Digest No. 04 - June 2018

Name Racism Openly: Race and Rhetoric in Presidents’ Statements

Cole, E. R., and S. R. Harper. 2017. “Race and Rhetoric: An Analysis of College Presidents’ Statements on Campus Racial Incidents.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 10(4): 318–333.


How do college and university presidents communicate with the campus community about issues concerning racialized incidents on campus? This study examines the public messaging practices of 18 senior administrators who made statements in responses to racial incidents that occurred over a three-year period, from 2012 through 2015. Through rhetorical analytic strategies, Eddie Cole and Shaun Harper concluded that presidents often issue descriptive statements about the racial incident itself and equally descriptive and sometimes editorial statements about the individual or group that perpetrated the incident. Often omitted from statements are descriptive or editorial comments about systemic racism or its location and expression through sustained and reproduced institutional racist practices. The authors argue that such an omission may isolate and even address the incident, but may reproduce a sustained discriminatory campus narrative.

Grounded in the context of rhetoric and its influence on behaviors, the authors argue that analyzing the public statements of college and university presidents may be a window into their role in “setting diversity agendas” on college campuses. Against the backdrop of the recent political climate, socio-political movements such as Black Lives Matter, and the resignation of University of Missouri’s President Tim Wolfe over alleged mismanagement of racial incidents on the Columbia campus, the authors turned to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education for its published list of “Campus Racial Incidents” as the data source from which themes related to racial incident, race, and racism were extracted.


The 18 statements represented a variety of institutions, including some in the CIC membership. The authors published the list of institutions, the nature of the incident, and the date of occurrence (p. 321). They also situated their positionality (i.e., disclosing personal factors and experiences that can affect positions a researcher adopts) and approach to the study as being partly an extension of their own identities as black faculty members at predominantly white institutions. Cole and Harper stated that they believe that “academic leaders of many institutions can do more to foster inclusive environments for all people on campus” (p. 322) and that this belief stems from “know[ing] the demand of mentoring students of color, many of which are not our assigned academic advisees, because they seek out-of-class counsel from faculty of color who look like them” (p. 322).

Findings were organized around three dimensions consistent with rhetoric analytical approaches to data collection and reporting: exigence, audience, and constraints. In terms of exigence, the racial incident or series of incidents on one campus was differentially explained by the 18 presidents, with three not mentioning the incident at all, 11 mentioning the incident using broad terms with no discussion of incident details, and four offering a detailed account of the incident. Turning to audience, the statements directly targeted three overlapping audiences: All 18 addressed the general campus community; 13 discussed the individual or group that committed the offense, and five made remarks concerning those targeted by the racial offense. Finally, only three of the 18 college presidents located their comments in the acknowledgement of systematic, historic, and institutional racism, which, the authors note, may have the power to “render a statement ineffective” (p. 322).


What advice might the authors offer to CIC presidents based on these findings? In no particular order, the authors suggest that presidents use the word racism in describing racialized incidents on campus, offsetting a perception that academic leaders’ words are “forgettable” and “seen as saying and doing nothing about racism” (p. 330). Also, presidents should support efforts to ensure that campus community members have a robust understanding of racism, its origins, and its many expressions, both beyond and in reference to the specific institution. Presidential statements––if properly acknowledging race, the racial incident, and racism––have the power to initiate meaningful dialogue about race and racism on college campuses. If strategically considered, the power of presidential words can help disrupt traditional spaces where institutionalized racism and discriminatory practices have been and continue to be the norm.

About the Authors

Eddie R. Cole is assistant professor of higher education in the College of William & Mary’s school of education and affiliated faculty in the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at William & Mary.

Shaun R. Harper is provost professor in the Rossier School of Education and Marshall School of Business, the Clifford and Betty Allen Chair in Urban Leadership, and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California (USC).

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Gurin, P., E. L. Dey, S. Hurtado, and G. Gurin. 2002. “Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes.” Harvard Educational Review 72: 330–367.

Kezar, A. J., and P. Eckel. 2008. “Advancing Diversity Agendas on Campus: Examining Transactional and Transformational Presidential Leadership Styles.” International Journal of Leadership in Education 11: 379–405.