The game, “One, Two, Three … Red Light,” played by elementary school children is an excellent metaphor for the state of Black progress in higher education.
If you recall the rules, the teacher, with his or her eyes closed, starts to count, “one, two, three…’ as the children scramble toward the appointed goal. Sometimes there is a long delay — in the case of Black academic progress, 30 years — before the teacher shouts: “Red Light!” if anyone is still moving when the teacher opens his or her eyes, that student has got to go back to the starting line, What an appropriate metaphor for the current conservative retrenchment in educational law and policy.
In “Beyond the Ivory Tower,” Derek Bok, the past president of Harvard University, said, “the vital question is not whether preferential admission is a success, but whether it has made more progress toward overcoming the legacy of discrimination than other strategies that universities might have pursued. Universities should stick by their conviction that a judicious concern for race in admitting students will eventually help lift the arbitrary burdens that have hampered Blacks in striving to achieve their goals in our society.”
Although the current conservative backlash is the result of social hostilities birthed by the rage and paranoia of white males who fear a loss of their historic station, these legal battles involving African-American access to higher education have resulted in giant steps backward on equal opportunity.
In the three decades since the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, predominantly white universities have not been particularly successful in recruiting and retaining African-American students, much less faculty. Institutions throughout the country have initiated a variety of programs and policies to promote the recruitment and retention of students of color. Unfortunately, these initiatives have not achieved their intended goals. Additionally, the disparity between the numbers of faculty of African and European descent entering the higher education workforce is widening, with the upper hand in favor of European faculty. In almost every region of the country and in most universities, Black faculty are seriously underrepresented across all ranks.
Notwithstanding, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) introduced Senate Bill 318 that would bar the use of affirmative action in all college and university hiring practices. This legislation seeks to eradicate the guidelines that have opened the doors of academe to Blacks, women and other populations and thus broadened the pool of prospective employees through enlarging the number of qualified personnel.
Recent court cases and S 318 represent not only a massive reduction in both student and faculty access to the “poison” ivy-covered walls of academe, but also an attempt to kill the spirit of Black progress in higher education. The most prominent leap backward involves the destruction and closure of historically Black institutions (or as it is more technically called, dismantling dual systems of higher education).
After 40 years of race-neutral mission statements and admission requirements, the Supreme Court has declared that the mere existence of HBCUs in several states (Alabama, Ohio, Louisiana, Mississippi) delineate segregation. The high court’s fiscal question is whether the states have disassembled their previous dual systems of postsecondary study. Its decisions in these cases have the potential of establishing judicial precedents which could ultimately eliminate the historically Black institution as an institutional choice.
The United States vs. Fordice case and Mississippi’s attempts at compliance will establish the precedent for the “desegregation” of higher education across the country. In the most recent Fordice ruling, Judge Neal Biggers outlines a plan that leads to the eventual elimination of predominantly Black enrollments in Mississippi institutions of higher learning, in an effort to maintain only those programs and entities which are educationally justifiable and cannot be practically eliminated. Interestingly enough, at the same time that there is a dismantling of historically Black colleges and universities, the admissions requirements are being raised statewide at the predominantly white institutions. Critical commentary on the latest ruling contends that this trend ultimately reduces access for over 54 percent of the African-American student population in Mississippi colleges and universities.
Is it “educationally justifiable” to eliminate key academic institutions and deny the largest minority population in higher education the right to attend the institution of their choice? Is it “practical” to close institutions that hold the history of two centuries of the struggle for equal education in America?
It is apparent that the historic successes and continuing contribution of HBCUs should be documented and stressed in this legal and academic debate. Consequently, it would seem that leaders of the dominant educational establishment would utilize historically African-American universities as models on how to improve their own campuses. Such is not the case.
In short, there are no standards which acknowledge integration or inclusion of all into America’s ivy-covered towers. Nonetheless, in an effort to reverse the growing underrepresentation of African-American students and faculty in academe, the notion of equal educational opportunity must be praised and upheld as a necessity, If successful, the nation and the world stand to benefit through the engagement of human potential that might otherwise have been wasted. Is our nation rich enough to ignore the talents of persons of color, especially African Americans?
I do not intend to suggest that the majority of America’s white-male-dominant higher education structure is intentionally malicious, but that its pervasive, pernicious, ill-conceived, mean-spirited policies are detrimental to many individuals who happen to be African Americans or persons of color. As we react to the problems, debate the solutions and study these giant steps backward on equal opportunity in higher education, we encounter at every turn more questions and fewer answers.
One thing, at least, is clear: To recruit, enroll and graduate a diverse student population, as well as to hire, promote and tenure a diverse faculty is only a beginning, albeit an essential one. The educational opportunities and obligations that must follow over the upcoming years will test our commitment, energy, resources and imagination in profound and enduring ways.
M. CHRISTOPHER BROWN II, Robert Graham Endowed Fellow Department of Education Policy Studies, Pennsylvania State University
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Division Director, Division of Graduate Education
National Science Foundation
Dean of the College of Social Work
The University of Tennessee Knoxville
Dean of the Tickle College of Engineering
The University of Tennessee Knoxville