Editor’s Note: Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., is the president of Spelman College. David A. Thomas, Ph.D., is the president of Morehouse College. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Spelman College alumna Alice Walker once said that the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
We, the presidents of two of the country’s leading historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), have chosen to own the power of education to address a major problem in this country – sexual misconduct and assault. As academic leaders, we believe that in a world in which such behavior is rampant, real change must come from a culture shift in our nation, and that shift has to begin with meaningful change on our college campuses.
An important step toward change began shortly after Dr. Thomas took office as Morehouse College’s 12th president on Jan. 1, 2018. We met personally to discuss the issue of building healthy communities. We then convened the first-ever president-led joint conversation among a group of faculty, staff and administrative leaders, challenging them to develop model communities of respect across both campuses that could prove to be a national example of cooperation in higher education.
The inaugural event, which was attended by the student affairs directors of the colleges, provosts, faculty, the Title IX coordinators and the general counsels, was held in the home of the Morehouse president. The joint call to action challenged Spelman and Morehouse leaders to not only expand robust efforts around Title IX on each campus, but also to create historic cross-campus alliances that would positively impact the lives and relationships of students throughout the entire Atlanta University Center (AUC) Consortium, the oldest consortium of African-Americans in higher education.
We asked ourselves a set of questions during that meeting and during the process that’s followed: How do we create a culture and climate on our campuses that embraces and celebrates gender equity? How do we foster mutual respect? How do we assure safety for all of our students? How do we create a climate that encourages the full realization of individual identity? How do we teach and model the values of citizenship and community? And, how do we make our colleges a model of what Morehouse alumnus Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as a “Beloved Community?” How do we create leaders for the wider “Beloved Community” in the world?
We recognized that focusing on Title IX compliance alone is not enough. In response to feedback from students and faculty we discussed how best to identify, enhance, and expand academic offerings that expose our students to knowledge about the causes and prevalence of violence against women, as well as the sociological, economic and health impact on individuals and society as a whole.
Research shows that a college education equips our students as citizens and future leaders with strategies to influence policy and impact their personal and professional communities. We also discussed the complexity of our efforts and charged the various department leaders to consider how best to support needs for outreach and training, prevention, investigations, counseling and academic support.
We have a framework already in place that supports our collaboration. The Title IX coordinators within the AUC campuses meet monthly, as do the student life staff, and the Council of Presidents, which ensures the coordination of our efforts and fosters accountability.
Our work isn’t taking place in a cultural vacuum. We are looking to transform the culture of our campuses during a time of great reckoning and change nationally on this issue, one that has prompted anger and soul-searching at our institutions and others.
But as presidents of two institutions whose history has been defined by nurturing black leadership, we believe that we have a special responsibility and opportunity to hold our community accountable for making the necessary structural and cultural changes at Morehouse and Spelman such that sexual misconduct and assault is eradicated and barriers to success are eliminated for the survivors among us.
In the past, protests on both campuses have called attention to the need for more education and prevention programs, more streamlined adjudication processes, and a deeper understanding of the most effective way to respond to incidents institutionally. Both campuses have responded, primarily by strengthening Title IX programming and administration on their individual campuses.
Spelman has submitted an application to the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women to compete for grant support to further our Title IX compliance goals.
Both Spelman and Morehouse have been invited by a team of researchers to provide input into the development of campus climate tools designed specifically for use at HBCUs. Morehouse has launched its “Not In My House” initiative and trained students, residence assistants and leaders and members of campus organizations how to recognize, intervene safely and effectively report instances of inappropriate behavior.
Both campuses participated in a pilot program, funded by a CDC grant, to facilitate a healthy relationships intervention strategy, and employees at both colleges are required to undergo mandatory training on how to identify, counsel and support victims of sexual misconduct violence and abuse.
We at Spelman and Morehouse want to build an educational environment that teaches our students not only to be masters of their academic disciplines, but also to be leaders in building healthy relationships that foster healthy communities for everyone. We tasked each other with finding the strategies that will catalyze this shift. There is much that we have left to do.
We agree that our academies can and should play a central role in producing leaders with zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. Both campuses have pledged to reexamine everything from new student orientation to the content of the courses we offer to the types of co-curricular events we organize.
In crafting the entirety of the educational experience, we are exploring the answers to a range of questions: How do we introduce students to ideas on sexuality, gender equity and identity as soon as they first arrive on campus? What curricular opportunities already exist and what opportunities might be created to offer students an intellectual framework for their thinking about gender, sexuality and identity? What extracurricular opportunities should both campuses provide to convey values of mutual respect?
These tasks are intrinsic to our colleges’ common goal: to educate global leaders, knowledgeable citizens, innovators and world changers. Whether they leave our campuses to work in business, entertainment, media, academia, medicine or law, our graduates will be the leaders prepared to build Dr. King’s “Beloved Community,” having participated in building it on their campus communities.
We aren’t there yet, but it is a mandate that we gladly take on.