Conservative forces ‘limiting racial progress’ on US campuses

African American studies chair says tackling inequality is ‘on a knife-edge’ and urges institutions to stop ‘tinkering around the edges’

January 17, 2021
Eddie Glaude
Source: Sameer A. Khan

Universities must fight claims that they are “liberal bastions” and anti-free speech to properly tackle racial diversity, according to an academic who said that institutions’ traditional views about disciplines and departments were hampering progress on equality.

Eddie Glaude, James S. McDonnell distinguished university professor in Princeton University’s department of African American Studies, said that after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last May “there was this kind of reckoning that many universities grappled with” around their history of structural racism.

However, he said that US universities’ responses had been “uneven”; while some institutions had taken steps to hire more staff of colour or establish anti-racist centres, others had been “just simply tinkering around the edges” with “proclamations of one’s commitment to diversity and racial justice and no real tangible policies to follow”, he told Times Higher Education.

In an interview with US television channel MSNBC in 2019, which was widely shared again on social media in the wake of November’s presidential election, Professor Glaude said that America was “not unique in its sins” but “where we may be singular is in our refusal to acknowledge them, and the legends and myths we tell about our inherent goodness to hide and cover and conceal, so that we can maintain a kind of wilful ignorance that protects our innocence”.

Did he think that US universities were also wilfully ignorant?

“There is this refusal to concede how universities function as a result of deliberate decision-making,” he replied. “The kind of wilful ignorance I was talking about in that interview, I think it’s still obtained as a way of securing these institutions from a certain kind of judgment.”

Part of the problem, according to Professor Glaude, was “the concerted effort on the part of boards of trustees and conservative forces to pull universities and colleges into a particular mode of existence”.

He said that the “caricature of universities as liberal bastions that police thought, that are antithetical to conservatism”, coming from state legislators externally and boards internally, “has limited and continues to limit how [universities] imagine themselves addressing their histories in clear and impactful ways”.

“There are people who…in some ways marginalise African American studies, gender and sexuality studies, Latino studies and the like, because they hold a very traditional understanding of what disciplines are and what departments should look like,” he said.

For example, there are often concerns about the small pipeline of black and female academics, but the way in which institutions approach hiring means they can actively overlook minority scholars, Professor Glaude suggested.

“Many social science departments are inclined to look for particular candidates who do quantitative work. That approach effectively narrows who they will consider. And given that women and minorities tend to gravitate to qualitative subjects, they are in effect excluded from consideration,” he said. “So what’s being read as a lack of PhDs is actually a taste question.”

At the same time, these qualitative fields, which include African American studies and women’s studies, were “also seen as examples of identity politics” and were “under assault”, he added.

Professor Glaude said that there was a tendency when speaking about universities to equate conservatism and liberalism with political ideology, which was “just wrong”.

“You could have someone who holds a view that English ought to be the study of novels of old, dead white men and they orient themselves that way. But they might vote Democratic every election cycle. If you’re using political preference as a marker or measure of conservatism then you’re missing how conservatism [manifests] itself within a university setting,” he said, adding that he had to “fight against deeply rooted traditional ideas of what a department ought to be” for African American studies to be granted departmental status at Princeton in 2015.

Professor Glaude said that the challenges posed by the pandemic meant that tackling racial inequality in higher education was “more like on a knife-edge” than at a tipping point and he was particularly worried about austerity policies “outside of the resource-rich institutions” affecting departments and initiatives “designed to really push universities to reflect the world that we inhabit”.

However, he said that the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris offered US higher education a chance to “really pursue fundamental transformation”, by implementing “a deliberate set of policy initiatives with metrics to measure success and failure around diversifying faculty” as well as “making colleges affordable and diversifying incoming classes”.

“The question I’m asking of colleges and universities is, ‘What is your moonshot?’” he said. “How will you fundamentally change the way in which you think about your business? Or will you just simply tinker around the edges?”

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