Three Things HBCU Presidents Can Do To Lead Culture Change in Criminal Justice Reform

Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough wrote in Inside Higher Ed this week about the need for college presidents to stop making statements on police violence against black people and to start doing substantive work on the issue.

How do we pay more attention to the laws that are passed, who is elected to enforce those laws and where we can create opportunities for citizen oversight? What kind of routine education can we provide not only for our students but also for the greater community to ensure we keep up with the issues? My wife said we have to go from simply being caring and compassionate to being consistently committed to grappling with the issues.

In the book The Time Is NowJoan Chittister writes, “It takes no small amount of courage to speak a different truth, to ask a different question than is common to our peers.” I have read some moving statements from my colleagues in response to the death of George Floyd. I have no criticism of those statements, but I want to profess a different truth.

No more statements.

Kimbrough has a strong point; it is up to HBCUs to do the difficult work of lending research and scholarship to the issues of the day which are disproportionately harming black people. The HBCU community has been and continues to do this work on a regular basis, from surveys of black residents’ attitudes towards policing in Baltimore, to faculty writing books and commenting in media about black political capital and trends, to alumni researching the contemporary and historic trends of slavery, lynching, and discrimination through generations, like Xavier University of Louisiana alumna Jhacova Williams.

The work is being done, but Kimbrough makes clear that we need more specific analysis and amplifying of the message beyond trafficking outrage. So if it is true that presidents are missing the mark with their statements taking most of the public attention, how can presidents distribute that attention more evenly to the work actively being done without recognition?

Here are three suggestions, using Kimbrough and Dillard as the model for how the sector can get better in short order.

Presidents should write and serve as principal investigator for federal grants

Since 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice has paid more than $25.9 million in grants to 18 municipal government agencies and non-profits in New Orleans to support criminal justice reform, crime prevention and victim advocacy.

Dillard features a criminal justice major as one of its strongest and most popular programs but did not receive any of the funding as a prime or sub-award recipient while Tulane University, the Louisiana State University System, Loyola University and the Orleans Parish School District were able to earn more than $860,000 in funding.

Kimbrough, a regular presence in national media on higher education issues, would be virtually guaranteed funding as a principal investigator on criminal justice reform projects; if only because the DOJ could rely on his public platform to amplify their funding priorities in minority communities like NOLA.

Presidents should have a personal stake in promoting the justice work of faculty, students, staff and alumni

Last month, Kimbrough wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the complex questions surrounding reopening campuses given the disparate impact of the virus on black communities. But his remarks did not mention the work of Dillard’s Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center, which a month prior to his editorial, was among the first HBCUs in the nation to author a white paper on the connection between coronavirus and comorbidities in black communities throughout Louisiana, among the nation’s earliest identified COVID-19 infection hotspots.

Since that editorial, the research center partnered with the New Orleans Health Department to offer free COVID-19 testing in late May, to which Kimbrough dedicated several tweets and spotlight through his Medium account.

If the conversation is about going beyond statements and using platforms to promote work, how much would Dillard and other HBCUs benefit from wider exposure of their activity in the social justice space?

Can HBCU presidents and chancellors, some who through contracting with public relations firms or visibility on social media now have an increasing presence in traditional media on issues of social justice, be more willing to cite their own campuses in their own words as examples of social justice in action and deed?

Presidents should make social justice a measurable part of the academic mandate

There are few industries for which HBCU students are being trained where social and racial justice are not issues, but is that reality embedded into the academic delivery culture of campuses? It may be present in teaching and learning, but is it part of how faculty and staff are reviewed for merit, tenure, and promotion?

Is it part of how students are measured for academic proficiency or social service? Is it part of how we define alumni giving and partnership with the university?

As commenter John Wilson posted in Kimbrough’s Inside Higher Ed article:

While I appreciate this statement against mere statements, the question is, what can colleges actually do about police brutality? The answer is that colleges can use their academic structures to address the issue of police brutality. The answer, I think, is to create interdisciplinary academic programs devoted to stopping police brutality, to promote the academic study of police brutality, develop training programs for police to avoid brutality, develop training programs for activists to fight police brutality, help journalists learn how to cover police brutality, work with law students to help victims file complaints and lawsuits against police, and much more. So I would challenge President Kimbrough and all the other college presidents who are making statements like this. Will you commit to creating academic programs to fight police brutality?

While it may not be simple to reconstruct academic programs and training around police brutality and criminal justice reform when the same should be done for public health disparities, financial inequities, voter disenfranchisement, housing discrimination, labor access, race and gender-based wage gaps, lack of representation in mass media, sexual and gender identity discrimination, educational discipline disparities, racial disparities in environmental toxicity, disparities in start-up capital and investment for black entrepreneurs, lack of representation in corporate leadership, broadband access, food deserts and more, Wilson’s point is essential; force your faculty to teach the strategies of defeating these evils, make your students learn them, and judge their proficiency on the outcomes they create for Black America locally and beyond.

Will Dillard lead the conversation or was minimizing the value of statements in moments of crisis the slickest way to deliver more of the thing we need the least?