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How has the Pandemic Outbreak impacted the Higher Education Sector in the United States

By: Cynthia N. Cortez, Deputy Chief Diversity Officer, University of California Merced, & Cristobal Salinas Jr., Associate Professor, Florida Atlantic University

Through world-renowned research and history-changing discoveries, colleges and universities of the United States (U.S.) have attracted scholars of different identities and lived experiences worldwide. While this reputation has had a gravitational pull on scholars and students, 2020’s unprecedented COVID19 pandemic and intensified visibility of racism in the country have reinvigorated conversations in the academy about its true commitment to diversity.

The racial protests and tumultuous political landscape in the U.S. have pressured postsecondary leaders to come face-to-face with a long festering racial equity tension: is it finally time to reckon with historically exclusionary practices of higher education? Are we ready to honor the intellectual and operational innovation crafted by historically excluded faculty, students, and staff? Or will efforts continue to circumvent calls towards equity, diversity, and inclusion? In 2021, answers will be guided by what we have witnessed around institutional willpower within a context created by the global pandemic.

In a powerful display of collective willpower, colleges and universities in the U.S. nimbly moved postsecondary operations to remote settings. However, the events of 2020 have also pushed them to the pinnacle of racial reckoning for how does one produce world-class research and ensure individuals with diverse racial, gender, sexual orientation, income, disabilities, religious, immigration status, linguistics, and political identities among other identities are included in decision making?

We have witnessed technological savviness to overcome what could have been a disastrous outcome. However, this willpower has a bittersweet undertone: what realities could be attained if institutions replicated this innovation to create inclusively excellent institutions?

In 2021 and beyond, postsecondary institutions will continue to witness their students, staff, and faculty from all walks of life move worldwide connecting to their college and university via technology. The growing consciousness that equity is a global issue for the very constituencies of colleges and universities all over the world cannot be overlooked by administrators.

When the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the mysterious and novel coronavirus-19, scholars and practitioners advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion acknowledged how it would disproportionately affect racially and ethnically minoritized communities. These underrepresented faculty, staff, and students have shifted to remote learning while also weathering the compounding impact of structural inequities, historical practices which chillingly show that their identities correlate with undesirable outcomes in education, healthcare, income and livelihood, and mental wellness.

As a person of color and other marginalized identities, it is already a profound experience to muster the strength to work on campus pursuing one’s professional aspirations while dealing with microaggressions, cultural taxation, lack of professional development pathways, and exclusive campus climates. It is another reality to log in to work with the intensifying psychosocial impact of isolation, lack of income, inequitable COVID-19 related deaths, and family responsibilities.

Perhaps the most critical point in higher education’s grapple with diversity, equity, and inclusion occurred on May 25th, 2020. A little over three months into the pandemic and the global shut down, George Floyd – a Black man – was murdered by White Minnesotan police officer Derek Chauvin. The disturbing video of the incident quickly spread online and ignited protests urging a consciousness shift at the commitment level equal to or beyond what was seen with technological nimbleness.

The murders of Ahmaud Arbery (RIP), Tony McDade (RIP), Breonna Taylor (RIP), George Floyd (RIP), and many more Black Americans at the hands of white police officers and people remind the Black community of how much systemic racism impacts wellness and success in the U.S. Calls for justice for Black Americans also inspired protests from the Latin*, Asian, Native Americans, disability, Trans, and so many more communities in the U.S. to stop the violence, dismantle inequity, and redesign our social institutions, including higher education. The outpouring of unapologetic social activism during the pandemic is a collective call for a radical vision of a more inclusive academy. It serves as a reminder that to eradicate the many forms of racism, all communities (re)claim, (re)create, and (re)imagine equity, justice, freedom, and liberation.

In higher education, removing an analytical lens that can support this radical imagination is paradoxical given the mission of knowledge that transforms the world. And, it is embarrassing that the call for equity and justice has elicited a knee-jerked movement to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT is a framework that aims to equip people with the language and analytical lens necessary to dissect how race, racism, and power cultivates historically underinvested communities and how laws and policies serve as critical tools to keep this marginalization strong and well. Educators have turned to CRT to find tangible ways to guide colleagues and universities to rethink institutional excellence through an inclusive lens. Effectively, this consciousness building movement across identities and lived experiences has been met with the proliferation of legislation in several U.S. to ban the teaching of CRT. In essence, censor a way of thinking, a way of knowing.

This attack on intellectual freedom does not go invisible to the international community. In our history, the United States responded to racial inequity through 1954’s Brown vs. the Board of Education but the decades following have yet to yield racial equity in the country. In fact, efforts to bury the history of racism are quite robust. But until we acknowledge how racist ideology has comfortably produced discrimination and oppression across social identities and lived experience, colleges and universities will willingly dilute their global reputation of cultivating leaders of thought and practice.

Global communities are aware of violent systems of colonialism, imperialism, racism, oppression, and marginalization and so we offer the following words of guidance: if we wish to emerge out of this pandemic with a robust and respected global presence, U.S. colleges and universities must integrate equity, diversity, and inclusion into their daily operations. In a post-pandemic world, the lack of equity-focused actions will situate colleges and universities under the analytic lens of whether or not they are truly cultivating the next generation of 21st-century global leaders.

Published August 3, 2021, Higher Education Digest


Cynthia N. Cortez, MA, serves as the Deputy Chief Diversity Officer at the University of California Merced. Cynthia’s research and practice focuses on how program design, implementation, and evaluation concepts influence how people think about, collect, and use mixed methods derived data. At large, her priority is to drive equitable outcomes and craft vibrant workplaces.

Cristobal Salinas Jr., Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Educational Leadership and Research Methodology Department at Florida Atlantic University. His research promotes access and equality in higher education and explores the social and political context of education opportunities for historically marginalized communities.

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