Growing Black Ivy
Columbia conference explores Black presence at elite schools
By Ronald Roach
One of the many education access struggles waged by African Americans since the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board decision has proven to be one over Black representation at the eight Ivy League universities. Relating both the Brown legacy and the challenges to affirmative action to the recent history of Blacks in the Ivy League, the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University last month convened , “The Black Presence in the Ivy League Conference: Where Do We Go From Here?”
The two-day conference held on the Columbia University campus drew about 200 people to several lively panel discussions and roundtable forums that provided a retrospective on Blacks in the Ivy League and took a sobering look at the unique challenges Blacks confront at the Ivies and other elite institutions. The Black Ivy Alumni League, an advocacy organization representing alumni of the eight Ivy League schools, was one of the conference sponsors. Conference highlights included a keynote address by Emory University provost Dr. Earl Lewis and panel sessions on topics, such as Black studies, affirmative action, and recruitment and retention of Black faculty at the Ivies.
“While the Brown decision did not directly impact upon private, elite institutions, the 50th anniversary affords us the opportunity to assess the progress of racial integration in all aspects of our society,” said Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, the IRAAS director and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia.
Among the clearest messages to come through during the conference was that while Ivy League schools acted decisively in the 1960s and 1970s, partly in response to Black student activism, to boost Black student admissions and faculty hires, as well as offer Black studies, little to no progress in either of these areas has occurred since the early 1980s. Some scholars noted that challenges to affirmative action have weakened the practice of it as a means to ensure significant Black representation in elite schools.
“Our Black student numbers have remained almost fairly constant at Cornell” since 1980 while the shares of undergraduate seats going to Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic students have grown significantly, according to Dr. Robert Harris, the vice provost for diversity and faculty diversity at Cornell University.
Lewis said that Black students are slightly more than 6 percent of the undergraduate population at the eight schools comprising the Ivy League — Brown University, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University.
He noted that in 1980 Blacks were 6 percent of the Ivy undergraduate population. Black faculty numbers remain quite low at the Ivy League schools, Harris and other speakers contended. “We basically hire from each other,” with the numbers of underrepresented minorities graduating from Ivy League Ph.D. programs and getting hired as junior faculty being low, according to Harris.
Renown legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw called upon African Americans affiliated with elite, highly selective schools to mount a more vigorous defense of affirmative action than what its advocates have managed while countering the legal challenges that resulted in the Michigan cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. She also said that Blacks have to demand more accountability from their allies on the affirmative action issue.
“We’re overly cautious. We don’t tell the story of the benefits affirmative action has had on American society… It’s been enormously successful as a social policy,” Crenshaw told a rapt audience during the plenary session, entitled, “Where Do We Go From Here? Moving Blackward into the Future.”
THE ENDURING STRUGGLE
Emory’s Lewis, who recently became provost at the Atlanta-based school, told the audience that elite institutions have an obligation to help further the cause of American democracy by being diverse and inclusive. Instead of becoming accessible only to a homogenous elite due to a fixed number of admissions slots and faculty positions, Ivy League schools should find ways to expand access to their institutions.
“How do we expand the number of seats?” Lewis asked. “That’s what Brown was all about. The legacy of Brown is that we all are responsible.”
Several scholars discussed the history of Blacks in the Ivy League, which long predated the Brown decision. Nevertheless, the most significant chapter of Ivy League Black history occurred in the 1960s when those schools and other elite colleges and universities opened their doors to Black students in numbers that went well beyond them having a token Black presence.
“In the field of American history, one of the most neglected topics is the struggle for African American inclusion at Ivy League universities and the impact this struggle (has) had on higher education,” according to Dr. Stefan Bradley, a history professor at Southern Illinois University.
“Black students took it upon themselves to change the face of the Ivy League by protest,” said Bradley, who presented a paper that described how Black studies departments at Cornell, Harvard, and eventually Columbia emerged in part because of student activism. Veteran scholar/activist Dr. Manning Marable founded IRAAS in 1993, making the Black studies program at Columbia a relative newcomer among such programs at American colleges and universities.
Harris, a historian in addition to being an academic administrator, presented a history of Black presence at Cornell dating back to the 19th century, which includes the founding of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at the turn of the 20th century. Though there were notable Blacks who graduated from Cornell and the other Ivies prior to the 1960s, Harris said Black students only began attending those schools in significant numbers since the 1960s.
Given that there’s been little increase in Black admissions at Cornell and other Ivy schools since the 1970s, Harris wondered whether the 2003 Supreme Court decision in the Grutter case at the Michigan law school would help ensure a Black student presence at the Ivy schools. The Grutter decision allows for the consideration of race in academic admissions.
In a panel session that included Harris; Dr. Brenda Allen, associate provost and director of institutional diversity at Brown University; and Dr. Jean Howard, the vice provost for diversity initiatives at Columbia University, the officials discussed the challenges around recruiting and retaining Black faculty and Black students at their respective schools.
Harris, who has held his post for four years, said his job’s “major focus is on issues relating to women and minority faculty and their recruitment and retention.” He noted that in the past 10 years Black faculty numbers increased from 44 to 48 out of a total of 1,564. With regard to student numbers, he reported that in 1980, 574 Blacks were undergraduates at Cornell. By 2003, 635 Blacks attended Cornell. In contrast, Cornell had 317 Hispanic and 549 Asian/Pacific Islander students in 1980; by 2003, 708 Hispanic and 2,239 Asian/Pacific Islander students were attending Cornell as undergraduates, according to Harris.
Columbia’s Howard, who has been in her newly created position for less than two months, said part of the push for the job came from Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, who she described as “very committed to affirmative action.
“My mandate is to recruit and retain minority and women faculty,” she said, noting that seven percent of the Columbia undergraduate population and 22 of the 617 faculty members are Black.
Brown’s Allen reported that nine percent of the undergraduates are African American and 30 percent are students of color.
“As we begin to look at diversity,” there’s been little progress since the 1970s, according to Allen. Out of 570 faculty members, African Americans were 2.9 percent in 1990. By 2002, Blacks were 3.5 percent of the faculty not long after Dr. Ruth Simmons became the school’s first Black president and 4 percent in 2004, Allen reported. Simmons became the Brown president in 2001.
The diversity officers talked about strategies that could result in their institutions recruiting and retaining greater numbers of underrepresented minority faculty. Harris mentioned that he started a postdoctoral fellows program as an additional avenue into which minority faculty could find their way into Cornell as well as into the overall Ivy League faculty pipeline.
“(Ivies) recruit their faculty from only about 15 other schools,” in addition to themselves, Harris said. “We should be trying to develop ways we can cultivate those scholars. We should be bringing them in as post-doctorates and reciprocating with each other.”
A REVOLUTION TO COME?
“There must be a revolution — a fundamental transformation — in Black studies, if this term is to have any relevance or legitimacy as an intellectual project by the mid-point of the 21st century,” declared Columbia’s Marable, the founding chair of IRAAS and the Black studies program. Marable told audience members that Black studies was failing to make itself relevant to the lives of ordinary Black citizens. Recalling the roots of Black studies in the sociology of scholars, such as Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. Charles Johnson, Marable said that most Black studies programs, including those in the Ivies, are not producing research that is drawn from and informs the daily experiences of Black people living in disadvantaged communities.
Black studies programs could establish initiatives, such as the IRAAS’ Africana Criminal Justice Project (ACJP), as the means to link Black studies to community-based efforts, according to Marable. He described the ACJP as a project where scholars and students work with Black prison inmates and criminal justice institutions to develop a social action agenda.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com