Perspectives: Colleges Should Muster Courage To Fight Back

This is part II of Dr. Ronald Walter’s column.  The first part ran last week and can be accessed here: Attacks Against Black Student Programs, Part I.

The attack on programs that recruit and retain Black students will have broad consequences on the economic well-being of Black America unless we fight back.

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis on race in activities that receive federal funds, has not been repealed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Grutter decision, but it has been sorely misinterpreted by right wing ideologues to weaken the diversity regime.

During the debate on the passage of Title VI in 1964, Rep. Emanuel Celler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee said: “[The bill] would assure Negroes the benefits now accorded only White students in programs of higher education financed by federal funds. It would, in short, assure the existing right to equal treatment in the enjoyment of federal funds. It would not destroy any rights of private property or freedom of association.”  

University officials should find the courage to challenge conservative myths. They should also expand the resources of diversity by interacting more vigorously with historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges, which have a special cultural significance both as educational institutions, repositories of culture and organizations central to the social life of those communities. Such interaction might rebuild “feeder” relationships, assist in skill development, change the paradigm of interracial educational cooperation and blunt the edge of lawsuits based on the establishment of much smaller special programs.

Institutions of higher education should become “engaged institutions” when it comes to their relationship with minority communities, and help to produce a more positive environment within which education takes place. They have a direct role in building the minority pipeline by shaping educational attitude and impacting achievement for minority students. With the technical resources they possess, universities should develop more robust models of community development and engagement in health, economic development planning, job training, family supports, poverty alleviation and other fields.

Ironically, higher education institutions are among the last bastions of the liberal philosophy upon which the basic principles of this country are founded. These include opportunity, inclusion, acquiring expertise to contribute to self and society, love of knowledge, awareness of the global community and service to the less fortunate. However, higher education is under siege from conservative forces that seek to change its mission and return it to a mechanism for perpetrating race and class stratification. In this conflict, university officials are on the front lines of a struggle to preserve this heritage, and they will need the kind of courage that was symptomatic of such officials in other eras of history. 

I believe, with Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., that “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, and convenience, but where he stands at time of challenge and controversy.” He felt that there was something called the “point of challenge,” where people, leaders, were tested. 

The university in the early 21st century is at the point of challenge, and we must not only lionize Dr. King, we must activate the principles of the civil rights movement as a part of the democratic processes by which we administer these institutions. But most important, in this work, let us emphasize the courage necessary to meet the challenges I have presented, which after all is the characteristic of leadership that has been most responsible for making this the great country that it is today.

Dr. Ronald Walters, a professor in government and politics at the University of Maryland, author of White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community.



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