February 1, 2021 Faculty Meeting Address

On the Curricular Requirement Focused on Race, Racism, Inclusion, and Equity
Comments to Faculty Meeting

February 1, 2021


I would like to take a few minutes to outline an approach for engaging issues of race, racism, power and privilege in our curriculum and the academic experience of our faculty and students. I want to suggest an approach, first, for engaging with students and faculty on the request of a group of students that we create a requirement that all students take a course in critical race theory and their calls for accountability from faculty, staff, administration, and their fellow students for the lived experience of BIPOC students in and out of the classroom. Second, I would like to talk about our broader institutional commitment to transform our curriculum and teaching overall to encompass consideration of America’s history of racism, its effects on what and how we teach, and on the experiences of both faculty and students in the academic program. 

In the weeks between the end of the Fall semester and today, I, along with Clayton and Noelle, have spent time consulting with students, individual faculty, members of our governance structures, chairs of academic units, and groups of faculty from departments or units who have been in touch to share their input and understand how we will coordinate our work ahead.

Why This Work Is Essential

Let me begin with the following facts and observations. Too many students feel marginalized at Bates because of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. They feel excluded from learning spaces and other important aspects of what Bates claims to offer to all students. This is not due to a lack of talent, resiliency, brilliance, or skill – it is because of the spaces we create. 

The concerns that motivated the student protest this fall and the proposal for a curricular requirement are legitimate and pressing. The Black Lives Matter movement and protests in response to the murders of Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many, many other citizens at the hands of police shed a severe spotlight on the continued racism and injustice experienced by Black Americans. As our colleagues in Africana reminded us: “there is no institution or discipline that has not benefited from the creative and intellectual labor of people of color even as those institutions and disciplines are steeped in the ideology that allows them to ignore those benefits.”  Psychological threat and biased experiences can result in synergistic and damaging feedback loops that lead to highly negative outcomes for BIPOC students. This is in direct conflict with our aspirations as an institution.

The evidence is pervasive, but it is not often understood at a level that creates opportunities for transformative adjustments to the curriculum or the courses that students experience. At the end of the day, the effects of pedagogies and curricula that are not attentive to inclusive and equity-minded practices fall short of our shared expectations of teaching excellence. We are all part of this system, whether we want to be or not, but we also have the means and position to be part of a movement that produces real change. As educators, we have one of the most powerful platforms to do this work, as we are responsible for providing new and transformative perspectives for our students. Part of this work involves educating ourselves so that we may recognize our implicit biases, and open ourselves to an authentic accounting of how we got to where we are. The reality is that there is broad agreement, among the faculty, on these important fundamentals, and we have straightforward approaches available to us to offer our students equality of experience and equal opportunities to thrive. While the work is challenging, it is also among the most rewarding work we can do.

A Plan For Advancing this Work

So what does the work look like, and what is our plan? Stasis is not an option. We cannot be neutral. The focus has to be on changing the systemic aspects of any oppressive system that are inhibiting our students. We must recognize that only inclusive excellence is true excellence. 

Since December, the AAC has organized conversations with BIPOC students and faculty. I have met with student leaders to discuss what our winter semester plans might look like. The AAC initiated a conversation with chairs at the January meeting focused on departmental and programmatic approaches to curricular requirements. We are fortunate to have had wise counsel with productive conversations in all of these spaces. Based on the considerations outlined above, I, working with the AAC, would like to propose a two-pronged approach to addressing race and racism in our curriculum.

First, we will address the proposal that all students be required to take a course in critical race theory. This proposal is grounded in an argument that all students should gain some understanding of the history of racism and white supremacy that has shaped — and misshaped — this nation from its beginnings and remains part and parcel of every institution in our society, including the academy and our academic disciplines. 

To advance this work over the winter break, I initiated some baseline work that will put us in a good position to make progress once the Winter semester begins. I requested that colleagues in IR and my office prepare an inventory of the existing courses in the Bates curriculum that substantially address issues of race, racism, power and privilege. I also asked for data on patterns in course enrollments disaggregated by race and gender. This information will allow us to make informed decisions about pathways potentially available to students outside majors. Finally, I have asked for a review examining similar curricular requirements at other institutions to get a sense of how they are structured, what has proved most effective, and what we can learn. This data-gathering work is currently underway. 

