back to her, he congratulated her and noted that black students didn’t usually do well in his class. While he probably thought he was saying something positive, she was so offended by his comment—and his perceived bias—that she stopped going to class, which led to her poor performance.

Unfortunately, her refusal to go to class didn’t hurt him; it hurt her. It’s a good example of how messages, which we convey to students about what we expect of them, can be interpreted in lots of different ways.

I’ve also seen the benefit of someone really believing in a student. Certainly, I’ve had people believe in me. When  students feel that someone believes in them and gives them opportunities and encouragement, they will often rise to that expectation and demonstrate the talent that they have.

So, when we are in our organizations, and we see that some groups of students are being encouraged to apply for research opportunities, for example, and other groups of students seem to be floundering, we have to ask ourselves, why is that? There’s talent in every community. If we’re not seeing that talent evenly distributed across our institution, it comes back to asking, “Who’s missing, why is that, and what can we do about it?”

What other guidance might you give, based on experience around the recent publication of your book? 

I’ve been tremendously gratified by the response to the book. While the 1997 version was quite popular, it’s been very exciting in 2017 for me to do book talks and signings in various parts of the country.

I’ve met people who were in college in 1997, read that first edition of the book, and are now educators themselves, reading the new version and using it in their classes. I’ve found that it’s helping them in their teaching or administrative leadership, not only at the college level, but in K–12. It speaks to the fact that people still find it useful—and that, 20 years later, we still have work to do.

Clearly, racism is still an issue in our society. If there’s one thing I would say to your readers, it is this: If you are a senior administrator or a business officer on a college campus, you have your own sphere of influence. Think about how to use that influence to interrupt the cycle; it’s something that we can all do, no matter where we’re sitting. And, I hope that’s something that your readers will take seriously.

MARTA PEREZ DRAKE is senior vice president, education, development, and membership, NACUBO.

Related Topics

If we get into the habit of asking who’s missing from this pipeline, and who’s missing out on new opportunities, it can help us become more creative in identifying diverse candidates and to bring other voices to the table.

For white participants, in particular, the notion of privilege and systematic advantage is often an uncomfortable idea. That’s because most people simply don’t notice.

There’s talent in every community. If we’re not seeing that talent evenly distributed across our institution, it comes back to asking, “Who’s missing, why is that, and what can we do about it?”