Higher Ed’s Reckoning With Race
A conversation about bigotry, diversity, and opportunity.
“We won’t accept ‘listening sessions,’ ‘open forums,’ meetings with the president, or the other mechanisms that are deployed to disempower us,”
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“We won’t accept ‘listening sessions,’ ‘open forums,’ meetings with the president, or the other mechanisms that are deployed to disempower us,” wrote Johnathan Charles Flowers in The Chronicle Review. “We will see through empty promises of diversity.”
Last week The Chronicle convened a virtual event to discuss how colleges can address the persistent maladies of race and class in the United States. The event was hosted by Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, and Scott Carlson, a senior writer at The Chronicle, and included Devin Fergus, a professor of history and Black studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia; Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; and G. Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College.
For a brief time during the event, the chat room was bombarded with racist comments and other vile insults. (At future live events, The Chronicle will review all comments before they appear publicly.) The ugly incident underscores why conversations such as this are so important. “Cowardice gains strength from functioning in the dark,” says Sorrell. “If this is what happens even during a Chronicle event where good people are having reasoned, intellectual conversations,
then we cannot be surprised by what is happening on the streets of our nation.”
Scott Carlson: How do we even begin to grapple with this?
Michael J. Sorrell: We have to start by just acknowledging a very basic point, which is that we are where we are as a country because this is what higher education has produced. All of our leaders are products of our institutions. They sat in our classrooms, they walked our campuses, they absorbed what we taught them.
If we go back and look at the history of higher education, it was founded to preserve the rights of the landed gentry and their ministry. It was founded to maintain and promote elitism. And that’s what it’s done.
And now we have gotten to a point where we look and realize that we actually should not be promoting elitism. We should be promoting collaboration. We should be promoting respect. We should learn to speak the language of the communities that are around us.
I want to ask Dr. Starr, Gabrielle Starr, a question. There’s such a thing as survivor’s bias. I would argue that many of us are the survivors of the ‘60s civil-rights movement. I mean, maybe not in the sense that we were there, walking and marching, but we are, indeed, the survivors of that. And that does create a certain type of bias.
As we look at this generation’s civil-rights movement, what can survivor’s bias teach us about what’s going on right now and how we go forward?
G. Gabrielle Starr: I think it teaches us to be humble, because survivor’s bias leaves you thinking that you did something right, and that anyone else could have taken the path you took. But a lot of what helped us succeed was institutional: things like affirmative action, mentorship, programs that were at the colleges that we went to. And a lot of it was dumb luck.
When we look at this generation coming through now, the conditions have both radically changed — and they haven’t. K-12 education is at some of its highest levels of segregation since 1954.
Sorrell: Devin, let’s talk about the history of how we got to this place.
Devin Fergus: I’m going to pick up on a thread that Gabi mentioned about “dumb luck,” because I love the phrase. A few years ago, I read a book by economist Robert Frank, Success and Luck. Frank argues that luck is actually the residue of design. He talks about all these almost near-death experiences that he has. One of the ways in which his life gets saved is because of a robust public-health system that is there to save him.
So yes, dumb luck exists. Absolutely right. But unless you have a robust, let’s say, “public infrastructure,” or “public education system,” luck often falls by the wayside.
Sorrell: We have created a society where people have been legislated to be unlucky.
Fergus: Precisely. But Michael, to get into your question about the history: Since World War II, higher education has been a pathway to upward mobility to America. But since the late ‘70s, 1980s, barriers have been erected to make college campuses less a site of upward mobility than a site of indebtedness. And it particularly has an impact on historically marginalized populations—women, people of color.
In the late ‘70s, early 1980s, a Pell Grant, for instance, could pay for two-thirds of the cost of college. And when I say “cost of college,” I’m talking about not simply tuition and fees but also room and board. Fast forward to 2019, 2020, a Pell Grant pays for less than half of that cost of college.
So how have busy students tried to make up that difference? They take out student loans. These things have a disparate impact on folks of color, who are far more likely to take on student loans than the broader population.
Carlson: And that’s by design.