We will need a team of faculty to help interpret these data in ways that shed light on our curricular options. We will also identify potential external consultants who would be able to provide useful perspectives and recommendations as we chart a course forward. As a starting point, I plan to appoint a working group, composed of 3 to 5 faculty, to guide this work during the coming semester. This group will need to meet and decide on its work plan, including how best to engage students in collaborative discussions about curricular change, and how to assess the data we collect. Ultimately, this group will be asked to propose next steps to our faculty governing bodies, and both the “whether” and the “how” of the curricular proposal will need to be debated fully and authentically by this faculty, within established frameworks for making curricular decisions. A call for nominations and self-nominations is forthcoming.

Second, and in parallel with the efforts described above, we will continue and expand on our longer-term structural work on curricular and pedagogical transformation across divisions, departments, and programs. Curricular transformation is predicated on understanding the barriers, is dependent upon racial equity awareness, and will require training and planning that will take different forms in different academic units. We will coordinate these efforts at a divisional level. 

Efforts are already underway, with the HHMI grant in the natural sciences and mathematics, and the Mellon grant in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. The AAC is meeting with faculty leading the HHMI and Mellon efforts to understand how we can support and coordinate the work. We will announce soon a similar curricular transformation project in the social sciences, and are working towards a parallel effort in the interdisciplinary studies division. No single strategy will be equally effective in different academic units, but we must be united in a singular focus on improving the experience of BIPOC students and first generation students at Bates College.

Thus, we will engage units to assess what kind of racial equity training would be most effective and then engage appropriate disciplinary experts to facilitate the work. Not all academic units are in the same place with regards to the antiracist work that is advocated and required. As each academic unit engages in this work, we will then use evidence to facilitate an understanding of barriers that might exist in the curriculum as we plan strategies that will remove disparate impact based on race and gender. Through conversations that are open, respectful, and reflective, we have the opportunity to make substantive changes in courses, curricula and practices. The reality is that several academic units have embarked, or are preparing to embark, on antiracist initiatives, which have already generated significant positive changes. There are many potential partners within the Bates community and in the broader academic community to help us, and it is some of the most creative and important work we can do.

Adopting antiracist approaches to our teaching, to our curricular development, to the academic communities we desire to build is about building a mindset, a skillset, and an expandable toolkit. I think it is safe to say that our colleagues do not believe that the -isms that plague our society are inborn and immutable. Rather, my understanding of this faculty is that we want to do better, we want to create spaces where BIPOC students thrive, but we may not have all the tools right now to do that work. I want to signal, clearly, that we will provide that support, and we will work with you to elevate this work in compassionate, creative, collaborative, and supportive ways. I believe that our faculty can do this work, that to solve these problems we will need to draw on the energy, talents, and creativity of all our faculty with their broad diversity of interests and experiences, and I believe we can do this work well.

The liberatory potential of education includes defending a faculty member’s right to teach topics from their expertise and to organize their courses in a manner that they deem appropriate. It is important that work of inclusive excellence at the department or program level is carried out in ways that respect discipline-specific goals, content, and methodologies. At the same time, we need to make sure that we are accountable to the quality of the educational experience available to all students. Our students are correct. Any understanding of the world is incomplete without an accurate accounting of the role oppression played and plays in our academic disciplines and our academic communities – in this country and in the world. We need to address in intellectually rigorous ways, the history and legacy of racism, and its ongoing manifestations if we are to prepare future leaders committed to “responsible stewardship of the wider world.” Excellent teaching ensures that every student with talent and interest finds a safe and responsive intellectual home. Excellent teaching also ensures that every Bates student will gain an understanding of the realities of racism, sexism, and ableism in the world we inhabit.

I look forward to partnering with you as we do the vital work of making our commitment to equity and inclusion the lived reality of every student at Bates.