Reflections on Shaun Harper's 2017 Conference Keynote Speech from NACAC CEO Joyce Smith

The keynote at our just-concluded 2017 NACAC National Conference in Boston provoked strong reactions from those in attendance. We have received many requests to make a recording available, and I invite you to watch or re-watch the speech. I also would like to provide some context and personal reflection.

We chose Professor Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California's Race & Equity Center, as our keynote speaker because, given everything happening in our profession and in the world, we wanted to give members a bold and thought-provoking message. Professor Harper did not disappoint. His speech was challenging—some might say confrontational. Using data from his own research and other sources, he made the case that structural racism exists in college admission, on both sides of the desk.  

Drawing on research that included extensive interviews with male college students of color, he attempted to show how profound inequities in the college admission process are pervasive and systemic.  And he challenged NACAC members to do more to address this problem. In his words, “It sure would be nice if a mostly white professional association and its members more powerfully, more responsibly, and more loudly advocated for racial justice on behalf of those who don't have the resources that they deserve in high schools across our nation.”

In social media and in conversations heard at the conference convention center, there were mixed, although mostly positive reactions to Professor Harper’s keynote. Many said that his blunt words needed to be said, and that inherent racism in our industry needed to be called out in the strongest terms. Others took offense and interpreted his remarks as an affront to all the dedicated professionals in the audience who work hard to serve students every day.

I do concur with Professor Harper’s basic message: There is evidence of real bias in the US college admission process, just as there is bias in other aspects of our society — in our justice system, in our economy, and more. The facts show that people of color are far too often denied the same opportunities as others. And while these big societal problems are structural, individuals need to take responsibility and work for change. We need to become more aware, we need to recognize that bias exists, and we need to address it with diligence and honesty. That’s the message I took away from Professor Harper’s keynote.  

Of course, we have many members who are working hard every day to fight against bias and privilege and to assist students of color to get into the college they deserve. We have many who have made this central to their careers, and many others who nevertheless are conscientious, moral, and caring professionals who are doing this quietly in their institutions. But the problem remains.  

At the conference's Annual Membership Meeting, NACAC President David Burge celebrated the association’s recent work championing equity within our schools and on our college campuses. We are incredibly fortunate to have so many passionate members engaged in the important work of promoting equality. From advocating for appropriate resources for campus diversity initiatives, to putting in extra hours and effort to ensure traditionally underrepresented students have a range of college choices, our members are on the front lines in the fight to ensure all students share in the benefits of higher education.

No, we can’t ignore the inequalities that persist. But I take heart in knowing that NACAC has been working hard to build a better future for the next generation of students and professionals, and we can do more. Let’s not lose the opportunity to return to our schools, offices, or campuses and discuss the issues surrounding bias Professor Harper put before us.
Over the past year, our association has strived to offer opportunities for conversation to facilitate understanding of some of our perceived differences. Lisa Walker’s two “Real Talk” sessions in Boston were a direct response to members’ request for time to discuss sometimes difficult issues around race, ethnicity, and privilege. Our respected “Guiding the Way to Inclusion” program, which has brought scores of people of color and allies together for more than 35 years, enjoyed record attendance this year. We’ve also met with legislators and other leaders to advocate for positions as diverse as support for DACA and opposition to state and local “bathroom bills.” NACAC was among the first to speak against the ban on travel for immigrants, affecting the flow of international students and professors to our schools and universities where enrollment is down this year.

I recently read an article in The New York Times on economic inequality which closed with these lines: “It’s a myth that racial progress is inevitable. But it’s also dangerous insofar as it keeps us blind to considerable inequality in our nation that’s quite foundational. Of course, we can’t address it if we’re not even willing to acknowledge it.”

That, for me, is the essence of Professor Harper’s message. To end inequality, we all must be willing to acknowledge it.

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