Fergus: Absolutely. In the early 1980s, they actually talked about what impact the rising cost of college and the decline of the purchasing price of a Pell Grant would have on folks of color. They knew it would have a disparate impact. They took the opportunity costs and built it on the backs of historically marginalized folk.
Mildred Garcia: I would add something else: Public disinvestment in state colleges and universities, especially the regional comprehensive institutions that I represent, happened when students of color and underserved students were coming into our institutions. When we look at who is the new majority in this country — we are putting barriers up to the very individuals that we have to educate, not only for themselves, but for lifting up the states.
Sorrell: I find it fascinating that the people in the legislatures are, by and large, graduates of the state’s publicly funded institutions. The idea that they would vote against the interests of their alma maters seems fascinating to me. I wonder how much of it is what you said — maybe because they don’t look at them as being the same as they were when they were there.
Starr: Millie has talked a bit about this concept of structural luck and how it plays into the damage that is being done to this generation. I wanted to add the moral-luck question, which in some ways ties us back to the tragic death of George Floyd and so many others. Structural considerations leave us in a world in which the same action can lead to disaster or success.
When we use dreaded terms like “white supremacy,” people think that we’re saying, “Oh, you are a racist” or “This is racist.” No. What we’re saying is that there is structural luck and moral luck that enables you to do so much.
You’re born on third base — you did not hit a triple. Coming up with language to talk about this is so hard, especially when, as Millie points out, resources have been diverted in ways that continue to undermine everything that we want to do.
Garcia: The public doesn’t want to pay for state colleges and universities at a time when our regional state colleges and universities are majority people of color. They just feel, well, that’s not my issue anymore.
Fergus: There’s little political cost to defunding education. Now we’re in the middle of a conversation about ostensibly defunding police departments. No elected official wants to be out there on the front lines defending that. But they will easily defund higher education without any kind of electoral cost.
This first happened at the federal level. In the 1980s, when presidential administrations began to defund higher education, they paid no political costs for doing so. Then it begins to trickle down to the state level.
Garcia: My biggest surprise in going to Washington is going to the Hill and having elected officials say to me, “Well, not everybody needs a bachelor’s degree.”
Sorrell: It’s always the people who have gone to college and whose kids have gone to college who say, “Not everyone needs to go to college,” which is just disingenuous.
But let me ask a question which touches upon something you said, Devin. In this moment of police reform — which needs to occur — we are having selective amnesia about what took place in many communities, which cried out for the need for more police when we had the crack epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
And this is particularly sensitive to many historically Black colleges because historically Black colleges are not in predominantly white neighborhoods. So all of us tend to be in predominantly Black neighborhoods, and many of those neighborhoods don’t have the economic investment that you see in counterpart institutions.
It’s fascinating. If you come to Dallas, and you drive, literally, the same highway up to Southern Methodist University, you can’t help but notice how much different the neighborhoods surrounding SMU look than those surrounding Paul Quinn. In fact, the highway changes names. You go from 75 to 45. So you get a 30-point decline just in the name of the highway coming south to where we are.
What I worry about is when we talk about defunding the police, the affluent neighborhoods are still going to receive the resources necessary to ensure their safety and quality of life. The neighborhoods surrounding our institution — those neighborhoods are already struggling with public-safety issues.
Fergus: You’re right that public safety is critical for communities of color. The question is really the way in which law enforcement interacts with those populations. The militarization of the police is so fundamentally problematic. And we’re seeing promising examples in Camden, N.J.. Better practices, not necessarily best practices.
Garcia: How are we educating our police officers and professionals? What are we doing in our institutions in order to be able to connect them to the communities they are going to be serving? We have to take responsibility, because many of these police officers are coming right out of our institutions.
Fergus: What we see in earlier generations — baby boomers, Generation Xers — they took nary a class on diversity. Today, someone who’s a millennial or Generation Z — they might take one required course on diversity.
Sorrell: Devin, you’re at a school, the University of Missouri, that has had some real difficulty in this area. What have they gotten right? What have they gotten wrong?
Fergus: In 2015, 2016, there were student protests over the creation of an inhospitable racial environment for Black students. This goes back to what Gabi said about structural luck. So it prompted protest on campus. They removed some of the higher-level officials and administrators. Then there was a backlash. There was a backlash among two populations — the state legislature and Missouri residents. There was a drop in enrollment, frankly.
