The Importance for Interim Administrators to Understand the Black Lives Matter Movement: A Joint Interview with Drs. Dorothy Campbell and Boyce Williams
[Editor’s note: This article is based on an interview between Drs. Dorothy Campbell and Boyce Williams, Senior Consultant Dr. Jim Martin, and Registry Chronicles’ Editor Galen Hench.]
In the wake of the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black American citizens, national and international protests have taken shape in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. For many, the Black Lives Matter Movement is a call to action to address innumerable racial inequities that exist within our society. For others, the objectives of the movement may be at best misunderstood or at worst viewed as an affront to established norms. Inevitably, the voices behind Black Lives Matter will be resonant on campuses across the country, and college and university leaders will be expected to respond accordingly. In the interview to follow, Drs. Dorothy “Dee Dee” Campbell and Boyce Williams discuss their perspectives of the Black Lives Matter Movement, what are some of the racial inequities that exist on college and university campuses today, and why interim leaders are uniquely suited to address those issues.
Chronicles: Why is it important that interim administrators on campuses understand the “Black Lives Matter” movement and know how to contribute to solutions?
Campbell: If you do not understand the message behind the Black Lives Matter movement, and if you have not given consideration to the browning of America and its institutions of higher education, then it is likely you will not be seen as relevant. People may not understand the term “Black Lives Matter”; they may get defensive and respond, “all lives matter.” But it is important for interims, particularly if they have not been on a campus for a while, to understand this issue and then to try to find ways to address it. As an interim, you have a platform that you may not have if you had been in the position for a long time. Incumbent leaders may fear saying something that damages their reputation or political clout, and so they do not say anything at all. So, if you as the interim do not step up and say something there is a risk that no one else will either.
Williams: I think that interim leaders, whether an interim Provost or another role, are in a unique position to make bold statements, to support change, and then to ultimately make those changes. It is possible that an interim will come onto a campus where there are very few people who understand the Black Lives Matter movement or encounter those who will actively push back on anything related to it. On the other hand, there will be campuses where most everyone is aware of Black Lives Matter, but where no one feels comfortable broaching the difficult conversations around it.
It has been my experience serving as an interim that it is an incredible opportunity for the person to be a bold voice on the campus. When Dee Dee and I were chosen for our assignments, we were not chosen simply to keep the seat warm. In my case, the President was very clear: You need to run the college, changes need to be made. You were the interim we selected, so you have earned your right to orchestrate those changes—say what you need to say and do what you would need to do. As interims, we are in an empowered position in that sense. But if you are going to take full advantage of that empowered position and affect change, then you must understand Black Lives Matter and what changes the movement is seeking. Otherwise, it may be a missed opportunity.
Campbell: As Boyce said, you can take more risk when you are an interim than when you are a permanent person, and people will tend to listen to you more because you are an outsider. There is a saying that “a prophet is never a prophet in their own land.” If somebody is from the outside, people will tend to listen to that person. These assignments are a unique opportunity and we have to act now while this issue is current. The inequities brought to light through Black Lives Matter have been going on for a long time, but people are only just starting to understand the scope of the challenges now that they are being discussed in the mainstream media.
“I think a sense of humility in these moments can go a very long way. For some interim leaders, it may be that their first step is to admit that they do not know what to do because they have not had to think about white privilege or what it means to be an anti-racist.”
– Dr. Boyce Williams
Chronicles: For those interim leaders who want to engage their communities to address the inequities you describe but who may not feel as though they have the expertise or resources to do so effectively, what advice would you offer?
Campbell: Number one, reach out to your peer members who are in The Registry. Those of us with the personal experience and the professional experience are just a phone call or e-mail away. I know that several Registry members, including Boyce and I, have provided consulting services to colleges and universities in these areas. The Registry is truly a community of peer professionals with a shared goal to serve higher education. In that sense, we are all in this together. Second, an interim leader looking for resources can tap into faculty and staff on their campuses who may be expert in diversity, in criminal justice, in social justice, etc. Seek out conversations with those individuals and they can help you to craft a meaningful message. I acknowledge that one of the challenges facing an interim assignment is time, but you must make the time to get involved with various cultural programs on campus or to bring in outside speakers. This is an opportunity to do that because people are listening.
