Has the Black Lives Matter movement influenced not only public opinion but also HE institutions? Mathis Ebbinghaus and Sihao Huang suggest that there is a temporal association between these time series: the enrolment of Black students and the salience of BLM. Despite some concerns, it did not affect broader trends towards greater representation of other minority students. Learn more in our interview below and read the PSR article: Institutional Consequences of the Black Lives Matter Movement: Towards Diversity in Elite Education.
Political Studies Review: You claim that “universities expressed their commitment to racial diversity, but university policies aimed at rectifying historic disadvantages were also met with criticism.” What is the situation of universities in the US in terms of racial diversity?
Mathis Ebbinghaus: Yes, that’s right. Racial diversity is one of the big contentious topics in university politics – perhaps because it relates to the meritocratic promise of the American dream. Proponents argue that greater racial diversity reflects fairer conditions that enable historically disadvantaged groups to compete. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, hundreds of universities expressed their commitment to campus equity efforts. Critics are concerned that greater racial diversity comes at the cost of new racial discrimination against academically successful students. In 2020, the enrolment-to-population ratios of Asian students are 4.3 and 3.68 in elite universities and medical schools respectively. Hispanic and Black students are underrepresented compared to their representation in the general population whereas enrolment rates for White students reflect their representation in the US population. In our article, we examine how Black and Asian student representation has changed over time. Contrary to concerns that Asian student representation has declined as a result of growing enrolment rates of Black students, we observe a steady increase in the representation of Asian students alongside increases in the representation of Hispanic students over the past decade. BLM coincided with increased Black enrolment in highly selective universities. It did not affect broader trends towards greater representation of other minority students.
What are the major challenges for policies to efficiently enhance racial diversity in the HE sector?
There certainly are numerous challenges to enhancing racial diversity. As far as our research is concerned, the positive association between racial diversity and Black Lives Matter activism suggests that it will be an important challenge for social justice activists to continuously convince university staff of the worthiness of their claims and to channel the momentum of 2020 into institutional politics that fall to some extent outside the purview of legal obligations.
BLM coincided with increased Black enrolment in highly selective universities. It did not affect broader trends towards greater representation of other minority students.
Based on your research, has the Black Lives Matter protest movement influenced the HE sector in the US at the macro level?
Yes, the data that we analyzed lend credence to this interpretation. In elite education, the shares of Black students in elite undergraduate and medical schools have coincided with the growing influence of the BLM movement. Future research should investigate the same question with methods that allow for more causal interpretations.
You aim at identifying the measurable impacts the BLM movement has had on elite educational institutions. Would you elaborate on your data and methods?
Certainly. But let me just stress again that it would be premature to interpret our findings causally. What we do show is that there is a temporal association between two time series: the enrolment of Black students and the salience of BLM. To measure the salience of the BLM movement we use the GDELT database that has data on TV coverage of 109 local and national television channels. Our university enrolment data span the years from 2011 to 2020. Data on medical school enrolments by race cover twelve years from 2009 to 2020. Both applicant and enrolment numbers were obtained directly from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
One of the effects that you describe is the increase in the enrolment of Black students. How can you explain that?
There are many compelling explanations that could account for this trend. We suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement may have contributed to increases in the enrolment of Black students both directly through interactions between activists and members of admission committees and indirectly through affecting the universities’ broader outlook. Awareness of the university’s values and the presence of passionate students who measure the university by their actions may create conformity pressures among admission board members. In future research, we hope to test these social mechanisms more directly.
We suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement may have contributed to increases in the enrolment of Black student both directly through interactions between acticsts and members of admission committees and indirectly through affecting the universities’ broader outlook.
Have any inter-sectional diversity challenges appeared? Were there any critical voices raised and what would be your response to them?
Yes, there were. Some critics feared that increasing Black student representation would disadvantage other racial groups. Our analysis shows that the representation of Asian students grew steadily for both types of elite education – the opposite of what critics feared. The representation of Hispanic students increased as well, which leaves us with a clear picture: The spikes in Black student representation following spikes in the salience of the BLM movement did not affect broader trends towards greater representation among other minority groups. While enrolment rates for the three largest minority groups in the US have increased over the past decade, enrolment rates for White students continuously decreased.
What are the key contributions your paper brings to the field?
There is more and more evidence that the Black Lives Matter movement shaped public opinion and policy. But movements can also have institutional consequences. Although studied less often, they are no less important. By focusing on the relationship between the Black Lives Matter movement and racial admission practices in elite educational institutions, we contribute to scholarship on the institutional consequences of social movements.
Mathis Ebbinghaus is a DPhil candidate in sociology at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. His research is in political sociology and he investigates social movements and extraordinary social action.
Institutional Consequences of the Black Lives Matter Movement: Towards Diversity in Elite Education – Mathis Ebbinghaus, Sihao Huang, 2022 (sagepub.com)
Questions and production
Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London