When those who come from historically disadvantaged populations try to have a voice, there’s often a backlash from the majority population. How does one, as a college administrator or a faculty member, stand up on principle and be willing to accept the backlash from state legislators and from residents as well?
Starr: One of the reasons I came to Pomona was that it was one of the first institutions in the nation to include the idea of working in a diverse classroom as a criterion in promotion and tenure standards — that, as a professor, you would need to think about who was in your classroom, what their different levels of preparation might be, how you could bring every student into your class.
Our faculty did an extraordinary study. They set up cohort classes, sorted by high-school preparation in biology. They taught smaller cohorts for students who had had less preparation. They gave both sets of students the exact same exams. And the difference in scoring was statistically insignificant. That experiment motivated other faculty members to say, “We need to think about our pedagogy in the way that we teach.”
Sorrell: A question I wanted to ask you and Millie: As women of color who have led institutions that are diverse but typically have not been led by women of color, how do you navigate this environment while using your authentic voice?
Starr: Millie’s been doing it for longer than anybody, and she’s younger than everybody.
Garcia: I went into this business as a first-generation college student. My parents always told me, never forget where you came from. And my family keeps me humble. I’m just Millie at home. And as I took leadership positions, who you hire as your administrative team is critical, not only for the passion and mission of the institution but also for the diversity. You cannot ask faculty members to hire diverse faculty when your entire administration is white. You are not role-modeling it, you’re not using a bully pulpit, you’re not using your mission.
And be unapologetic. Yes, there will be backlash. And people will say, I was turning the institution into a Hispanic institution. People were telling me to go back home, and I always told them I’d go back to Brooklyn.
Starr: My father came to college late in his life. He graduated from college in his late 30s, and then he got a Ph.D. by the time he was 43. I was leafing through his dissertation about four months ago. He had written about the difference between knowledge that is gained that has no emotional penalty, and knowledge that is gained that has an emotional penalty. Knowledge that you get that costs you is harder to obtain. And I think that when we talk about as people of color, women, LGBTQA+ individuals, all of us, people who have come from working-class families, or migrant families, the working poor — a lot of it has come with an emotional cost, whether it’s dressing like you came out of a field, whether it’s being spat on going to school, or whether the content of what you were learning itself was emotionally wrenching. For me, learning about slavery — that’s emotionally wrenching.
We have to recognize that our knowledge is hard-fought. And since it’s hard-fought, we have to be committed to carrying on that fight, because otherwise it’s too painful, it’s too unpleasant, and it’ll be forgotten. If we’re going to preserve the knowledge of human dignity, then we’re going to have to live it.
Carlson: Kathleen Fitzpatrick has a book called Generous Thinking. Part of the point of her book is that higher ed is so fiercely competitive that it ends up undercutting the kind of progress it wants to make on various issues. I wonder if higher ed’s intense focus on competition is also one of the factors that really hampers it, in terms of grappling with race and class issues.
Starr: One of the things that makes the United States an incredibly lucky place is that we have such a diversity of institutions, from community colleges to the regional publics to flagship publics, religious colleges, small liberal-arts colleges, big research universities. This sense of competition is, in many ways, real. There’s competition for funding from the sources. But the ways that we can incentivize collaboration, I think, are much more important.
So I’ve been involved in a couple of collaborations. I worked at New York University for 17 years of my career. I wouldn’t have been able to help launch a prison-education program if we didn’t have agreements with community colleges in the area. We got money from the city and from incarceration-to-education funds from the Mellon and the Ford Foundations. So we needed to have public partnership to put that into play. And then we need a collaboration from the correctional authorities and the State of New York. That’s one of the things that makes me very worried about the Covid-19 crisis — it might shut us off from each other when we should be pursuing collaborations to help to reach students who couldn’t otherwise be reached.
Garcia: That’s great, Gabi. And I’d like to add, we have bought into the elitism of higher education. And we can’t do this alone.
Sorrell: When you say, “we,” who’s the “we”?
Garcia: If we are really interested in educating the underserved, why aren’t we talking about helping those institutions that are the less resourced, and that are really educating the new majority? We need to rethink, if we’re really interested in educating the underserved, where should our resources be placed?
