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How Higher Ed Can Fight Racism: Q&A with Terri Givens

By June 11, 2020

Terri Givens with her sons

As a former professor-turned-provost-turned-entrepreneur, Terri Givens has one thing on her mind right now: the lives of her two boys. Between a pandemic and police brutality, the burden of grief weighs on her mind, along with millions of other black families in America.

Givens is the CEO and founder of the Center for Higher Education Leadership and is currently working on a book titled Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides. She formed the Center for Higher Education Leadership to provide higher ed leaders with resources and a supportive community for improving management and leadership skills in an environment of changing demographics, financial challenges, and advances in technology. She’s an expert on training education leaders how to manage crises and how to use empathy as a force for action.

Thanks for sharing your voice with us, Terri.

This is a very difficult time, but I’m working my way through by writing and reaching out to people who are interested in creating change.

How do you think higher ed leaders can better address issues of racial injustice at their institutions?

Start with empathy for yourself so that you’re prepared to make changes and build trust. No leader or institution is perfect. But be willing to go beyond the statements that say “we acknowledge your pain.” Be willing to be vulnerable, admit when mistakes have been made, and acknowledge the harm that’s been done. Then move forward to discuss concrete ways your institution can avoid that harm in the future.

Educate yourself about the history of racism in this country and why it remains an issue today — the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a great resource.

Take personal responsibility for improving the climate on your campus. Leadership is critical for developing a climate that is supportive of black students and faculty. Make commitments to hire diverse faculty and staff, invite speakers to campus, and develop relationships with those at your university who are interested in supporting black students and faculty.

Support student, staff, and community organizations that are doing work to support people from minority and low-income backgrounds. If those organizations don’t exist on your campus, help build them.

And make sure that your curriculum includes content and courses on the history and politics of race in this country.

Your upcoming book explores the theme of radical empathy. At this moment in history, how can empathy help us make progress?

Radical empathy is moving beyond walking in someone else’s shoes. It requires taking action like improving diversity among faculty and staff and investing in organizations that support minority students. This will not only help individuals, but also improve our society. Practicing radical empathy can provide real change in people’s lives, but I would emphasize the word practicing — having empathy is different from practicing empathy. Radical empathy means being vulnerable, opening yourself to the experience of others, building trust, and creating change on policies, structures, practices, systems, and institutions that reinforce racism. Begin a dialogue with community leaders and support their work in areas like improving policing.

One of our core values and beliefs at is that equality starts with education. To flourish, every individual needs equal access to learning and exploration and opportunities to practice skills. How can America better recognize and advance this foundation of equality?

There is a very simple answer — we can raise taxes and fund public education, provide Pell grants and other assistance for low-income students and communities. Public funding for higher ed has declined dramatically over the years, and there are limits to raising tuition. I don’t think people realize that most institutions are always trying to cut costs while maintaining a quality education, and that is only going to get worse as we go into a challenging year for state budgets.

Student stress and anxiety is at an all-time high. How can higher ed leaders assist in their students’ well-being?

Make sure you have a communications plan. It’s a balancing act, but I think over-communicating is better at this point for students and their families. You don’t always have to push out messages, but make sure they have a place to turn to for information. Almost every university gives regular updates on their website, sometimes daily.

Set an example by taking care of yourself. And if you see a student who’s in trouble, tell someone. I’ve dealt with a lot of students who’ve gone through personal crises, including bomb threats, a shooter on campus, and the H1N1 virus.

In 2009, when I was at the University of Texas at Austin, we had to manage the outbreak of H1N1. We developed the protocols that are now being used for COVID-19, including having a task force that works with public health officials, which coordinated areas like study abroad and residential life. We campaigned for hand washing and quarantined students who became ill. We created a website for students and their parents to get rapid information, and an alert system that could be used to send text messages and alerts. So, I think creating a task force can be very effective in helping to address stress and anxiety — not just for students, but for their families, and for faculty and staff.

Is there anything else that you think higher ed should be focusing on right now?

It’s now more critical than ever to bring respect for diversity and empathy together. This moment in history is impacting us all in different ways. We need everyone to know that we care about them, and that decisions are being made with their best interests in mind.

It shouldn’t be a problem to focus on that first, right? That’s the heart of what any education institution is: caring about the students.

Read an excerpt of Terri Givens’ upcoming book on radical empathy. Also, tune in for conversations on equality in education at our virtual Higher Ed Summit on June 16.

Terri Givens

Terri Givens is the CEO and Founder of the Center for Higher Education Leadership, and the former Vice Provost at University of Texas at Austin and Provost of Menlo College. Terri is the author/editor of books and articles on immigration policy, European politics and security. Her upcoming book, titled Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides, is scheduled to be released early next year.