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Boston College faces big challenges creating trust on race

Students walked past Black History Month posters on the Boston College campus,
Students walked past Black History Month posters on the Boston College campus,Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Boston College faces a difficult task in rebuilding the trust of students who have felt betrayed by top leaders after a string of racist incidents, activists and industry observers said, as the school promises to reexamine its efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive campus.

The vandalism last month of the first-year women’s multicultural floor has elevated long-simmering frustrations over an entrenched culture that critics say has not reckoned sufficiently with concerns over the climate on campus.

“As much as it is important to heal, I think one of the biggest steps in healing is ensuring it doesn’t happen again,” said Alyssa Iferenta, the codirector of FACES Council, an antiracism student group.

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She said the university’s efforts to date often seem misdirected and vague. For example, Iferenta said, administrators should focus on making sure students know about the online reporting form for hate crimes. That, she said, would be more effective than the school’s recent effort to facilitate conversations about the incidents in so-called healing spaces.

The college has pledged changes including a review in which outside experts will help evaluate the diversity training it provides to students, faculty, and staff. But it has not yet released a timeline for when the changes will be put into place. “We are formulating our plan,” BC spokesman Jack Dunn said this week.

Colleges in the Boston area and across the country have been taking more forceful steps to confront racism and create more diverse and equitable campuses since the widespread protests over the killings of Black people by police last summer.

Schools including Northeastern University and Boston University have elevated their diversity and equity administrators, promoting them to vice president roles so that they have a direct line to the institution’s top leader. Others have boosted their training for faculty, staff, and students and set aside money to hire more diverse professors and ensure that Black and Latino students feel welcomed.

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“It is something that has to come from the top,” said Robin Ely, a Harvard Business School professor who studies how to create healthy inclusive workplaces. “It’s really not a few bad apples, it really is the culture.”

BC’s culture has most recently come under criticism after two male students last month banged on doors and overturned trash cans through a women’s multicultural floor. A few days later, the women on the floor, who are mostly Black students and some Latinas, said two male students walked through their hallway singing loudly about “colored girls.”

BC officials said the students who trashed the floor have been sanctioned, but they would not describe the punishment, citing student privacy laws. University officials will review the case of the students chanting the lyrics this week, but Dunn has said that the accused students deny using racist language.

The women on the floor and Black students at BC more broadly said the incidents are part of a disturbing pattern on a campus where they feel targeted and isolated. Students said they were harassed during the presidential election last fall; in 2017 a Black Lives Matter poster was defaced; and a year later, a student scrawled racist graffiti on furniture, walls, and a bathroom.

Even before that, students said they faced backlash during the 2016 election and the 2014 Black Lives Matter movement for staging public demonstrations on campus.

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In response, Michael Lochhead, BC’s executive vice president and the acting vice president for student affairs, said he would be reviewing the school’s diversity and equity training programs for improvements and greater impact. Lochhead also promised to consult outside experts as part of the review.

Ivory Toldson, a counseling psychology professor at Howard University’s School of Education, said that if universities want to become welcoming places for students of color, they must invest in hiring properly trained staff to work on antiracism efforts, bring on more diverse faculty, and create spaces and clubs where students can feel that they belong on campus.

“A lot of the problems, when institutions say they’re going to do certain things and it falls flat, is because it’s just aspirational,” Toldson said in an interview.

Reforms aren’t easy, but they are increasingly necessary, as the college-age population in the United States becomes more diverse, Toldson said. And universities that fail to welcome and take seriously the concerns of students of color are going to be become less relevant.

“It can get very messy when changes are happening so fast,” Toldson said. Institutions that “have raised it to a level of priority; those are the institutions that will get through it.”

Four percent of BC undergraduates are Black, according to the most recent data. White students make up 57 percent and Hispanic students 11 percent.

At BC, students have said for years that the lack of institutional change has left students to try to fill that gap.

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FACES Council held a first-ever antiracism training for faculty and staff last year after numerous requests. Afterward they received requests for more trainings, but they eventually stopped because they felt that such labor-intensive programs were the administration’s responsibility, Iferenta said.

BC has long had an online complaint system for students to report bias-motivated incidents, but it is unclear how many use it. Lochhead acknowledged last week that he recently became aware of problems that were not reported through the university’s portal.

Since last Saturday, when Lochhead reminded students to use the portal to report problems, no incidents have been registered, Dunn said.

BC also offers annual online diversity training for students, faculty, and staff that focuses on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and harassment. Dunn added that BC has support services for its Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American students, ensuring that they remain in college and graduate at high rates.

The university also has a 96 percent graduation rate for low-income students, among the highest in the country, Dunn said.

It is “a significant accomplishment that reflects our commitment to serving students who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education,” Dunn said.

Policy changes help, but they only go so far, Ely said. Something like an incident reporting system is only useful if students feel it is worth their time to report. If they believe their claims won’t be taken seriously they likely won’t report incidents, she said.

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Ely, who spoke broadly because she is not familiar with the specifics at BC, said people with formal authority have to model the behaviors and values they want to see in the rest of the organization.

“I don’t think that leaders of organizations really quite get that, and understand how important that is, being really visible about taking a public stand,” she said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.