Background: Recent incidents of racism at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) have gained increased national attention. The backlash to individuals speaking out against racialized practices is often masked through discourse that dismisses the adverse effects of racism. Because university administrators often center their responses to incidents of racism on upholding free speech, scholars should analyze the ways that administrators’ responses might reinforce the existence of such racist behaviors and affect marginalized students.
Purpose and Research Questions: Rather than placing the burden on students to disrupt institutionalized racism, the author critically analyzed the discourse administrators utilized in their responses to understand the role of power in language. The following research questions informed the study: (a) what are the various characteristics of the discourse of university administrators as they respond to incidents of racism? and (b) how do university administrators’ responses to racism support or disrupt larger patterns of social power and privilege?
Research Design: The author utilized critical discourse analysis (CDA) to deconstruct relationships between the speech patterns of university presidents and larger Discourses about social power. Through a process of description, interpretation, and explanation, the author sought to reveal the underlying ideologies that go beyond surface-level discourse about free speech.
Data Collection and Analysis: Based on the context of increased police brutality and student protests on college campuses, the author reviewed data on recent incidents of racism at PWIs. The three final cases chosen for analysis represented varying approaches utilized by administrators to respond to racist incidents. Through multiple phases of coding, the author interpreted relationships between textual patterns to reveal a larger narrative about administrative accountability.
Findings: Each university president utilized a different approach to campus racism. The major discourse patterns represented were (a) a direct reproach of individuals as accountable for racism; (b) an indirect and theoretical approach to the reality of racism; and (c) a denial of or diversion from racism through authority.
Conclusions and Recommendations: Across the cases, administrators utilized speech that either downplayed the existence of racism or defined it through privilege or colorblind ideology. With the last incident resulting in the firing of the president, the analysis revealed ways that presidents can utilize emotional speech without substantial action. In order to be more responsive to marginalized communities, administrators need to intentionally engage with marginalized groups who are often silenced because their beliefs do not fit the standard of the dominant norm.