It seems that the University of Missouri is now, for a second time in a century, serving as ground-zero for change in higher education in the nation. Nearly 80 years ago, in 1936, Lloyd Gaines sued the state of Missouri after being refused admission to the School of Law at the University of Missouri because of his race. The U.S. Supreme Court famously decided in Gaines’ favor in their 1938 Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada decision ruling that it was a violation of Gaines’ Fourteenth Amendment rights to be forced to attend a school out of state when his tax dollars, along with those of other African Americans in that state, supported a school such as the University of Missouri. The Gaines case began a decades-long cascade of legal decisions, including Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma (1948) and Sweatt v. Painter (1950), as well as the charge led by Virgil D. Hawkins to integrate the law school at the University of Florida from 1950 to 1958, that paved the way for the legal dismissal of “separate but equal” finalized in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Many of the nation’s PWIs integrated during the 1950s and 1960s with processes that included lawsuits, protests, demonstrations, counterdemonstrations, and in some cases armed troops. The statistics on the enrollment of black students at these institution tell the tale. In earlier periods, 80 percent of all black students attended HBCUs. By 2011, that figure dropped to just 9 percent.
Fast-forward to the current crisis. The microaggressions described by students of color and of LBGTQ identity at our nation’s PWIs/HWIs do not register on the same scale as those experienced by the students who led the march of integration in those places nearly 60 years ago, but each of those actions stings, taking a toll on the victims’ spirit and psyche. Moreover, these incidents are not isolated to the University of Missouri. There are at least 50 schools that have held walk-outs and teach-ins in solidarity with the students at Mizzou, and 60 organizations at PWIs have issued lists of demands to their administrations. They include everything from the firing of presidents and key administrators, the increased recruitment of minority students, resources for students of color and LBGTQ orientations, as well as for mandatory diversity training and awareness across campus. Another important demand has been a call for more black faculty members. According to a 2007 study by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, blacks made up an average of 3.8 percent of faculty at the nation’s top state and private universities. Conversely, 96 percent of black tenured faculty are employed at HBCUs.
There is a clarity in the unity of the voices being raised across the nation. They speak to the fact that the revolution against racism that was waged with great fervor during the 1950s and 1960s remains incomplete. It begs us to question the original goals of school integration in the first place. The overall intent was to make sure that all children, regardless of race, had a chance to attain quality education with adequate resources and revenue.
What perhaps fell by the wayside were the conditions under which that education would take place. Would these newly integrated spaces be welcoming, or merely tolerant, of the new students and faculty they were forced to accept? While the student bodies of these institutions would be diversified, would the curriculum? Would students, particularly African Americans, receive the benefits of instructors and administrators fully committed to the academic success of their students, or would they simply perpetuate negative stereotypes about African American achievement?
The current spate of protests taking place at some of our nation’s most prestigious universities is answering these questions. The revolution began many decades ago remains incomplete. The process of full inclusion in our nation’s academic spaces has stopped and stuttered. While the promise of access to high quality education has been answered, it is taking place in environments that are indifferent or even hostile to black bodies. This essentially leaves black students and faculty in the disempowered position of the minority from which to negotiate for respect.
For those of us interested in developing strong institutions that are controlled by blacks and coalescing black power, the protests for racial inclusion at many of our nation’s leading PWIs illustrate the awkward position that blacks in America occupy when demanding acquiescence from institutions largely controlled by whites, and where the presence of blacks has not always been highly valued. Additionally, it speaks to the need to shore up those places that can provide the type of educational environments where our children are nurtured, can thrive, and achieve their full potential, both at the secondary and post-secondary levels.