Watch the Event: Reimagining Higher Education

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If you were to build the western higher education system from scratch, but influenced by the lessons of the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter and decolonization movements, and of history itself, what would be the role of data? How about demographics? Or capitalism? Or of love?

These were some of the questions addressed in the second of the series “Reimagining Social Institutions” sponsored by the Social Science research Council and SAGE Publishing (the sponsor of Social Science Space). This iteration looked at “Reimagining Higher Education” and featured Richard Arum, dean and professor of sociology and education at the University of California, Irvine; Shardé M. Davis, assistant professor of communication at the University of Connecticut; Ilyas Nagdee, Equality Charter manager at the University of Sussex; and Noliwe Rooks, W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature at Cornell University. You watch the full 90-minute event below.

Arum began the event highlighting that the institutions of higher education themselves are in a precarious position (especially American public institutions like Arum’s own), largely due to unstable financing from tuition or reluctant governments, and diminishing support from the public.

He stressed the importance of being attentive to change in management and organization within higher education and noted the need to meet the ongoing demographic transitions going on within these institutions. As students become more diverse, educators, faculty and administration are not reflecting those changes (a point other speakers made later in more pointed fashions). The demographic transformation across higher education and indeed across America requires greater attention to organizational culture and management. Arum also stressed the need to be “intentional” in serving university students, tapping into data to ensure student success as his institution is trying. By utilizing data – something he says higher ed has done very poorly relative to any other sector – universities could find more specific problem-solving strategies to help their students graduate and achieve all-around success.

Lastly, Arum stressed that higher education must avoid being too insular.  to avoid being too insular in looking inwards at universities. “It’s not enough to work just on ourselves,” he said. “We also have to fulfill our responsibility to engage with the larger community.”

Davis followed Arum with a more qualitative look, sharing her personal experiences within the ecosystem of higher education too, particularly in the wake of her #blackintheivory movement that began in the summer. She noted the vulnerability of being in her body while openly speaking about her lived experiences as a ‘blackademic’ working within a system that featured 400 years of perpetuated white supremacy. “For years the ivory tower has been outfitted to reflect the white race, white culture, white values and white realities.” Her task, she added, is “reimagining the academy in black.”

Davis suggested some ideas White academics could consider taking, such as stepping down for their equally or more qualified black peers, and honoring the work that their Black colleagues do in academia and beyond. Davis acknowledged the very inward facing aspect of her findings. As she engaged with fellow ‘blackademics’ online and publicly, Davis noted the toll being placed on both the Black students and ‘blackademics,’ even as she feared the erosion of the moment’s impact by broadening discourse to ‘people of color’ as opposed to lasering in on Blackacademic experiences and needs. She called for a separate space where Blackademics can be frank. “We need time away from whiteness for our own self-preservation – we need our own space to speak unapologetically, to seek out and distribute the hidden curriculum that is hidden for a reason.

With what she admitted were tall orders, Davis concluded with a question: What could she do in her own sphere of influence to address racism in predominantly white institutions?

Nagdee offered several different perspectives, geographically (focusing more on the United Kingdom and the global South) and even sectorally, citing issues like migration, the arms trade and mineral exploitation among his talking points. His focus, though, was on the colonial and neoliberal elements to universities, particularly in the UK, with a regime developed from students and staffs to decolonize universities.

He criticized the neoliberal, marketized structure of many western universities, institutions which ultimately institutionalized racism and elitism. As a corrective, he noted the project “Why is my curriculum white?” Urging a break away from business models, he stressed the important role that higher education can have in building towards communities and collectives.

Rooks concluded the main discussion noting the role of love, how we define it, and how we care as major players in diversity, equality and inclusion efforts – adding that such conversations lag at the higher education level compared to the primary or secondary levels. But she added that more important that mere presence on campus – the “’do you belong’ conversation – is taking seriously “how often black people and black students and students of color on our campuses tell us they are in pain.” The efforts of such students to try and make these campuses a place to survive in and feel good about, for themselves and future generations like them, often come at the expense of their schoolwork.

