Kamala Harris’ HE record prioritises affordability and minority access

Daughter of academic immigrants has plenty of history on higher education policies

July 8, 2019
Source: Getty

US Senator Kamala Harris, who has become a lead contender in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, has a record of pushing for the protection of minority rights in higher education and for moves on college affordability.

Ms Harris served previously as California’s attorney general, and she used that chief law enforcement position to sue for-profit institutions and to repeatedly back affirmative action in university admissions.

Of her support for affirmative action, retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Waddington complained in 2016, some 20 years after voters backed a state referendum explicitly barring race-based considerations: “Harris disregards California law and defies its voters.”

In the week since the formal debates involving 20 Democratic presidential candidates, Ms Harris has gained the most popular support by far, largely thanks to her attacks on the front-runner, former vice-president Joe Biden.

In what was widely viewed as a calculated strategy, Ms Harris chided Mr Biden for opposing federal efforts in the 1970s to use metropolitan bus systems to integrate public schools by assigning children to schools well outside their home neighbourhoods.

The effect is that a solid lead for Mr Biden has shrunk, and Ms Harris appears to have joined senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as the former vice-president’s closest challengers.

All four of the leading candidates share some key approaches towards higher education, believing that the federal government should take steps to make it far more affordable and accessible than it is now.

A daughter of graduate student immigrants from India and Jamaica, Ms Harris’ positions include allowing students to attend two years of college for free, and for four years without incurring debt.

Her current legislative initiatives on the topic include a bill, which Ms Warren and some other presidential contenders also endorse, that would encourage states to create debt-free college programmes by offering them matching federal grants.

Ms Harris spent most of her childhood in Oakland and Montreal. Her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, came to the US to study endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her father, Donald Harris, also attended Berkeley and is an emeritus economics professor at Stanford University.

Ms Harris later earned a bachelor’s degree at Howard University and a law degree at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.

Her determination to address inequities in higher education and beyond may be demonstrated most clearly by her decisions as state attorney general to file briefs in support of affirmative action in two major Supreme Court cases that largely upheld the practice, involving the University of Texas and the University of Michigan.

As a US senator, Ms Harris has backed legislation that would give colleges money to identify and address unfairness in their admissions processes, graduation rates and student outcomes. She also has pushed the College Board to improve its annual report on course charges to better reflect the true costs of attendance.

Despite extensive global travels in childhood, the senator’s positions towards international students and researchers are less clear. In particular, she was part of a bipartisan Senate report earlier this year that urged the closure of Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes operating on dozens of US college campuses.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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