Undoing racism at UMass Boston and beyond

Let's start with a greater voice for those the university serves 

IN THE MIDST of a nationwide crisis emanating from systemic racism, the University of Massachusetts Boston faced its own crisis: the staging of police forces on campus, preparing to quell Black Lives Matter protests around town. How could this happen at a majority-minority institution just as students, staff, and faculty were joining thousands in the Greater Boston area to challenge structural racism, and police violence in particular? And, perhaps more importantly, how do UMass Boston and other public universities address racism within their own walls while becoming anti-racist leaders more broadly?

In response to this challenge, the Faculty Staff Union at UMass Boston recently called on university administration to implement campus-wide “undoing racism” workshops to advance the process of addressing institutional racism in every aspect of campus life. This is long overdue. And just a start.

UMass Boston has long been one of the region’s — and the nation’s — most diverse universities; a February USA Today report suggests that UMass Boston is the third most diverse university in the country. And, in many ways, our curriculum, support structures, programs, and activities reflect this diversity. The university itself, however, has been resistant to restructuring institutional life in ways that would ensure the full participation of faculty, students, and staff of color — and that fosters inclusive decision-making throughout the university. Surface-level diversity is one thing; restorative justice will take much deeper and more sustained efforts.

This lack of meaningful inclusivity stems at least in part from the fact that the very people who make UMass Boston run – the students, staff, and faculty – actually have very little say over the basic functioning of the university, especially in key areas of budget allocation and programmatic vision. It’s a corporate model in a perversely undemocratic sense: Those with the least connection to what is happening on the ground wield the most power. Virtually all are white.

Some, such as the governor and (many) members of the board of trustees, almost never step on campus, have no experience in higher education, and are often not fully committed to publicly funding common goods such as higher education in the first place. Others, such as top university administrators, are often willfully out of touch, a condition that serves to insulate them as they impose austerity on the very institutions they are supposed to protect and nurture. The recent charm offensive by our interim chancellor to promote the expansion of online education as a panacea for racial opportunity and achievement gaps — at the same time that faculty continue to collect data about how online teaching deepens existing inequalities — is just one example of how our administration becomes part of the problem.

Just a week after interim chancellor Katherine Newman published her case for online education in CommonWealth, the unsurprising announcement was made that the UMass system would be partnering with private Brandman University to rollout out its online university; system president Martin Meehan, seemingly with no shame, connected the timing of the announcement to the dual pandemics of our moment: “Given the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the vivid impact of racial inequality, a venture that previously seemed important to us is nothing less than essential,” he said.

No faculty here at the system’s diversity flagship seem to have been consulted about the venture, and no data have been offered to support the claim that more online options will somehow magically contribute to the aims of restorative racial justice.

This lack of democracy and transparency expresses itself in a multiplicity of ways that are both random and yet oddly predictable. It explains how the UMass Boston campus itself became a staging ground for police during the midst of Black Lives Matter protests; how the very centers, institutes, and university programs that support the city’s most marginalized communities have been financially gutted; how public higher education has been defunded to the point that universities are unaffordable and hostile to many of the communities they are supposed to serve; how the faculty and staff necessary to support students have been routinely laid off; and how employees of color find themselves in hostile work environments that make it impossible (or appallingly difficult) to reach their full potential.

Let us turn this unjust world on its head. What would public universities such as UMass Boston look like if they were run – and funded – as transparent, community-based, expressions of the people they serve? What would it take to advance such a project? This rethinking is what is so compelling about the current moment and partly why protests continue to engulf and challenge the entire nation. It represents an opportunity to restructure not only how universities (and other institutions) are run, but the place of publicly-funded higher education within society as a whole.

The seemingly endless statements of solidarity that are spilling forth are a start. They demonstrate a willingness to change, or at least reflect. Anti-racism workshops are a step further. When done well and with institutional support, they can certainly lead to productive (and at times uncomfortable) discussions, raising awareness about racism within and beyond the university while developing and/or deepening anti-racist practices in the classroom and broader workplace. Taken to their logical conclusion, it’s conceivable that such a process could lead to a much-needed redistribution of power on campus and beyond.

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Ultimately, however, addressing racism and inequality within higher education is not just about who and how decisions are made and resources distributed on campus. It’s about who wields power and purse strings over state-supported higher education more broadly. Racist in practice, if not always intent, the attack on public higher education disproportionately impacts people of color – the majority of UMass Boston students — who find themselves either crippled with student-loan debt or unable to afford college altogether. This is precisely the moment to not only restructure how and who runs public colleges and universities, but to rethink our broader commitment to public goods such as education, health care, and housing that possess the capacity for undoing racism and inequality.

Jeffrey Melnick is a professor and graduate program director in the American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and communications director for the Faculty Staff Union. Steve Striffler is a professor of anthropology and director of the Labor Resource Center at UMass Boston, and president of the Faculty Staff Union.