On Racism and Diversity in Higher Education: An Interview With Faculty Member Michael Sean Funk

Michael Sean Funk, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Administration, Leadership, and Technology, studies the relationship between racism and higher education.  He has served as the associate director of the Academic Achievement Program at NYU and as an adjunct associate professor at Smith College Graduate School of Social Work.

Your research has explored the experiences of black men in institutions of higher education.  What have you learned?

I have learned an immense amount from my participants and from the literature I surveyed about the Black male experience from the Civil Rights Movement until today.  What resonated most was how the narratives about Black men in higher education literature, particularly at predominately white institutions, were often inconsistent with what I learned from the students I interviewed. For instance, although often written about and researched in the aggregate, Black men are not a monolith; they have a range of values, goals, and experiences and that became clearer in my research.  Another example is the common discourse about Black men and how they enact maladaptive behaviors and attitudes, such as the “cool pose,” the cult of anti-intellectualism, oppositional identity, or they avoid “acting white” in attempt to preserve some sense of self-dignity in society where they have been historically marginalized.

A diverse campus represents a true democracy where individuals and social groups are represented regardless of social identity.

Notwithstanding these deficient frameworks, the Black males in my study were committed to their own academic achievement.  They valued learning for the sake of learning, saw it as a means to strengthen their community, and also as a way to achieve personal and professional gain. They weren’t afraid of  being ridiculed for their academic endeavors, but were able to lean on their peers and community as pillars of support.  Perhaps most striking, they were hyper-aware of stereotypes about Black men in education and utilized these negative perceptions to fuel their strivings for academic success.

You have taught social workers how to address issues of race and racism in their work.  Tell us a little about that work.

Over the last six years I have taught aspiring clinical social workers how to develop a reflective-practice around issues of race and racism. The foundation begins and ends with “knowing yourself and knowing your client.” It is imperative that clinicians become aware of their own filters or personal biases brought into the room and what possible factors are in the background of their clients’ presenting problem.  I stress the importance of examining these issue beyond an interpersonal analysis and encourage them to embrace a person-environment approach by framing their clinical encounters within an institutional and historical context.  I encourage them to look at other variables, as well.  Racism does not happen in a vacuum:  their clients are equally affected by their class, gender, sexual orientation, ethno-religious ability, and age identity(ies) as well.

What else can colleges and universities do to encourage tolerance and diversity?

I would argue if a college or university promotes tolerance toward diversity as a benchmark then they are in serious jeopardy of being an antiquated institution of learning. Diversity should be an imperative for all institutions of higher education. The benefits of diversity are well-documented by leaders in our most prominent institutions including: government, education, business, and the military. In 2003, former supreme court justice Sandra Day O’ Connor cast a vote to support affirmative-action based on her understanding of the value of a diverse student body. Additionally, a diverse campus represents a true democracy where individuals and social groups are represented regardless of social identity.

Colleges and Universities can embrace identity by not only diversifying its student body, but also its faculty, senior- administration, and staff. This can be done through departmental posse hiring, pipeline programs, grants and scholarships that promote affordability, and by reexamining the scope of targeted high schools. Students become disillusioned if they feel mislead by the cover of brochures or lip-service paid to diversity initiatives. As my mother wisely said, “don’t listen to what people— or in the case, institutions say— watch what they do!”

(Photo:  Chris Nichols)