Wednesday, April 1, 2015

From March Madness to March Sadness

by Lori Patton Davis, Division J Affirmative Action Chair and Associate Professor of Higher Education & Student Affairs at Indiana University

The month of March has been rightfully referenced as “March Madness”. March marks the month in which the nation’s top teams square off against one another for an opportunity to compete in the NCAA Championship game, also known as “the big dance”. For the last several years, the city of Indianapolis has hosted the NCAA final four and championship games. Residents of Indiana and people from across the country descend on the city of Indianapolis, IN to partake in an exciting time, whether their brackets were correct or not, as Division 1 teams face off to determine which will take home the coveted honor of being the nation’s top collegiate athletic team in the sport of men’s basketball.

As festivities are underway, the state of Indiana is not only in the spotlight due to the NCAA tournament, but also due to the tremendous media attention and outcry over the state’s passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). While several other states have RFRA laws, Indiana is the only state in which the law can be used to support one’s religion in defense of their decision to discriminate. In other words, an individual or business owner can refuse services to anyone they deem as placing undue burden on their religious freedom. This bill has the capacity to “increasingly take the form of private actors, such as employers, landlords, small business owners, or corporations, taking the law into their own hands and acting in ways that violate generally applicable laws on the grounds that they have a religious justification for doing so” (Legum, 2015). The largest outcry associated with this bill has mainly focused on the opinions of critics who argue the bill will foster discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and Trans* communities.

Since Governor Pence signed the bill, several groups have been outspoken about its inherently discriminatory nature, as well as its poor reflection on the state of Indiana, its legislators and supporters of the measure. Organizations (e.g. NASCAR, NCAA, NBA, Indiana Pacers), higher education professional associations (e.g. ACPA, NASPA, ASHE) and Indiana Colleges and Universities (e.g. Indiana University, Butler, Earlham, Ball State) have all issued statements in opposition to the bill or any measure that would legalize discrimination. Some Indiana businesses are protesting the bill and posting visible signage to let potential customers know they believe in inclusivity and welcome all customers regardless of difference.

I am vehemently opposed to Indiana’s RFRA legislation. However, my opposition to this bill does not differ in any substantive way from my opposition to all forms of inequity that are fostered within higher education. As I think about the many college-educated leaders, lawmakers and elected officials in the state of Indiana, I can’t help but wonder how different their leadership might look had they been sufficiently educated at their respective institutions of higher education. Year after year (century after century), students experience the revolving door of college; that is, they enter with little knowledge of privilege, oppression, difference, equity and often leave with their same biases and misconceptions unchallenged and unchecked. In our Responding to the Realities of Race Monograph, Shaun Harper and I (2007) contend:
It is entirely possible for students to graduate from college without critically reflecting on their racist views, never having engaged in meaningful conversations about race, and using racially offensive language unknowingly. When issues of race do emerge, many people, whites in particular, are disinterested and argue fatigue. They are tired of talking about it. Tired of hearing about how racist, alienating, and devaluing the campus is. Oftentimes, educators are responsible for letting students and ourselves off the hook rather than engaging the conversation and the necessary subsequent action. (p. 2)
Whether the emphasis is race, gender, sexual orientation, class, or some other marker of difference, at some point we as educators must begin to seriously grapple with the fact that our institutions are failing college students when it comes to educating them about oppression and inequities and how they and we are complicit in the very inequities we claim to disrupt. Yes, I’m saddened about the passage of Indiana’s RFRA; but I’m more saddened when I think about the numerous learning opportunities that these legislators and those following in their footsteps miss during their collegiate experiences. The bottom line is that our institutions are not doing enough to challenge our students and engage them critically in ways that not only expose them to oppressive ideologies but also assist them in building the capacity to recognize and disrupt them regardless of what they pursue post-graduation.

I am encouraged by the public stance taken by the leaders of many Indiana colleges and universities. The predominant theme among these presidential messages indicates a commitment to diversity and inclusivity and firm opposition to discrimination of any kind. However, our institutions must move beyond the message toward actionable strategies that ensure espoused values are translated into enacted values. Despite the inequities embedded in the academy, I believe institutions of higher education can be transformative spaces. I encourage readers to consider how they might challenge themselves and others to not only speak out when issues such as Indiana’s RFRA emerge, but also to challenge our how we think, conduct research, teach courses and engage in service on a daily basis. We must consistently ask the hard questions: How does my contribution to higher education fuel the (mis)education of students? How am I co-implicated in the way this (mis)education shows up beyond the academy in societal structures that reproduce oppression and inequities? And How will I do better?


Harper, S. R., & Patton, L. D. (Eds.)(2007). Responding to the realities of race. New Directions
  for Student Services, no. 120. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Legum, J. (March 20, 2015). The big lie the media tells about Indiana’s new “religious fredom’
  law. Think Progress. Retrieved from

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