Conveying a Simple Yet Direct Message

Published in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, April 19, 2007

How Whitman College officials and student-leaders moved swiftly to prevent a racial incident from dividing the campus. 

By George S. Bridges

Colleges and universities across the country are searching for understanding and answers in the wake of several recent incidents of racial insensitivity involving their students. Dr. George Bridges

What are we to make of the numerous campus incidents with racial overtones that have afflicted many of our leading institutions: Johns Hopkins University, Clemson University and my own school, Whitman College? The incidents remind us how far we in higher education still have to go to ensure simple consideration and respect for all people, of all colors and backgrounds on our campuses. At times, the distance seems vast.

As president of Whitman, a liberal arts college known for its outstanding students, humanistic values and long tradition of service, I was stunned by an incident last fall in which two of our students, both White, painted their skin black for a theme party modeled on the reality TV series, “Survivor.”

Pictures of the students appeared on the Internet, and many in our community were understandably offended. What followed was a spontaneous, often vitriolic e-mail exchange that threatened to undermine our recent initiatives to make Whitman a stronger, more dynamic community through greater diversity. At that point, I was sure of only one thing: The divisiveness had to stop, and it had to stop immediately.

Unilateral action was not a consideration. We chose a collective course from the start. Our focus was always on the community of Whitman, a decision that was met with enormous support from our students, faculty and staff.

Senior administrators and I met with 40 student leaders for nearly four hours. We asked them what they could do to address the overarching issue signified by the events. Our message was simple but difficult: “If you want to change the climate of discourse, you and not us have to take responsibility,” we said. “If you want to mobilize fellow students and explore attitudes, you have to take the initiative.”

This was a crucial, momentum-building moment for our student leaders. In assigning responsibility to them, we also gave them power. They participated in a town hall meeting which brought to light many personal issues and experiences that had remained largely unspoken. They called for a full symposium to address the issue of race from a broad perspective through critical thinking, informed analysis and mindful discourse. In turn, faculty voted to cancel classes for a day, and more than 60 professors helped organize the symposium.

Nov. 9, the day of the symposium, was a galvanizing, if not defining, moment in the history of our school. More than 1,100 Whitman students (of 1,454 enrolled) as well as faculty and staff filled our largest auditorium and classrooms throughout the day. The morning plenary session featured faculty presenters who addressed everything from the biology of race to the psychology of prejudice to individual versus institutional discrimination. Students gave personal testimonials that were at once courageous and edifying about the everyday realities of racial interaction. Two-dozen student-led discussion sessions filled classrooms to capacity across campus. The discussions built a sense of trust and belonging that many students across the country, I suspect, long for but do not feel in their college experience.

Where do we go from there? Part of our plan is to build core elements of the symposium into our orientation week for incoming students each fall. To that end, a group from our student services staff is working with students in the theater department to create a performance piece in which as many as a dozen students will share racial experiences in their lives and then assist in facilitating small group discussions among members of the first-year class.

As an institution of liberal arts education, we must see beyond the political correctness of diversity. We must view diversity in the broader, active frame of social justice and freedom in our community and in the world at large.

There is much still to reflect on and answer, and still more to do. Are the recent incidents of racial insensitivity born of arrested awareness, or do they represent the ever-increasing quests for attention in a culture that awards badges of cool for all things “me” and taboo? Do they signal a new, twisted trend, a calculated flouting of the very values of a liberal arts education? My worst fear is that, in a culture marked by hubris, combativeness and privilege, those seeking to defend the unconscionable actions of these students will somehow become the adjudicators of racial insensitivity on campuses across the country.

What we at Whitman do know in the wake of Nov. 9 is this: Our minds and our hearts have been opened by the event. Reflection is replacing reaction. Greater openness and trust now guide our common search for understanding. And if that search teaches us that understanding is indeed relative, forever shaped by context, it also reminds us that the values of preserving human dignity and respecting others are unconditional and must be pursued continually and vigilantly.

— Dr. George S. Bridges is president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.