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Why transforming higher education can promote racial equality

I was very active politically in the 1960s, 70s, and the early 80s. Life became more difficult in the late 1980s with the arrival of a third child, and as I focused to publish enough to get tenure in a large Midwestern university. Today, as I look back on that time, I struggle with two perspectives about current anti-racist activism and about a continued anti-racist struggle in the academy. One of them is to believe that the current political reckoning over racism in the United States is different. With the involvement of more non-blacks, with the courage of the youth in the face of horrific police attacks, and with the swiftness with which people in high places are resigning and policemen are being dismissed or even indicted, real change appears to be happening in record time.

My second perspective is less sanguine. The changes appear too shallow and too centered on reform rather than transformation. This change may dissipate as the protests run out of a steam that is unsustainable unless there is real change in the roster of people who make the decisions. Decision makers need a different vision for true democracy that places people in the center of planning and posits the real lives of real people as the priority consideration for societal decisions.

Although colleges may seem somewhat removed from the need to provide universal health care, criminal justice reform, a living wage, secure food and housing etc. for all people, they are also centered to the need for meaningful human life and equitable human conditions. Some of the most prestigious institutions of higher education were formed even prior to the founding of the United States (e.g. Harvard 1636, Yale 1701, Dartmouth 1769). Their mission was to provide a liberal arts education to the elite. The idea that created major public universities begins to evolve in the 1840s but does not really come to fruition until the first Morrill Act of 1862, which created what later become some of the country’s major public universities, among them Penn State, Ohio State University, and the universities of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California.

Several historically Black colleges and universities were also founded early in the country’s history: Cheyney (1837), Lincoln (1854), Wilberforce (1856), and Shaw and Atlanta universities in 1865. This is important because African Americans were either barred from southern institutions of higher education or limited by quotas in those in the north. In fact, the passage of the second Morrill Act of 1890 allowed southern states to bar African Americans from admittance to their state universities if they provided so called “separate but equal” facilities. This was even before the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that allowed such discrimination in all other areas of life in the United States.

So what? This history has contributed to the over-privatization and cost of higher education in the United States. In addition to the already existing scholarship about the role of higher education and its benefit from the slave trade and slavery, higher education has been dedicated from its beginning to the preservation of class privilege and race privilege.

That did not easily give way to change. After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that de-segregated K-12 education, it was not until the 1960s that the struggle against racism in higher education and professional education (law school, medical schools, etc.) really gained traction. And that struggle was not just about admission, but also about access to housing, faculty diversity, and changing the curriculum.

As with racial integration in every facet of US life, faculty diversity often means a small number of non-whites hired. This leaves faculty members of color lonely, un-mentored, judged by higher standards than white faculty members, and over-worked because they needed to mentor students of color. Often their research is questioned. A close friend once shared with me that as he sat this very year and listened at a faculty council meeting about how concerned the overwhelmingly white council was about lowered standards for hiring faculty as they discussed an African American candidate, he replied “Well those lower standards must be because of the hiring of more unqualified white people because we haven’t hired enough non-white scholars to even begin to move that needle, we are so few in numbers.”

The academy has rightly begun to add to the numbers of non-white students, much less so the number of non-white faculty but that is beginning to happen also. College have also started changing their  curricula. But a discussion of the role of higher education in the creation of a more just society must go beyond counting non-white heads.

It needs to begin with a grand reflection on what we are teaching, on what we are saying to students about the role of educated and skilled people in society and their relationship to citizenship, about what it means to be a critical and informed thinker. Finally there needs to be a deep dialogue between higher education and K-12 education about both K-12 preparation and content, and this dialogue will benefit even those students who do not go on to college.

One of the most egregious activities of universities is the employment of their own police forces that have little training and often come with their own pre-conceived racist notions. They harass legitimate students of color in their dormitories, walking across campus, driving in their cars on campus, and more. This has got to stop. Higher education has a major role to play in promoting equality. But perhaps more importantly it has a major role to play in creating a just society that administers to the needs of its citizens and that promotes peace and security of all kinds.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Elizabeth M. Riddle

    Thank you Prof. Johnson-Odim!

    Deep transformation continues to be the need to bring about a decent society.

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