Sorrell: But you’re assuming that we actually care about educating the underserved. I would argue that what institutions seem to really care about, seem to be rewarded for, is becoming one of the 40 schools that can claim that they’re one of the top 20 schools in the country.
Garcia: That may be in certain sectors. But when you look at Aascu institutions, U.S. News & World Report does not come into it. The presidents I am working with are dealing with student success. Are they perfect? Absolutely not. But they’re trying to learn: What is the role of administration in changing the trajectory of the students coming in?
Now, I’m not saying it’s for moral reasons. They’re being held accountable by their public boards. So I hear you, Michael, but we can’t paint all institutions with the same paintbrush. Just like we say, “Oh, there’s so much debt, $100,000 — come on. Aascu institutions don’t even charge between $12,000 and $14,000 a year — maybe too much money for some, but it’s not the high tuition.
Sorrell: I am not painting all of higher ed with the same paintbrush. I am merely acknowledging that a significant segment functions that way.
Garcia: No question.
Sorrell: And they are rewarded for functioning that way. I am actually making the case that you’re making. We need to hold up those institutions that are doing this the right way. But their stories aren’t told enough.
Garcia: They don’t get the press, and they don’t get the resources. They’re doing it on their own dime and on the backs of dedicated faculty, staff, and administration. And the research is showing who are the engines of upward mobility. Raj Chetty did that research, and it was pretty clear. Jorge Klor de Alva did that research. It is these Aascu institutions that are really lifting up the populace with less resources.
Sorrell: And I think they’re going to be particularly important in this era as we claw our way back, because the communities that are being torn apart by these issues, they need their institutions to put their arms around them in the way that they’ve always been doing.
Garcia: I’m worried because the research I read this morning from Strada shows that over 50 percent of Latinos have changed their plans for going into higher ed in the fall, and over 40 percent African Americans and Asian Americans. What are we doing to reach out to help them change their minds? Because after Covid, most of the people underserved are unemployed.
Fergus: Just prior to the pandemic, a group I work with frequently — DC Prosperity Now — did a study working with debt counselors in the Black community, asking them what are their primary concerns in terms of debt. I assumed it would be retail stores or payday lenders. No. Just behind credit-card debt was student-loan debt.
The ways in which student-loan debt impacts middle-class and working-class Black folk is the major impediment for having access to quality, affordable education. Student-loan debt becomes a barrier to asset building because it correlates much more closely with lower credit scores. We all know that lower credit scores often reflect having higher mortgage interest for mortgage loans.
Carlson: I have a question from the audience. What kind of leadership change do we need? And is there a willingness among a younger generation to accept leadership positions in higher education?
Garcia: Aascu has a program called the Millennium Leadership Institute, which was started in 1999 by African American presidents who wanted to diversify the presidency. I was in the first class and was the first graduate to get a presidency out of that 1999 class.
We have served over 600 individuals. About 140 are presidents. Some of them have gone into their second and third presidencies. We have honest conversations about what kind of grit and spackle you need to become a president, and where you feel you’re going to place your emphasis. Those programs are extremely important.
Starr: I’ve been thinking about public/private partnership and the collaboration. It would really be interesting to bring in some of the search firms and get them to begin to sponsor some leadership academies, because they’re being asked to provide leaders of color. And often the answer is, Well, there aren’t any.
Every one of us who’s in one of these positions is in it because there is a search for them that called us. And I think it would be really interesting to call Isaacson Miller and Spencer Stuart and so on and say, “Maybe we could collaborate on something so that you can find your next group of leaders by helping to train them.”
Garcia: I think the other group that we have to work with is governing boards. We have committees with faculty members, we have search firms, et cetera. But at the end of the day, it’s the governing board that appoints a president. And we need to start thinking about how to work with them.
Carlson: I want to ask another question from one of our viewers. How does a college president determine the line or gray space of engagement between making statements and taking action? This seems like one of those issues where, if the president is too engaged or too disengaged, either way it can go awry.
