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Are Colleges Really Falling Short on Racial Justice?

College leaders are talking more than ever about inclusion. Faculty members and students are demanding institutional changes. At some colleges, dozens or even hundreds of faculty members have signed onto open letters that call for anti-racist action and offer criticisms that, depending on one’s point of view, will either seem compelling or exaggerated. Recently, The Chronicle Review published a controversial essay by Harvard Law’s Randall Kennedy arguing that one such letter, at Princeton, didn’t pass the smell test.In this conversation, Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, in Texas, and Sarah Brown, a senior reporter at The Chronicle, were joined by several scholars and administrators, including Kennedy, to discuss how the national reckoning over racial injustice intersects with academic life. The discussion also covered how higher ed’s structural problems can harm Black professors and communities, and how colleges can diversify their faculties. Fred A. Bonner II, author of a 2004 Chronicle Review article on the experience of Black faculty members at predominantly white institutions, is a professor of educational leadership and counseling at Prairie View A&M University. Darrick Hamilton is a professor of economics and urban policy and director of the Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification, and Political Economy at the New School. Tracey E. Hucks, a scholar of Africana studies, is provost and dean of the faculty at Colgate University. And Marcia Chatelain, who recently wrote in The Chronicle Review about how colleges have co-opted Black students’ protests, is a professor of history at Georgetown University.

Kevin van Aelst for The Chronicle Review

Michael J. Sorrell: I want to start with Professor Kennedy. I’m struck by your Chronicle article. What counts as overstepping in the pursuit of diversifying colleges?Randall Kennedy: It’s a good thing that so many people are concerned about racial injustice, a deep and pervasive problem in every sector of American life, including in higher education. I’m glad that people are upset. I’m glad that people are shaking the trees.Because I believe that so strongly, I believe that reformers have to be careful in their analysis. I think in a way people aren’t being radical enough. They are underplaying the problem. Black Americans have been systematically deprived of educational resources. At the primary and secondary levels, Black people have been kept down. When it comes time to pick professors, if you are a plausible candidate, you are doing well. You’re way up there.Because of oppression in American life, there are relatively few African Americans that are in positions to be professors, especially in chemistry, physics, etc. What is going on outside actually keeps down the numbers of plausible, good candidates.Sorrell: Provost Hucks, you are tasked with addressing this issue for your institution, Colgate. When you hear Professor Kennedy talking about the supply issue, how do you address scarcity?Tracey E. Hucks: When we think about diversifying our faculty, we realize the pipeline isn’t robust, particularly in some areas. At Colgate we try to have a multipronged approach. We have to think about cluster hires and target-of-opportunity hires. We have to think about implicit bias. We have to be sure we have good packages to attract that pipeline to Colgate. And retention — we need support in that.We joined the Consortium for Faculty Diversity, an organization out of Gettysburg College that was founded to counter the sense that there’s no one out there. It’s a consortium of liberal-arts schools that garners a pool of people, hundreds of applications across fields. There are many people out there.I was a CFD at Haverford College. That is how I got my first tenure-stream job. We joined the consortium to help with mentorship and training of faculty of color when they come here.Sorrell: As an African American woman in this position, do you feel pressure?Hucks: I don’t know if it’s so much living and working out of pressure as living and working out of principle. I’m deeply committed to it. I can’t shield every faculty of color personally from what they might be experiencing, with microaggressions and other kinds of marginalization. But I can structurally shield them from it with policies and processes that endure beyond me.Sarah Brown: I want to turn back to Professor Kennedy’s recent essay. Faculty members in the Princeton letter regarded it as a failure that only 7 percent of faculty members were African American or Latinx or Indigenous. Your point was that such small figures don’t necessarily reflect racial bias in hiring. It’s a societal issue.

Universities have a long history of complicity in racist practices.

