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Bias Incidents On Campus: How Colleges Can Respond

Bias Incidents on Campus: How Colleges Can Respond

Colleges exist to teach students.  But for many students, the new core curriculum includes learning to deal with racism, sexism, and other forms of bias on campus.  Schools and universities rank third for hate crimes and the number is rising.  In addition to hate crimes, campuses have had to contend with behavior that is physically non-violent, but is still racist, sexist, or homophobic.  Over time and even now, in 2018, college students are inviting openly racist speakers to campus, holding parties with racist or sexist themes, and directing racist or homophobic graffiti toward students, staff, or faculty.  When these incidents occur, students who belong to marginalized groups feel attacked.  If the incident makes national news, the entire campus can suffer as its brand and image suffer in the press.

According to experts, campus crises have three phases: before, during, and after.  Colleges often handle the period during a bias incident quite well.  They hire image consultants, public relations firms, or crisis response teams to help them respond in the moment.  But many schools fail to recognize the difference between repairing a college’s image and doing the hard work of repairing its culture.  This post will focus on steps colleges can take to heal and create a healthy campus climate after bias incidents.


But many schools fail to recognize the difference between repairing a college’s image and doing the hard work of repairing its culture. Click To Tweet

Why Repairing Campus Culture Matters

As previously mentioned on this blog, every organization has a culture.  Universities are no different.  Every campus has a culture that tells students, staff, and faculty about its values.  Moreover, this campus culture tells members of nondominant groups – those who are not white, straight, male, Christian, or without disability – whether they are fully embraced or merely tolerated.  So, to repair campus climate and culture, leaders must first commit to knowing that culture.

While some might argue that bias incidents have little impact on campus culture, research proves otherwise.  The harmful effects begin before students step on campus.  Parents of color are increasingly hesitant to let their students enroll at universities that have had multiple bias incidents.  Once on campus, bias incidents cause diverse students to suffer stress.  The stress causes the students’ grades to suffer.  So, campuses have several reasons to create a positive, inclusive campus for all.

Assessing Culture After Bias Incidents

In the immediate aftermath of a bias incident, campuses often focus on protecting their reputations.  But repairing and rebuilding a school’s reputation is not the same as strengthening its internal culture.  Long after national attention wanes, students, staff, and faculty will remember the hurt and betrayal caused by a bias incident.  During this fragile period, campus leaders must begin the process of repairing the school’s culture.  While this work can be difficult, taking the right steps in the beginning will make the work easier.

To begin, leaders should consider how the campus climate might have contributed to the incident.  For instance, students might have been posting biased comments in school papers or social media.  Speakers, clubs, or professors might have made comments that encouraged certain behaviors.  At the outset, leaders must seek to understand which parts of the campus culture need repair.

As campuses evaluate their culture, they should also look at what they learned in the period immediately after the bias incident.  Did students from underrepresented groups have specific complaints about the culture before the incident that perhaps went unheard or unaddressed?  Did outside consultants recommend that certain policies and procedures be changed?  Were these recommendations followed?  Leaders should use the lessons learned in the aftermath to help them push forward.

In this initial period, leaders should also consider what they learned about their ability to respond to the crisis.  For instance, leaders might decide that having additional staff – such as a chief diversity officer – might have prevented the crisis.  Better training for staff might have allowed for a timelier response.  Protesting students may have demanded more diversity in class offerings, faculty, or staff.   University leaders should consider what resources – human, financial, or otherwise – they need to prevent and respond to future incidents.  While the initial outlay of funds might seem costly, the investment will avoid the monetary – and other costs – of future bias incidents.

Rebuilding the Culture After a Bias Incident

After campus leaders decide which changes to make, they can begin the difficult work of making changes.  In this period, many leaders will be tempted to make quick changes to pacify the campus and put the incident in the past.  More effective leaders will recognize that lasting changes are better.  Lasting changes take more time, but they also do more to positively enhance the school’s culture.

As leaders look to make changes, they should focus on making the campus more inclusive.  There are many ways to do this, but in an academic setting, education should be the primary emphasis.  Education happens in classrooms, of course, but campuses can host any number of learning events outside of classroom walls.  Staff and faculty can be trained – or retrained. All stakeholders should be made aware of the university’s values regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion – directly from the mouths of the most senior leaders.

Campus leaders should have a process for identifying, requesting and securing the resources necessary for achieving the university’s goals and reflecting its values.  Universities often struggle with budgets, but campus leaders who value equity must agitate for the staff, space, events, and materials they need to succeed.  Find allies. Work collaboratively. Paint a compelling picture that reflects the university’s espoused and shared values. Make the campus understand the value of this work.

Perhaps most important, campus leaders should constantly monitor the campus culture.  Listening is a key part of that process.  Asking  students, faculty, and staff to comment on campus culture creates a “feedback loop” that keeps leaders informed.  By keeping their pulse on the culture, leaders will be better able to respond to any negative shifts.

Repairing campus culture can be a difficult task.  If your campus culture needs repair after a bias incident, contact DeEtta Jones and Associates.  For decades, our team has helped campuses heal after troubling incidents.  If your campus needs assistance, contact our team today.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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