When Dr. Walter R. Allen takes on a research project, there must always be a larger purpose — something he discusses with graduate students and young academics. According to Allen, African American scholars cannot live in an ivory tower. All research — including his more than 150 publications — must, in some way, illuminate the challenges that communities of color face.
Throughout his career, Allen, a sociologist, has studied comparative race, ethnicity and inequality. While his home base is the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is distinguished professor of sociology and the Allan Murray Carter professor of higher education, Allen’s influence stretches throughout higher education. There is his research on HBCUs, his testimony on cases to advance equity in higher education, his unwavering commitment to building future generations of scholars and his active interest in global issues.
In recognition of a career that impacts people inside and outside of the academy and his tireless pursuit of equity, Allen is a 2020 recipient of the Diverse: Issues In Higher Education Dr. John Hope Franklin Award.
What makes this recognition especially poignant for Allen is that he knew the late Dr. Franklin, who taught at the University of Chicago when Allen was a graduate student. Then, when Allen was an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Franklin was at Duke University. While there, Allen would tag along with a colleague, Dr. Genna Rae McNeil, a former student of Franklin’s, to meetings and gatherings at Franklin’s home.
“I think about the excellence, the traditions and the contributions of Dr. John Hope Franklin as a model that I’ve always tried to emulate,” says Allen. “I never will match it, but I’m always using it as a guide for a career. I’m thrilled and humbled and re-energized to work even harder and try to rise to the standard.”
Allen grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where his mother was his original intellectual inspiration. Although she hadn’t completed high school, she was brilliant and invested in the educational achievement of her children. Additionally, high school teachers and athletic coaches who emphasized the power of education propelled him forward.
He was the first in the family to pursue higher education, attending Beloit College, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. While the school fostered academic excellence and social commitment, Allen felt a certain sense of physical, social and intellectual isolation. However, Franklin’s work motivated him to move forward in his career. He saw Franklin as a scholar he could look to about Black life, culture and history.
“He impressed upon me and his work makes clear the importance of historical context,” Allen says. “Everything I do, I understand it must be located within sociohistorical context. As a sociologist studying inequality, generally, and racial inequality in particular, it was always absolutely clear that the historical precedence and the historical context leading to the current moment had to be taken into account.”
Allen was committed to issues of social justice and progressive change and saw sociology as an avenue for social engineering. “Doing the work of a sociologist, you could shape the society,” says Allen. “The field has such broad applicability.”
Dr. Darnell Hunt, currently dean of social sciences at UCLA, arrived at the school as a graduate student in 1989, the same year that Allen joined the faculty. Pursuing a doctorate in sociology, Hunt met with Allen, who was very matter-of-fact in what was expected of a Black sociologist.
“I knew I was in good hands in terms of being mentored by someone who knew what it took to become an effective academic, but more importantly, who was committed to using that knowledge and applying it in ways that would make a difference,” says Hunt, who took graduate courses with Allen and served as one of Allen’s graduate student researchers on studies of race and higher education.
“There’s always a takeaway from his research that either informs policy or empowers communities to use the data to move forward on their agendas,” says Hunt. “Everything I’ve tried to do as a sociologist and as an administrator has been informed by that early wisdom he imparted.”
Allen says he knew from the onset of his career that, if you gather the data, you can influence change.
Seeing students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in the classrooms of UCLA continues to excite him. He is director of the Choices Project, which has the objective of improving academic opportunities and achievements of African American and Latinx students in the higher education system of California.
Even at this stage of his career, he loves teaching undergraduates in addition to his work with graduate students, especially as they participate in movements to eradicate prejudice and discrimination.
“They are an energized, bright, committed group of young people, who frankly are looking for vehicles that will allow them to express their beliefs and move the society,” says Allen. “Too much of what’s going on now in the expanding and growing inequality of the society is translating into denying opportunities for very bright, promising students solely for reasons of them not having the money. That’s a very short-sighted and destructive decision by society.”
Each year, the students get better and better, he says, so he can’t bring himself to even consider retiring.
“They have the same fire and commitment that I did and an intentionality about influencing the world,” he says. “From day one, we are colleagues. We are co-collaborators on research. We are jointly exploring and examining ideas. I take them seriously as professionals and recognize their unlimited potential. It becomes a matter of trying to create opportunities for them.”
“Higher education and expanding access to higher education is central in our society,” says Allen, who serves on the board of trustees of Spelman College. “That’s my commitment to and determination for my work to open up opportunities, to create and expand equity in higher education access and success.”
Much of his research has focused on the status of Black college students as well as race in higher education. With today’s knowledge and technology, he says educational access, equity and inclusion loom large.
“I continue to work as a court expert, primarily on remedy, in cases involving systems that were previously de jure, segregated higher education systems,” says Allen. “Presently, I am working on the HBCU case in Maryland, where a group of alums sued the state for discrimination against the historically Black colleges in that system.”
“We won the court case, which had been separated into liability and remedy cases,” he adds. “We are now in the negotiation stage.”
Over the course of his career, Allen has been an expert witness in notable court cases, some of which reached the U.S. Supreme Court. This includes Grutter v. Bollinger, a landmark case involving the University of Michigan Law School. The Court held that so long as the admissions process takes into account multiple factors, favoring “underrepresented minority groups” does not violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Also, United States v. Fordice in Mississippi, which set the standard for law governing whether a system was in violation of the 14th Amendment with respect to maintaining and operating separate and unequal higher education systems post-Brown v. Board of Education.
“My understanding of history and a sociohistorical perspective pressed me to always try and put that element front and center as a starting point for the analysis of current circumstances,” says Allen.
In other research, he is engaged in a 10-year follow-up to the study “Educational Diversity in U.S. Law Schools,” which studied more than 70 law schools around the nation and 8,000 students. They’re now going back to those students to examine the degree to which educational diversity mattered in their career paths and personal lives. Also, together with his students, he’s putting together a study of Gates millennial scholars in their education and careers.
The evidence shows that, when given the opportunity, African American students will succeed in higher education. Allen says keeping a record of the metrics and making data public are essential to increasing diversity of campuses and improving experiences and outcomes for underrepresented groups.
“If you don’t change minds, you have to at least change behaviors in terms of people who discriminate so there are consequences associated with it,” says Allen. “The solutions are there, it just takes a matter of the will and sustained commitment.
“As John Hope Franklin would remind us, things unfold over time,” he adds.
This article originally appeared in the March 19, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.