Kennedy: Yes, I think we have a broad societal problem that stems from a long history of racism. Along with Provost Hucks, I would say that we have to be attentive to the way in which institutions search for educational talent.There is prejudice abroad in our society. Do we think there won’t be in higher education? We have to be on guard. We have to ask, are the ways we are doing things good? Are those good criteria and practices?I’m not saying don’t be attentive to what higher-educational institutions are doing. One should be skeptical: These institutions are part of America, and all of America is susceptible to this prejudice.But I don’t want a vilification of the institutions. The institutions themselves are under pressure, under attack. The colleges and universities that I’m familiar with are some of the most open institutions in American life. They’re the most self-critical. They’re trying the most to do something to elevate society from its racist muck.Put pressure on the universities, be critical — but don’t vilify. Don’t engage in claims that don’t have a basis. Don’t attack institutions that in American life are committed to intelligently challenging long-established racist practices.Darrick Hamilton: A lot of Professor Kennedy’s framework stems from a fear of overstepping in holding universities accountable. These are elite institutions. I don’t think we need to fear overstepping. In fact, it sets up a straw man that leads to a presumption: “If we promote these unqualified Blacks who shouldn’t be here, we’re gonna have a diminished product.” That’s a detrimental trope.Universities have a long history of complicity in racist practices. That’s a reason to compel them to act. The post-war New Deal policies as described by Ira Katznelson were racist by design. Universities were hostile toward Black people. Black institutions like HBCUs couldn’t expand because of de facto housing discrimination. That history shouldn’t be lost.And universities are still hostile. It’s not uncommon to find blackface parties on university campuses. It’s not uncommon for white professors to be socialized in ways that a priori lead to lower grades for Black students because of a presumption of inferiority.I’m an economist. The lack of a pipeline in economics is endogenously related to the scholarship that comes out of the discipline. Economics is rooted in a dogma that human capital is the explanation for any type of inequality. That sanctions bigotry — it’s limited in its capacity to explain persistent group inequality. It is hostile to any scholarship that pushes back against the framework of markets as the mechanism for efficient, fair, and color-blind allocation. That turns people off from going into the discipline. The irony is that if you had more people in the discipline, it could be pushed to do better in explaining our contemporary phenomena — a growing 40 years of inequality even as productivity has increased.Marcia Chatelain: I want to pick up on Dr. Hamilton’s thread. I think the terrain on which we critique the university has to be expanded a bit. Outside the context of faculty members and students, the nefarious behavior of the university becomes clearer, and the demands on the university become more expansive.It’s no longer just a question of diversifying the faculty. It’s considering land-use policy. It’s considering whether university hospitals are respecting Black patients. We know that the critical mass of Black and brown workers at some places are facilities workers — people who need the protections of unions and living wages. We start to see the university from a different perspective. We have to think of the university as the employer of Black and brown people, as the owner of objects for Indigenous communities, as places that sometimes normalize the logic that contributes to medical inequalities of the care of patients of color.We have to stop assuming that the university is always a place of benevolence, that it’s always working for the public good. We’re all subsidizing universities’ existences. So the indictment needs more precision in order for the demands to be clearer.Kennedy: I agree with virtually everything just said. I want to take up the last sentence — the word indictment. A nice legal term. If one is indicting a person or an institution, make sure that the indictment is substantiated and tight. If you make sloppy indictments, if you make indictments that don’t have substantiation, you discredit yourself.My piece in the Chronicle was about an indictment that was, in my view, self-discrediting. One didn’t have to do a whole lot of research; one could just read the [Princeton] letter and see that this isn’t a good indictment.I don’t view universities as being above criticism. But when you criticize, be careful. That’s all. One should always be careful, but especially people who call themselves scholars. So I don’t agree with the proposition that we don’t need to worry about our criticisms or indictments. Yes, we do. We are intellectual leaders. We need to be careful. We need to dot our i’s and cross our t’s, make sure that the facts that we are presenting are for real. There is a difference between saying that a university is discriminating against applicants and saying that the university isn’t doing enough to make up for racism in American life. Those are two very different claims, and we should respect the difference between them.One of my favorite historians is Richard Hofstadter. He said any good point should be able to bear the strain of overstatement. Sometimes you will need overstatement to get through the noise. So there is such a thing as strategic hyperbole. But if you go too far down that road, you simply say things and people shake their heads. They might not say anything, but they are thinking, these people aren’t up to snuff. There are dangers if you engage in too much overstatement.

There are dangers if you engage in too much overstatement.

