The Evolving Quest for A Desegregation Definition
Overcoming more than a century of discrimination against African Americans in higher education involves questions of law and public policy. The legal issues focus on southern and border states that once operated systems of higher education segregated by race. Over the years, public policy debates have centered on the degree to which resources, missions, programs and enrollment patterns must change in order to achieve compliance with desegregation mandates. Despite seemingly endless litigation and countless statewide planning efforts, lawyers, educators and politicians have yet to answer the question of when a state has achieved a desegregated system of higher education.
In his book, The Quest to Define Collegiate Desegregation, M. Christopher Brown II, presents a comprehensive and systematic review of desegregation case law and makes a significant contribution toward advancing our understanding of the underlying forces at work on this issue. By focusing attention on the democratic ideals of access and equity, Brown’s work illustrates the paradox of desegregation — both the simplicity and the complexity of achieving the ideal of a unitary system of higher education.
The Quest to Define Collegiate Desegregation uses a methodology of grounded theory and systematic interpretation of legal definitions of compliance. Brown’s analysis of the relevant case law — from Brown v. Board of Education, to Adams v. Richardson, through U.S. v. Fordice —demonstrates, with style and rigor, the “unfinished quest for compliance,” correctly observing that “evolving legal standards only lead to more judicial efforts and/or limitations to specific compliance activities, rather than universally acceptable criteria.”
In his review, Brown gives special attention to the role and value of Black colleges, the existence of which has confounded a definition of desegregation. Black colleges and universities constitute only 3 percent of the more than 3,800 institutions in the U.S., but enroll 16 percent of the Black students in higher education. For years, Black colleges have developed and fostered a learning community, with strong faculty-student interaction and an emphasis on the cultivation of history, culture and tradition.
Brown argues persuasively that definitions of desegregation must include an expanded role for historically Black colleges in the areas for research, graduate studies, and public service. In a unitary system, institutional missions and academic programming can be enriched through inter-institutional cooperation and collaboration. “Merger or closure of any institution, Black or White, should be an inevitable and unavoidable last resort.”
Most importantly, in my view, Brown advocates that any desegregation plan, including goals to enhance Black colleges and universities, should be fully integrated into the state’s master plan for higher education. Desegregation must not be seen as only a legal mandate, but rather promulgated as an important public policy goal.
The book notes that federal Title VI desegregation guidelines, issued in response to the Adams case, sought to enhance and assist Black colleges in becoming equal institutions in a unitary system of higher education. Brown observes quite accurately that the dismissal of the Adams case in 1990 effectively eliminated the credibility of federal enforcement of Title VI by the U.S. Department of Education. The lack of aggressive federal involvement in the policy process has severely hampered efforts to achieve systematic compliance with Title VI. Consequently, as Robert Hendrickson notes in the afterword of Brown’s book, “Title VI compliance has developed in a policy vacuum that ignores the history of higher education in the South, notions of organizational theory, and the legal concept of strict scrutiny….”
Brown concludes that a new definition of collegiate desegregation must incorporate the concepts of access, outcomes, equity, equality, free choice and the continuing importance of historically Black colleges in unitary systems of higher education. These democratic ideals require that state systems of higher education focus on how each institution in the system performs its societal role. Despite a very comprehensive analysis of the case law, Brown is forced to conclude that, “the legal standard by which collegiate desegregation is and will be defined shall remain an ever-evolving one.” The case law, including the Fordice decision, continues to provide ambiguous and oftentimes perplexing guidance. But perhaps questions of democratic ideals and educational values cannot and should not be defined by the courts.
In my view, the fundamental challenge of collegiate desegregation is one of providing equality of access to educational opportunities and equity in the distribution and use of educational resources. This can be relatively simple to define conceptually (as evidenced by the Adams desegregation guidelines), but very difficult to implement because it must involve multiple strategies, power brokers and organizations. In addition, when confronted with the desegregation question, policy makers must make difficult political choices regarding the allocation of scarce resources.
I agree with Brown that the will to make these decisions has been and continues to be lacking. Over the years, federal, state and institutional policy makers have been unduly influenced by public opinion and aggressive political advocacy (e.g., voices against affirmative action and for the preservation of Black colleges). As a result, all too often, policy discussion has tended to focus on means, not ends; on details, not goals; on activities, not values. Consequently, the political forces for maintaining the status quo have been able to stifle the voices for rational change, equity and social justice.
Dr. Charles Willie, in a very cogent introduction to Brown’s book, rightly concludes that “during the course of the 20th century, we knew what was the right thing to do in race relations and higher education but did not have the courage to do the right thing.” From the detailed analysis presented by Brown, it is clear to this reader that political will — not merely clear definitions — may be what is most needed to make meaningful progress in the quest to desegregate higher education and achieve the democratic ideal of educational equity.
— Dr. Frederick D. Loomis is a professor of continuing education Penn State University and formally served as a desegregation program specialist with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights from 1978-1988
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