University President Peter Salovey has a high profile supporter of his recent policy responses to concerns about racism and discrimination at Yale: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
In a Nov. 23 article by Mic, an online news source tailored for young people, Duncan said he personally called Salovey to thank him for taking “very significant action” through the policy steps Salovey announced on Nov. 17. Salovey said his conversation with Duncan focused on Yale’s specific response to racial concerns as well as the potential for a larger nationwide dialogue.
“I would characterize the telephone call as covering two things: the Secretary expressed his support for the approach that Yale is taking as described by the policy announcement on the Tuesday prior to Thanksgiving, and he spoke about the ways a conversation about the challenges faced by many colleges and universities might be organized,” Salovey said.
In the Mic article, Duncan contrasted the response of the Yale administration to that of the University of Missouri, calling the latter a “flipped situation” in which senior administrators seemed to not be engaged with or understanding of student concerns, though he added that he is not aware of all the details. Duncan also told Mic that his department is unsure of what its role should be in responding to these controversies, but is still exploring a series of potential policy responses to address racism at colleges and universities.
But all six education experts interviewed by the News said that individual colleges and universities, rather than the Department of Education, should enact policy responses that directly address issues of racism on their campuses.
Richard Elmore, an education professor at Harvard, said that while politicians and public officials may push for publicity for national policy changes, he believes doing so would be a mistake.
“I think nationalizing an issue like this during a period in which political discourse has become toxic and largely uninformed by any real grasp of the history or economics of race in America would be a major error,” Elmore said. “It is unbelievable to me that anyone living and working on a college or university campus over the past two decades couldn’t have seen this situation coming; it has been a visible part of the culture for a long time.”
Elmore added that each institution has its own unique issues and should therefore search for specialized solutions.
Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor of cognition and education, said because the country is divided on educational and racial issues, he is pessimistic about the likelihood of a national response and would prefer that individual campuses establish policies of their own. Through this “bottom-up” experimentation, policies that prove most effective would spread naturally, he said.
Elizabeth Carroll, the director of Yale’s Education Studies Program, said it would be difficult for the Department of Education to establish policies that combat discrimination on college campuses directly. However, she said there is room for an indirect response.
“My instinct is that [the Department of Education] should continue to do better promoting access to college through student financial aid policy — something I know they have been focusing on over the past few years in light of the student-loan crisis — to better support more underrepresented students,” Carroll said. “This would put more students who want to attend college in the position to do so, thus helping campuses better mirror our country’s demographics.”
Harvard education professor Danielle Allen said national policy could be used to foster more diverse faculty bodies, adding that the government could achieve this by ending the war on drugs and investing in early-childhood education.
Allen said that other than that, the Department of Education should advise colleges and universities rather than enact policies at the national level.
“Beyond enforcing the existing law, it would be a mistake to deploy a regulatory framework, as the administration has done in the context of sexual misconduct,” she said. “The Department of Education should help colleges and universities understand how to do the necessary work. Much of this work is, however, about an evolution in the institutional culture on each specific campus and this must be achieved organically, within the context of the processes and practices of each institution.”
Duncan will step down from his Cabinet position by the end of the year.