Brown: Professor Bonner, I want to ask you: What’s it been like transitioning from a predominantly white institution to an HBCU?Fred A. Bonner II: What does it mean to be successful in teaching, research, and service in the HBCU context as opposed to the PWI context? There was a great article that came out several years ago by Barbara Johnson and Bill Harvey. They looked at socialization of Black faculty members in the HBCU context. And one of the things they found is that the experience of faculty members in the HBCU context often gets overlooked. Not only at HBCUs, but at other minority-serving institutions, like tribal institutions.One common term we bring out when we talk about mentoring, especially for faculty of color in the majority context, we talk about things like the Black tax. Faculty of color experience an overcommitment. You are typically on multiple committees. You are meeting and advising with students, you are on retention committees, diversity committees, anything about access and inclusion. You are pushed to the forefront whether you want to be there or not.My white colleagues can’t speak about it so vividly because they don’t experience it as much as Black faculty members. There is a price that you pay. And sometimes, there’s something like tax evasion, when you turn away a Black student, a student that truly needs you. Those are those informal things that speak to your core, to who you really are.As to my experiences at predominately white institutions: I published a Chronicle op-ed in 2004 called “Black Faculty On the Track but Out of the Loop.” It resonated with people.It highlights several themes. One of the first is, “I have everything to prove.” Faculty of color talked about how they had to routinely prove their acumen and prowess and that they know their craft. A second theme is the stream of double-consciousness. Faculty members of color talked about how between their car and the building that they entered, they had to code-switch to a different identity that is palatable to white faculty members and administrators in these predominantly white contexts.Sorrell: Students can go through their entire educational experience and never have a Black teacher, right? Why is it important for students to have exposure to faculty of color?Hucks: Institutions have these mission statements and these educational goals. In them, we say that we want to train our students to be domestic and global citizens. And it’s imperative that the institutions reflect that global world that we’re sending them out to.Bonner: In my work, I have found that one of the most important factors for Black and brown males to be successful in higher education is relationships with faculty members. It’s hard to be who you can’t see. 
Peer mentoring is also important. It’s important for Black males to have a critical mass; it’s important that they can vibe with their peers.Finally, the notion of self-esteem and self-perception: How do we get them to see themselves as scholars? Gilman Whiting has a “scholar-identity model.” He says, before you can get Black males to be successful, you have to convince them they can be scholars. First you have to believe they can be scholars.Brown: How can predominantly white institutions create the conditions for Black scholars to succeed? How can they create communities of Black academics?Chatelain: I will criticize institutions of higher learning every day of my life, and at the same time, having been a professor, I see that college might be the best interruption that our students have from the hypersegregated world that they come from.This is one of the few places where they can imagine a different world is possible. A place where they can imagine being led by people of color, where white supremacy is being challenged. That is why the work that we do is so important.College is high stakes because we have no social safety net. We have students sending money back home, or scholars of color adjuncting at five campuses with no health care. If PWIs are serious about racial justice, it’s not just about more cohorts or more mentoring. It’s about using their leverage to fill those gaps: whether it’s student-debt forgiveness, or wages, or free college. The system is so broken that our interventions will always provide insufficient response. So I do think we have to be attentive to the dynamics of race, but we can’t exist as though we aren’t absorbing the pressures of a broken system.Hamilton: We need to get rid of the stigma of finance on the point of delivery. It’s naïve to think we don’t treat people different based on strata.Sorrell: How would you do that?Hamilton: We elect Joe Biden and he eliminates student debt at the stroke of a pen with an executive order! Then we finance public colleges and universities to be tuition free. Then all HBCUs as well because of their inordinate burden and their heroic efforts and because we don’t have stereotype-safe environments for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students. We need a framework that brings in the federal government.We need to ensure that we have curricula that are relevant to student experiences. All scholarship is rooted in norms. With science and social science, we begin with theory and hypothesis. Methods might be grounded in some learned experience, but theory and hypotheses are largely grounded in our experiences as individuals. So that’s reason enough to attract people from all walks of life.So how would you benefit from a Black professor? They might have generated some scholarly work that would be transformative to your life, that you wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.

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