Current Hampden-Sydney College President and Robert Morris University President-elect Dr. Christopher Howard said that when it comes to racial issues “we [as a nation] still don’t have it right.”
This is the message shared by experts at The Presidential Summit on the Challenges Facing Higher Education held Thursday at the George Washington University Law School.
“Look out the window, read the paper, go on the internet and tell me … how [the nation handles] race,” said current Hampden-Sydney College President and Robert Morris University President-elect Dr. Christopher Howard. “We [as a nation] still don’t have it right. You can go back and read some of the texts from 40, 50, 60 years ago and a lot of the same things are happening—we talk about Cincinnati, we talk about Ferguson, we talk about Charleston … as [President] Lincoln said it: ‘the Union is not yet perfected,’” he said.
In education, the issues of inequality in America play out as unequal access to opportunity.
“Many people are engaged in the debate about whether or not it is race or economics that really drive this; I think it’s both. I don’t think that you can separate the racial aspect of history, but also the ongoing discrimination that occurs in terms of interventions for people who are in public school versus private school or racialized environments versus more privileged White environments,” said Dr. Phoebe Haddon, chancellor of Rutgers University-Camden. “You can’t divorce those things and they work on each other.”
“I so profoundly understand—more as president, as dean and as a Constitutional Law professor—how highly segregated our lives are, and that cannot continue. It’s to our detriment. Everybody knows that. When you want to talk about it in terms of economic segregation, or racial and ethnic segregation, these segregated lives really challenge us [in] actually continu[ing] to be the prosperous nation that we value,” Haddon continued.
Howard agreed that the return to segregated schools and neighborhoods is not only doing a disservice to students of color or poor students, but the entire nation. “The zip code world we live in where this one zip code gets the SAT Prep and this one doesn’t or the other one doesn’t get much of anything, where they don’t even play Little League baseball together, they don’t go serve in the military together.”
“We are creating a chasm in America that is going to be our downfall on so many levels. And I think that, if we move away from the promotion of inclusiveness, civility and diversity, we’re only going to make that chasm grow,” Howard continued.
“The only way for folks … to get to work together in a civil [manner] is we’ve got to know each other,” he added. “Lord help us if we don’t continue to anoint and bring up and lift up the power of living well together.”
Questions about the impending Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. Texas have again raised concerns about the precedent that will be set around the importance of race and diversity and the continued commitment of institutions to achieve it.
“I fear what is going to happen in the Supreme Court,” Haddon said, “but I also know that the tide is changing, at least in commentary that I read … diversity has real meaning for people who have had that experience in college, and it really does affect the way that you deal with problem-solving but also with your life and so for the court to deduct for that would be really problematic.”
“I know that our students benefit from it,” she said. “Right after Ferguson, we had a meeting … 300 students came. We just said ‘if you want to come talk, come talk about it.’ Three hundred students came and they talked very personally about their experiences on a college campus that was diverse, but also some of the challenges they had, even going home—walking through the campus, having to be informed as Black men that they had to carry themselves in a different way and what that means in life, so having all of those students hear those comments was very, very helpful. And we’ve got to continue to talk about it.”