We will remember this summer.
To remember it will hurt, because what we have gone through, what we are still going through, involves a lot of pain. It is that very pain that has pushed the summer of 2020 deep into the soft tissue of our collective memory, that has made it stick to the walls of unforgetting.
As with any moment of great and terrible political possibility, though, how we will remember all this — as a turning point, good or bad, or as a squashed carcass on the highway of historical sameness — is up to us, all of us, and what we do now. And, if nothing else, the mass protests for racial justice have been a painfully clear message that something needs to be done.
It is impossible, of course, to confine to the realm of higher education a discussion about what that something must be. Because what we are discussing cuts to the very core of who we are as a society and what world we deserve to live in. Nevertheless, as institutions that historically reflect, articulate, and advance societal values, and as institutions that employ or enroll a significant swath of the population, colleges are a critical organ in the body politic — and how they respond to social upheaval bears directly on its short- and long-term health.
Within colleges themselves, much of the responsibility for informing such institutional responses falls, directly or indirectly, on the chief diversity officer, or CDO. However, as Robert M. Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, wrote in The Chronicle Review in June, doing this work can be professionally and psychologically exhausting, especially for CDOs who are themselves navigating the very discriminatory and unjust social tensions they are charged with addressing. Thus, while protesters and police officers took to the streets around the country, Sellers’s essay provided a necessary opportunity for CDOs to speak frankly about the roles they play, and the struggles they face, in higher education.
I spoke recently with Sellers and Robin Means Coleman, vice president and associate provost for diversity at Texas A&M University at College Station, about the task of the CDO today.