We know that racism is woven into the history, structure, and social and intellectual fabric of most institutions of higher education in the United States. In 2015, students protested on campuses across the country, shining a spotlight on racial injustices at colleges and universities and the ways in which underrepresented and marginalized students experience campuses — from their academic to their social and residential environments. Much has been written by students, diversity trainers, and even the U.S. secretary of education about how colleges should respond.
This year, our faculty, staff, and first-year students at Elon University read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait. The “we” in King’s title is meant to address not only black Americans, but also white Americans and community leaders — from church pastors to the president of the United States. More than 50 years later, King’s appeal is no less urgent and the “we” no less inclusive. Students can wait no longer, and as university leaders, neither can we. How can we reactively, as well as proactively, address students’ concerns and improve the college experience for all? Higher education administrators, faculty, and staff need not wait for another student protest in order to act.
In his recent New York Times editorial, “The Lie about College Diversity,” Frank Bruni urges higher education leaders to work proactively in their respective institutions to “challenge ingrained assumptions, disrupt entrenched thinking, broaden the frame of reference, … [and create] an optimal learning environment for all students: white as well as black, privileged as well as underprivileged.” At Elon — where we too have had racist and other bias incidents — we see enormous potential to create such transformative educational opportunities. Through a particular initiative, we are endeavoring to shift the university toward becoming more residential to better integrate students’ academic, social, and living experiences.
In our university’s most recent strategic plan, the Elon Commitment (2010-2020), we identified a residential campus plan as an institutional priority that promised to, over the course of a decade, “transform the campus culture to more deeply engage students of all classes around intellectual and personal development and further Elon’s strong sense of community.” We did this because we knew from research that, if designed and implemented well, the integration of students’ academic, social, and residential experiences could lead to an enhanced intellectual climate, improved academic performance, increased engagement with diversity, and stronger university affinity.
We have been referring to this plan as the “Residential Campus Initiative”; it facilitates inclusive community building, from senior leaders to students, and demands that inclusive educational strategies and practices be instituted everywhere, from classrooms to residence halls. Advancing this initiative requires that we dismantle silos that impede collaboration between and across departments and divisions at the university, and requires instead that we cultivate collaborative partnerships, particularly between student life and academic affairs — two divisions that we know serve as the nexus of most students’ experiences at liberal arts universities.
A few of our early successes include:
● Creating a residentially linked core curriculum for first-year students through which academic advising, admissions, core curriculum staff, and residential life staff all work together to ensure that each section of a foundation’s course consists of a diverse group of first-year students
● Ensuring that our 21 residentially based learning communities bring students together from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences to more deeply engage in a particular topic or interest under the guidance of a faculty or staff member
● Increasing the number of faculty working in partnership with student life professionals to develop a “home” for students that is as physically comfortable as it is intellectually engaging and socially dynamic, made possible by our residential faculty affiliates program and faculty who live on campus
● Creating, in partnership with our dining services provider, a range of opportunities for students to engage in intellectual discourse with faculty, staff, and visiting scholars, including a full-time professional staff member who facilitates partnerships and opportunities to interact across differences; in fall 2015, that staff member successfully launched community dinners as a way for students to gather and talk about important inclusion issues on campus
Our residential campus initiative positions faculty and staff to better serve students outside of the classroom, helping students engage with diversity socially, work through and across differences academically, and practice inclusive thinking. We are now exploring opportunities to leverage our residentially linked courses and learning communities to infuse intercultural competency education into students’ first-year experience. And, because 72 percent of Elon students study abroad in locations around the world, we are working to identify ways to better bring their international experiences back to our campus, where it is likely that a majority of students in an upper-level course will have had a study abroad experience.
Other campuses have leveraged student organization funding to incentivize interaction across diverse groups, because funding is enhanced when two or more disparate groups plan events together. Berea College emphasizes the importance of this work in roommate selection and the role of residential life in helping students learn, according to the school’s website, “how to live comfortably with others within a spectrum of the world’s cultures.”
Other college campuses are working to enhance positive, meaningful interactions with local communities, which can often be more diverse than the university population.
Institutions of higher education can serve as a vehicle for equity and social justice, educating and supporting an increasingly diverse population through inclusive excellence. However, they can only do this successfully through the sustained efforts of a strong, interconnected community. The push for equity, diversity, and inclusion is the work of critical, intentional community building undertaken with the aim of transforming culture. The efforts of residential colleges and universities such as Elon — which are more fully integrating students’ living and learning environments — seek to transform campuses into intellectually engaging places that promote civic responsibility, lifelong learning, and global citizenship.
Successful initiatives require producing and sustaining the institutional and campus-specific climate conditions that allow different people to develop, thrive, and feel safe and included. Because these efforts call for an “all-in” approach to accomplish a true integration of students’ academic, social, and residential experiences, we believe that residential campus initiatives offer institutions a promising pathway to comprehensively infuse principles and practices of inclusivity, intercultural competence, and social justice in a systematic, sustainable way.
Those of us at predominantly white institutions must continue to work toward increasing the compositional diversity of our student body, as well as that of our faculty and staff. However, through the infusion of inclusivity and intercultural competencies into our residential campus initiative, we at Elon are also working hard to achieve what Frank Bruni identifies as the ultimate goal of a more diverse university population: “meaningful interactions between people from different backgrounds, with different scars and different ways of looking at the world.”
We have much to do, and we plan to keep at it. We continue to strive for more diversity of students and colleagues, more positive and meaningful interactions across that diversity, and more development of intercultural knowledge, skills, and attitudes as part of our simultaneous and continuous efforts on this urgent and forever unfinished agenda.●
Brooke Barnett, PhD, is the associate provost for inclusive community and professor of communications at Elon University. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Shannon Lundeen, PhD, is the director of academic initiatives for the residential campus and an associate professor at Elon University.