Williams: I think sometimes those from privileged backgrounds do not know what to say or what to do in response to movements like Black Lives Matter. I think a sense of humility in these moments can go a very long way. For some interim leaders, it may be that their first step is to admit that they do not know what to do because they have not had to think about white privilege or what it means to be an anti-racist. So, that is a good example, what does it mean to be an “anti-racist?” It starts with educating yourself. I encourage people to seek out books that talk about race and racism; find Ted Talks that talk about these issues; listen to reputable podcasts that speak about these issues, and specifically the histories of white privilege and whiteness in our cultures. Across the country, we have wonderful museums of African American History and Culture and I encourage you to visit them. For some people, it can be an uncomfortable experience to be exposed to these inequities and injustices and they may feel defensive. But if you genuinely believe that all lives matter then consider that right now, in this moment, what we are talking about are the ways in which black people are oppressed and dehumanized. That is the message behind Black Lives Matter.
Chronicles: What are some of the current issues that may adversely impact Black students, Black faculty, and Black administrators on campuses? What about any poor or first-generation constituents on campus?
Campbell: As far as our students are concerned, technology access can be a significant barrier. Too often we assume that simply because we have certain technology at home that everyone must. The reality is that many do not. Poverty and food insecurity are significant challenges facing our students, and not only for African American students. I have done some reading about what is called the “new minority,” rural white students who lack access to many of these technologies and services as well. Another topic is safe spaces. Some students stay on campus all the time because they are afraid that if they venture into their college towns that local citizens may not understand or relate to them, and that there could be issues as a result. Of course, transportation is another issue that we may not think about. If you cannot take the bus for example, and now because of the Coronavirus it is not so safe to do that, how do you get to class? How do you get home? That is a problem many students face.
Williams: You are going to have interims that are going into unknown situations this fall. Some campuses may be going back face to face, some campuses may be resuming classes but only online. Some campuses may be bringing students in early, while some campuses may be sending students home before Thanksgiving. Interim leaders need to understand these realities as best they can and do their homework about the institution’s plans. If your campus is sending students home to do online learning, do all your students have access to the technology required to complete their courses? In our case, we learned that some students were forced to complete their final exams on their smart phones because they could not access the local library and the student’s family had no computer at home. If you are on a campus which might have to shut down early because of a second wave of the Coronavirus, are there students who are otherwise homeless if not for their campus housing? These are the sort of unknowns that we all have to be prepared to respond to right now. And, unfortunately, many of these issues have the biggest impact on black and other minority students.
Campbell: I also think that campus policing is an issue that people may not fully appreciate. Many of our black and minority students have had challenging experiences with members of law enforcement in their lives. Because of those experiences, it is often the case that perceptions of campus police are very different between majority and minority students. For example, campus safety officers may think that if they follow students for their safety, that the students will feel safer. But if the students have had bad experiences with police in their lives, then they may think that the police officer is after them and so that interaction can become an additional source of anxiety.
“If you do not understand the message behind the Black Lives Matter movement, and if you have not given consideration to the browning of America and its institutions of higher education, then it is likely you will not be seen as relevant.”
– Dr. Dorothy Campbell
Chronicles: Why is it important that interim administrators on campuses understand the “COVID-19 Pandemic” and are there common issues between Black Lives Matter and the Coronavirus?
Williams: I think, in ways, COVID-19 manifests many of the social, economic, health and mental health disparities that exist in our country now, especially between our white and black communities. When you look at the distribution of cases and at the data of people who are dying, it is the poor, black, and brown people. Just yesterday the New York Times published an article citing data that blacks and Latinos are nearly three times as likely to catch the Coronavirus. Understanding the reason why black and brown people are more likely to succumb to COVID-19 while fighting this disease is a first step in knowing and knowing how to stop the virus from expanding and becoming even more dangerous.
Campbell: I agree. When an issue like COVID-19 emerges, it brings to the surface all those inequities that have been there the whole time and are now escalated and exposed. Thus, it is up to us to recognize this and to help other people understand. And I think it may be that more Interims are placed to address many of these issues. So, I am glad The Registry is here to put experienced leaders in a position to serve. It really is a blessing.
For those members who seek additional resources to learn more about the Black Lives Matter Movement, about racial inequity in America, and other matters related to diversity and inclusion, Dorothy, Boyce, and Galen offer the following list of books for your consideration*.