US universities missing opportunities for racial redress

Academia says it understands need for cures but black voices proposing changes go unheard, scholars say

June 30, 2020
Source: Getty

In the weeks since George Floyd died during his arrest by Minneapolis police, the US has been convulsed by street protests and has been transformed, according to polling, into a country far more willing to acknowledge historical injustices against its black citizens and willing to do something about them.

Numerous top university leaders have joined in, mourning Mr Floyd and urging meaningful improvement. “The time to right systemic and ongoing wrongs is long past due,” the American Council on Education said in one of many such statements.

But the experience of one major academic project, created in 2014 as several US universities were confronted with evidence of their own direct involvement in holding, selling and profiting from trade in slaves, has shown the challenges involved in righting such wrongs.

Through the partnership, called Universities Studying Slavery (USS), academics from 60 institutions have created educational projects within their local communities and have shared successful strategies for rectifying centuries of race-based advantages.

But when black voices within USS have pushed more ambitious ideas for curative actions with broad effect and requiring top-level administrative support, significant investment and large-scale institutional participation, they have hit barriers.

“There are a lot of people who are frustrated, myself included, that we can’t seem right now to move forward in a meaningful way,” said one USS participant, Jody Lynn Allen, an assistant professor of history at William & Mary in Virginia.

One of the USS coalition’s most visible problems, said Linda Mann, a research project manager at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, was the relative lack of participation by the nation’s 100 historically black colleges and universities.

Only two of the 60 members are HBCUs, Dr Mann said. That might be a sign of meeting dynamics that feature “a lot of head-nodding” but not enough implementation by predominantly white institutions, she said. “I actually believe that the HBCUs are not coming to the table because they don’t feel as if they’re being heard,” she added.

John Rosenthall, a former vice-president for research at Grambling State University in Louisiana, agreed that HBCUs might be discouraged from taking part, but he pointed to what he considered a more fundamental problem: universities are generally participating in USS at the level of faculty members, who simply do not have the power to make major commitments on behalf of their institutions.

“I believe that the people who sit there have good intentions and no authority,” he said. “And that may be by design from their institutions.”

There have been some successes. At William & Mary, which used slave labour for more than a century beginning in the early 1700s, Dr Allen heads a project that has been working with the black community of Williamsburg on initiatives that include local scholarship on slavery and a memorial to its victims.

But even some symbolic suggestions have fallen short. One of the early participants in the USS process was Georgetown University, whose Jesuit owners were found to have sold 272 enslaved people in 1838, and now boasts one of the world’s wealthiest student bodies. Those students voted to begin paying a fee of $27.20 (£21.95) per semester to benefit descendants of the slaves, but the university declined to implement it.

Mr Rosenthall has been pushing for bigger change. He leads a foundation that seeks to build the research capacity of HBCUs, and he has sketched out a plan in which universities with large endowments would set aside a small fraction of their annual investment earnings to finance professional overhauls of the operations of struggling HBCUs.

He also has suggested that major US research institutions partner with individual HBCUs to dramatically bolster their chances of winning research grant money. One small example with Grambling hints at the value: Mr Rosenthall described a researcher’s visit to Louisiana Tech University during which the Grambling biology professor admitted that her work was hindered by the lack of mice for experiments. Louisiana Tech faculty told her that they could provide as many mice as she wanted, and even set aside a room for her to work.

Both Dr Mann and Dr Allen described faculty representatives at USS as supportive of such transformational ideas but unable to get their institutions to act on them.

After centuries of benefiting from systems that held down black Americans, Dr Mann said, white-majority institutions needed to listen to what their black-majority partners have been suggesting as necessary steps forward.

“The US is making a pivotal turn to potentially look at how we redress the history of the United States,” she said. “And in that practice, it cannot be white institutions that lead that cause.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘We’re frustrated that we can’t seem to move ahead’

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Reader's comments (2)

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Do you want to fix problems or fix blame? Whilst it is important to learn from the past, we cannot change it. What we can - and should - do is ensure that henceforward NOBODY is treated unfairly for any reason, but particularly not for reasons connected to that individual's ethnicity, gender, wealth, or anything else that isn't under their control.

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