Will Higher Ed’s Commitment to Racial Justice Lead to Change?

John Brooks Slaughter on what universities must do to improve the conditions of Black Americans

By John Brooks Slaughter
Professor of Education and Engineering, USC Rossier School of Education and USC Viterbi School of Engineering; Associate Director, USC Rossier Center for Engineering in Education; and President Emeritus, Occidental College

(Illustration/Chris Gash)

As a result of the broad, demonstrative public reaction to the brutal and senseless murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner at the hands (and knee) of police officers; the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by armed vigilantes; and the mounting recognition of the longstanding practice of oppression and systemic racism against Black Americans, multiple institutions, including colleges and universities, have pledged to support diversity and equity initiatives. Many have expressed allegiance to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and an intent to eliminate any vestiges of racial discrimination in their organizations. Confederate flags and emblems have been banned, the names of known racists and slave owners that had been on buildings for decades have been removed, and statues of Southern Civil War generals have been toppled. But questions remain: How long can this emergent commitment to justice and inclusion be sustained, and will it lead to lasting improvement in the condition of Black Americans?

Higher education is amid a perfect storm consisting of a pandemic deemed to change forever the way colleges and universities operate, a society characterized by political partisanship and social and racial divisiveness, and the presence and impending threats of catastrophic climate change. How it responds to these “wicked” manifestations, as well as to the accelerating racial and ethnic demographic changes occurring in the nation, will determine how it teaches and educates the leaders and productive citizens of tomorrow—and who will be the recipients of that education.

Although numerous encouraging transformations have taken place, I find many of the moralistic pronouncements by some of our most prestigious institutions, in the wake of the recent BLM demonstrations, to be disingenuous and off-putting. For too many years, these institutions have had the opportunity and the responsibility to address the structural racism that marginalizes Black Americans and deters them from the opportunities available to others. However, they have failed to do so.

The dearth of underrepresented minority persons on the faculties of our major research universities is higher education’s Achilles’ heel, and its shame.

I am unimpressed by those institutions that trumpet their success in attracting and enrolling African American and Latino/Latina undergraduates but have made little or no effort to hire and retain members of those subpopulations in senior academic and administrative positions and faculty. Given the increasing presence of Black and Brown students in the college-age population, the concomitant decline in the proportion of White students as well as the potential decrease in international students due to the pandemic and changes in immigration policies, colleges and universities must diversify their undergraduate enrollees or ultimately close their doors. The same imperatives do not exist for graduate students and faculty.

The dearth of underrepresented minority persons on the faculties of our major research universities is higher education’s Achilles’ heel, and its shame. This is particularly true for the STEM disciplines. While the presence of Black tenure and tenure-track faculty in most large research universities hovers around 6 percent, it is 2 percent or less in science and engineering departments. Since in many engineering programs, for example, 75 percent or more of graduate students are nonresidents, these depressing figures are unlikely to improve. Our colleges and universities can and must do better. I hope they will develop the resolve to do so and will follow Martin Luther King Jr.’s mandate, “We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Fall/Winter 2020 issue as “Monuments Have Toppled. But Will Higher Ed’s Commitment to Racial Justice Lead to Change?”