What do they give up and what do they get when black and minority individuals enter predominantly white spaces? She argued that institutions are raced spaces, utilizing their recruitment processes, standardized tests, and geographical specificities to perpetuate division between who attends elite schools and who attends non-elite institutions. There’s a tendency to talk about “getting a degree” as an end in itself – ignoring the divisions between the “kind of degree”; schools are not equal, and so degrees are not equal. Yet even if minority students are able to enter elite institutions, Rooks said, black and minority students must accept going through pain, and hence, any discussion of reimagining means addressing that “we need some help surviving those institutions.”

About the series and the speakers

Reimagining Social Institutions offers a series of public forum focused on cultivating equitable, anti-racist social institutions. This program is presented as part of the Social Science Research Council’s Inequality Initiative, a series of programs and projects that bring innovative social science analysis to bear on our understanding of the roots and consequences of unequal participation in political, economic, and social systems across the globe. Series moderator is Alondra Nelson, Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and president of the Social Science Research Council.


The first event in the series, Reimagining Schools, can be viewed HERE.


Richard Arum

Richard Arum is dean of the School of Education and professor of education and (by courtesy) sociology, criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. He served as senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation from 2013 to 2015, and director of the Education Research Program at the Social Science Research Council from 2006 to 2013, where he oversaw the development of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools. He is author of Judging School Discipline: A Crisis of Moral Authority (2013), coauthor of Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates (2014), and Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011), as well as coeditor of Improving Quality in American Higher Education: Learning Outcomes and Assessment for the 21st Century (2016).

rde M Davis

Shardé M. Davis is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Connecticut. Her research examines the way Black women leverage communication in the sistah circle to invoke collective identity, erect and fortify the boundaries around their homeplace, and backfill the necessary resources to return to white/male dominant spaces in American society. These ideas have been published in over 30 peer-refereed articles and invited book chapters, and are best represented in her theory, the Strong Black Woman Collective. Her research has been recognized with the American Postdoctoral Fellowship from the American Association of University Women and the Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. She is involved with various professional communities, including serving as the chair of the African American Communication and Culture Division of the National Communication Association.

Ilyas Nagdee

Ilyas Nagdee is Equality Charter manager at the University of Sussex, and previously served two terms at the National Union of Students representing million students of color in colleges, universities and apprenticeships. He has campaigned on issues around racial inequality in education including the ethnicity awarding gap, institutional racism, and decolonizing the university. He has been published across the mainstream press including in the Guardian, the Independent and elsewhere as well as in International Handbook on Islamophobia (Routledge), Doing Equity and Diversity in Higher Education: Redressing Structural Inequalities in the Academy (Palgrave Macmillan) and RIFE: 21 Stories from Britain’s Youth (Unbound). He has recently published Recovering Antiracism: Reflections on Collectivity and Solidarity in Antiracist Organising by Transnational Institute. He is a graduate of the University of Manchester, where he was received several awards in recognition of his work in widening access to higher education and community engagement.

Noliwee Rooks

Noliwe Rooks is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor at Cornell University where she directs the American Studies program and is a professor in the Africana Studies department. An interdisciplinary scholar whose research on race and gender in the United States engages scholarship from legal studies, media studies, sociology, political science and history, she is the author of four books, editor of four collections, and a writer whose research and writing has appeared in popular media such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, TIME magazine, and media outlets such as Democracy Now and various NPR programs. Rooks has broad knowledge about the making and unmaking of American public education, and her current research is on school choice initiatives, integration, segregation, and online and philanthropic support and funding for schools.

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Kenalyn Ang

Kenalyn Ang is the social science communications intern with SAGE Publishing. She is also a communications student at the USC Annenberg School. Her research focuses on consumer behavior, identity-making and representation through the written word, and creative sensory marketing and branding strategies.

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