Garcia: Statements should not be made in a vacuum. What have you done since you became a president? You have to get the trust of your constituencies, the students, the faculty, the staff, the alumni, from the moment you walk on that campus, so that when a statement comes out, it is based on your vision and the mission of your institution as you’re moving it forward. To bring out a statement when you’ve done nothing before — people don’t believe you.
I served 17 years of presidencies. I was engaged in the community. I learned so much about Samoans, and Tongans, and Vietnamese, about Mexican Americans. If I couldn’t speak that language, I’d bring alumni with me who would help me to understand what those communities needed and what they wanted.
Starr: It’s all about outreach. And it’s not just about outreach into the pipeline, which we keep talking about as if we are in some form of assembly plant. God knows, we need those, but we have to realize that there are multiple places in which outreach must occur.
We’ve got a great program called PAYS — the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success — starting off with kids in high school. We work with them for three years. It’s a bridge program to college, almost 100 percent successful. The kids do a really amazing job. We work with families, and we feel like it’s a partnership.
And I think that that’s what we really have to do when we’re working in prison. I’m very worried about what our outreach is going to look like in the Covid-19 crisis. I’m not sure how we’re going to do prison ed. It’s hard to get the laptop. It’s not impossible.
Sorrell: One of the things that I often hear people say is, “Well, where are we supposed to get the money to do these things?” To me, the power is in collaboration. All of us don’t need to do the same things, but all of us need to do something.
Garcia: Yeah. We’ve talked about, How do you collaborate within your region? And how do you reach out, not only to the foundations in your region and to your alumni base?
Starr: There are so many of our institutions that are poised not to survive in this crisis. I’m on the equivalent of Millie’s state-college board, but just for California independent colleges. And one of the things our membership is saying is that liquidity, being able to make payroll, is under threat. It should not be a pandemic that closes institutions that are serving people well. If we let 20 percent of them fall away, we are going to be in a world of hurt. Not in 20 years — in five years.
The last three big infusions we’ve had into higher education were the Land-Grant Acts, the GI Bill, and Pell Grants. And we are in desperate need of something like the Marshall Plan for our own country. We’re in desperate need around the world.
Fergus: Gabi’s absolutely right about the Marshall Plan in the post-World War II period to stave off social unraveling in Western Europe. And my sense is that there is not a commensurate sort of fear in American society that such an unraveling is going to happen.
My broader point is about the intergenerational assault on expertise in the academy. And it doesn’t come primarily from communities of color. I think communities of color have an abiding faith and deep trust, comparatively speaking, in higher education and in government more broadly.
There was a report released a few weeks ago saying that Latinx and African Americans are willing to allow governments to download apps to do contact tracing in ways in which white America is not. So people of color have a much more abiding faith and trust in institutions of government.
It stops with things like law enforcement and the criminal-justice system. But outside of that, look at the ways in which the government itself has been the conveyance of upward mobility in Black America. In terms of things like public employment at the local, state, and federal level, it’s the primary conveyance of Black upward mobility. But in the broader society, there’s been an erosion of trust and faith in government, and, more important, faith in expertise.
If you look at this as a glass half-full, there’s a market out there of people of color who are willing to embrace outreach by institutions of higher learning. Where there is alienation, I suspect, is with the broader society, especially with the rhetoric of the ways in which the academy is embracing, quote unquote, “diversity.” Whenever I use that phrase, I can just see it puts some folks on the edge of their chair.
Garcia: I’m an eternal optimist. African Americans and Latinx populations understand the importance of higher education. They are not turning their backs.
Starr: I, too, am an optimist. Or at least I try to be one every day. I’ll say that it’s become very common to say that our students are snowflakes, that they can’t take it. But these students have taken, many of them, more than most grown folks have ever had to in their lives. And what they’re saying systematically is that older people, to quote Gulliver’s Travels, are saying “the thing which is not.” They’ll say, “No, that’s not racist. No, that’s not sexist. No, that’s not homophobic. No, that’s not the result of class disparity.” It’s our job to call things the names that they are, and to speak the truth.
When I’m 70 and ready to take my hand off this wheel, I feel pretty comfortable that those kids who are coming up will be ready to drive this car. That’s what allows me to sleep at night.
Sorrell: Let the church say, “Amen.”
This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.