Welcome to Race on Campus. Inequality is baked into higher education. Think about it: Institutions with the most financial resources, including flagship universities, enroll few Black students. That’s what Adam Harris is arguing in his new book, The State Must Provide. Katie Mangan interviewed our former colleague about his research for the book.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Higher Ed Has Always Been Unequal

In 2018, Adam Harris, then a Chronicle reporter, brought our readers to Mississippi Valley State University for an inside look at how the Ayers settlement, the culmination of one of the longest-running civil-rights cases in American history, had failed to adequately atone for centuries of discrimination.

Harris, who now writes for The Atlantic, felt that his reporting on inequities in higher education had only scratched the surface. There was more to tell, and the result is a book released this month: The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal — and How to Set Them Right.

I caught up with Adam to ask him about the book. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

I was struck in reading your book, Adam, by how frustrated and almost incredulous you were at how deeply ingrained the racial barriers were in the higher-education system. What made you decide to take such a deep dive into the history of Black higher education?

Part of it grew out of my own experience attending Alabama A&M University. I had really great professors and classmates who challenged me. But the buildings had structural problems, deferred maintenance, the kind of little things that were very different from the predominantly white campus that was maybe 10 minutes away.

Fast forward, I get to The Chronicle, and I started covering federal higher-education policy and HBCUs and digging into these issues a little more deeply. The Ayers settlement in Mississippi was an incomplete settlement. So what did the situation look like for the rest of the states that had settled with the federal government — North Carolina, Kentucky and others? And knowing that a majority of Black students do not attend historically Black colleges, what is the experience like for them, given the wealth stratification happening at this moment? A large proportion of Black students attend community colleges, which are doing yeoman’s work but are often poorly funded or treated as an afterthought.

You write that American colleges and universities have never given Black students a chance to succeed. When did you reach that conclusion?

Once I started to poke into the roots of higher-education policy, I realized that inequality was baked into the system. The Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862 created a class of land-grant institutions that Black students could not attend. Even today, places with the most resources, including flagships, have very small Black enrollments. Just 5 percent of the enrollment at Auburn University is Black, despite the fact that roughly 30 percent of high-school graduates in Alabama are Black. States have grown complacent about these issues because they know there won’t be any repercussions for ignoring them.

Whose responsibility is it to make up for the historic discrimination and neglect you write about?

I place a large onus on states and the federal government. The Biden administration has effectively tripled federal funding for schools this year. They’ll get about $3 billion compared to the $1 billion they typically get. There’s a push to make those injections recurring. Some states have also started to do that accounting. Tennessee State University, for instance, is owed between $150 million and $550 million over a 50-year span. But look at Alcorn State, which was supposed to receive a $50,000 allocation per year for a decade starting in 1871, and four years later, it’s cut to $15,000 a year, and the next year it’s cut to $5,500 a year.Think about what these institutions have still been able to do in spite of that discrimination. North Carolina A&T is one of the highest research-producing institutions in the state of North Carolina. If they did not have to face that structural discrimination, what would they be? And so I think that states have a fundamental responsibility to aid the institutions that were supporting and serving Black students at a time when flagships and other institutions were literally saying they would rather close than enroll a Black student. It’s jarring how in-your-face the discrimination was.

In structuring the book, you zeroed in on some key historical figures like George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery and had to fight his way into becoming the first Black student at Iowa State to earn a bachelor of science degree. Why the focus on these personal stories?

I often feel that people think of higher education in the abstract. They associate it with places like Harvard and Yale, but it’s also other institutions. People connect with their local college rather than the abstract idea of higher education because they can see it, they can feel it. When you say Iowa accepted a land grant and created Iowa State, it becomes a list of facts. But when you tell George Washington Carver’s story, you learn about higher education through the way he interacted with the system. I think that if higher education did a better job of centering the people who experience it rather than the big ideas, people would have a better understanding of the sector at large.

Is there anything in reporting this that surprised you?

I was surprised by the extent to which states resisted enrolling Black students. When a student was trying to enroll at the University of Oklahoma, and the Supreme Court said they had to enroll her there or at least create a separate institution for her, they rushed the separate institution into existence in five days. Kentucky did a study in the early 1900s and asked what would it take to enhance its historically Black colleges. And a professor tells them the girls’ dorm is fire prone and it doesn’t have fire escapes. The boys’ dorm is literally in a mud puddle. The electrical plant doesn’t have power. The buildings are old, the professors are underpaid, and the state’s like: “Well, we have $40,000. We can fix it with that.” And he’s like, “That’s woefully insufficient.” They’ve known and done these studies for so long and still allowed the institutions to remain underfunded. Despite all that, the institutions have persisted.

Why do you think that this book, with its unflinching look at racial inequality in higher education, is important now?

The book is coming out in an environment where state lawmakers are trying to pass laws to ban examinations of this type — the ones that look at the ways that slavery and segregation didn’t stay in the past, but their vestiges extended to the present. That makes it all the more important to have this conversation in this moment. The more people try to push back against the truth, the more important it is to tell it.

Read Up

  • The pandemic-strained housing market threatens to further widen the gap between Black and white homeownership. (The New York Times)
  • Last summer, many companies — like Johnson & Johnson, Apple, and Procter & Gamble — pledged money to fight racism. Where has that money gone? (The Washington Post)
  • When Adam Harris worked at The Chronicle, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos famously skirted national media questions and interviews. So Adam wrote about it. (The Chronicle)
  • Many American grocery stores still have an ethnic aisle. How do stores decide which products to stock there and which to spread among other aisles? (The New York Times)
  • The number of Native students enrolled in college for the first time fell by nearly a quarter in the fall of 2020, according to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse. Experts worry that if those students don’t get on track after the pandemic drop, there may be long-term consequences for Native communities. (The Hechinger Report)
  • Newly released U.S. Census data show how the racial makeups of cities have changed. Take a look at your city or neighborhood here. (The Washington Post)

—Fernanda