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Southern (In)hospitality

Southern (In)hospitality

New research examines the racial inequities that still plague higher education institutions in the South.

By Kendra Hamilton

If you believed that race-conscious admissions and other redress policies had been given a boost, especially in the South, by the University of Michigan’s high court decision in 2003, you wouldn’t be alone. But a massive new study — which includes exhaustive quantitative analyses, case studies of select flagship schools and a detailed overview of government policy environments — shines a harsh light on the limits of that belief.

“There’s wide agreement that progress has been made as a result of the Michigan cases,” says Dr. John Williams, professor of practice at the University of Maryland’s College of Education. But “we want people to understand that despite the progress that’s been made and the expected progress that might happen because of the Michigan victory, there are still many problems.

“There are many, many institutions that are not interested in using race for admissions or for any reason whatsoever, that are not particularly interested in the problems of equity and that are not doing very much to remedy the inequities. This too needs to be part of the discourse.”

Indeed, this is the key message of “The Status of Race Equity and Diversity in Public Higher Education in the South,” an analysis of trends in admissions, enrollment and completion at public colleges and universities in the 19 Southern and border states that maintained segregated systems of higher education in 1954.

The result of a particularly fruitful collaboration between Williams and a group of current and former colleagues — Drs. Sharon Fries-Britt and Jeffrey Milem of UM as well as Laura Perna, formerly of UM and a recent addition to the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania — the study brings together the group’s individual strengths and its shared passion for the topic. The result is an unusually detailed and nuanced picture of what actually happened on the ground in public higher education between 1991 and 2001.

The report was conceived as a follow up to the Southern Education Foundation’s 1994 “Miles to Go” report, on which Perna had worked. “We were interested in exploring questions of, ‘Have we had any change since then, what do more recent trends show us, how do federal and state policies contribute to outcomes?’” she says.

And while work on the project won’t be complete until June, when the final report to the Lumina Foundation for Education is due, the early findings are far from good. Indeed, the verdict of the study appears to be that, despite 40 years of oversight under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Higher Education Act and the federal courts, higher education in the South is still separate and still unequal.

While the 19 states in question account for 41 percent of all college students and 59 percent of all Black college students, the study points out that in only one state — West Virginia — have predominately White four-year schools achieved equity in Black enrollments. Equity in the group’s index is given a score of 1. West Virginia scored 1.24. Only two other states — Kentucky, with a score of .90, and Ohio, with .85 — are even close.

Among the other states, eight — Alabama, North and South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas — have achieved modest gains of between .01 and .10 in their equity indices from 1991 to 2001. One — Louisiana — is exactly where it was 10 years ago. And the others — Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Virginia — have lost ground since 1991, with their equity indices falling between .01 and .12 points.

“Nowhere do we see any particular evidence of any great progress,” says Milem. “As we plot the trend lines over the last 10 years, for African-Americans and for Latinos and Latinas in states where they’re a significant population, the trend lines are pretty flat, indicating there’s been no change; or there’s a slow float upward, which indicates there’s been some progress; or the trend lines in fact go downward.”

At flagship institutions, the picture is even grimmer. West Virginia’s equity score for Black enrollment is again the highest at 1.17, followed by Ohio with a score of .97. But below that mark, scores take a precipitous tumble. Kentucky dips from .90 at all public colleges to only .59 at flagships. Only one other state, Oklahoma, has a score above .50. In fully 12 of the states, equity has eroded over the 10-year period at flagship institutions, with indices falling as much as .26 points. Only four states have seen gains, and those are in the .02 to the .11 range.

“Yes, there has been some progress, but the trend from an equity perspective is one of retrogression,” says Milem. “The numbers are going up, but when they don’t go up at the same rate as the eligibility pool, you’re actually losing ground. We found that to be the case with undergraduate enrollments, with undergraduate degree completions, with master’s and first professional degree enrollments, with graduate school enrollments and we also found it with faculty and upper administration ranks.

“These problems are persisting, and the experience at the flagships in particular in some of these states suggests there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

The obvious question, of course, is how could this be? All 19 states are monitored by a massive federal civil rights enforcement and federal courts system. But the answer seems to be that those entities are simply not doing their jobs.

The study points out, for example, that eight states — Arkansas, both Carolinas, Delaware, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma and West Virginia — have been released from federal oversight because the Office of Civil Rights has determined them to be in compliance with Title VI. And OCR did this, notes Williams, “not because substantial progress had been made but because of ‘good-faith efforts.’” In other words, the states tried hard.

Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia remain under OCR review, while Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee remain under court supervision. Each of these states must prepare system-wide desegregation plans and issue annual progress reports. But an assessment of those plans reveals, as Williams says, that “the government isn’t requiring the states to do very much, and the states aren’t doing very much.”

In one critical area, he notes, “We discovered that the states and the Office of Civil Rights are not paying any attention to the requirements of Fordice [the 1992 Supreme Court decision], which set different standards for applying remedies and declaring compliance. The states have never really changed their plans to reflect the new requirements. And while, the Office of Civil Rights has issued a ruling that states must comply, there’s not any evidence that they have.”

Ominously, the compliance agreements for the seven states still under OCR review run out in 2005 and 2006. “It’s certainly the case where those states are concerned that no substantial jumps in enrollment or employment have emerged, but it’s not at all clear how OCR is going to rule on their behalf,” Williams says.

The researchers found, to their chagrin, that there was a significant “disconnect” between perceptions about race equity and the realities that their work has uncovered.

Says Fries-Britt, who led the site visits to the three institutions — the University of Maryland, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Georgia — that will form the heart of the qualitative analysis, “People seemed to wonder why we are still talking about issues of race equity and race diversity on campus. Some were celebrating the fact that we were engaged in the study — others thought we were stuck in an outdated set of concepts. We were really struck by the dichotomy.”

But the team is eagerly looking forward to completing the study and publishing the results. They’ve already begun presenting preliminary results at national conferences. “We’re looking at a variety of venues,” says Perna, including journal articles and policy briefs. According to Milem, there’s even been interest from a book publisher.

And while the team does wish to stimulate more academic research on the topic, Williams says, “It’s my hope that we produce this not just for academic audiences. At some stage, I also want to get some lawyers and civil rights activists involved. We want to effect not just the discourse but also the policies.” 

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