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Year in Review: 2020 Brought ‘Precedent-Setting’ Changes to Higher Ed

COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement dominated the headlines in 2020, but there were also precedent-setting events in higher education that garnered our attention.

In mid-March, college and university campuses around the country emptied out due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Professors transitioned courses to virtual spaces and students headed home, many to households that did not have adequate internet connections or quiet spots to study.

Dr. Michelle Asha CooperDr. Michelle Asha Cooper

“We’ve heard stories of students who have been in parking lots to get Wi-Fi,” said Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “It has really magnified the stark inequities in our educational system.”

Then, in late-May, people began taking to the streets after a video surfaced of a White police officer in Minneapolis pressing his knee to the neck of George Floyd, leading to Floyd’s death. In response to Floyd’s death and other victims of police brutality, more than 200,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in August on the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. 

Among the protesters were thousands of high school and college students, who were organized by Tylik McMillian, national director of the youth and college division of the National Action Network, the civil rights organization founded by organizer of the march Rev. Al Sharpton. Affordable higher education — including doubling the Pell grant — and increased funding for the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions were prominent issues at the gathering. 

“Today, the college education is not only a means to literacy and respectability; it is also about participation in key economic activities,” said Dr. S. David Wu, president of Baruch College. “From a social justice point of view, it’s critically important to provide that opportunity for students that may be coming from underserved communities.”


Within a matter of days, classes were cancelled, dormitories cleared, intercollegiate athletics halted and quarantines commenced. COVID-19 also led to the cancellation of many conferences and conventions, among them the American Council on Education (ACE) annual meeting, which was set for March 14-16 in San Diego.

Colleges and universities shifted classes to remote learning. Initially, most institutions hoped the move would be short-lived, but it has continued into the 2020-21 academic year.

Dr. Jessie DanielsDr. Jessie Daniels

The transition to the online platform opened the doors to blatant racist attacks and internet trolls. Diverse reported on then-graduate student Chaya Stern — now Dr. Chaya Stern — attempting to defend her doctoral thesis on a Zoom session as racist hecklers interrupted her, including someone writing the N-word across her title slide and others yelling obscenities. 

The term “Zoombombing” was created and such activities proliferated as Zoom became a communication lifeline.

Dr. Jessie Daniels, author of Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights, says this surge in racist activity has not been a surprise. Creating a Zoom account is relatively easy and it had been possible to enter a Zoom meeting even if someone wasn’t invited. 

Dr. Ruha Benjamin, author of Race After Technology, publicly called on Zoom to change its default screen sharing settings to “off,” providing hosts with the power to select who can share their screens. Zoom responded with prevention strategies and encouraged people to report any incidents. 

Institutional firsts

On July 1, Wu became the president of Baruch College, making him the first Asian American president of a college in the City University of New York (CUNY) system. A scholar in systems engineering and operations research, Wu previously served as provost and executive vice president of George Mason University. More than 75% of CUNY students are either Latinx, Black or Asian. 

Dr. S. David WuDr. S. David Wu

“The pandemic, the xenophobia, the various different political factors and many racially motivated events brings these issues of representation and equity to the forefront on the national stage,” said Wu. “That motivated many … institutions to consider their leadership very carefully in terms of whether they are a representation of the population they serve. I fully expect that’s going to continue.”

Shortly before Wu’s appointment in February, Rutgers University announced its first Black president, historian Dr. Jonathan Holloway. 

Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), told Diverse that these appointments are a noteworthy reflection of the changing demographics in higher education.

“It’s critically important that we have visibility of leaders of color in academia and these appointments are more important than ever in sending a message that we need to diversify at all levels of the academy,” said Pasquerella.

In addition to Holloway, two more African American male scholars, Dr. Darryl J. Pines at the University of Maryland and Dr. Gregory Washington at George Mason University, began their presidencies at the predominantly White institutions (PWIs).

Dr. Gregory WashingtonDr. Gregory Washington

“We have to make sure that we are welcoming people into a campus climate and institutional culture that affirms who they are and is open to issues of diversity and equity,” said Cooper. “Equity is about looking at our policies and practices and removing any of the structural inequities that inhibit success.”

Washington developed the President’s Task Force on Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence to focus on areas of curriculum and pedagogy, campus and community engagement, university policies and practices, training and development, and research. Holloway began an equity audit to analyze the university and what is needed to create greater diversity. Pines laid out 12 recommendations and initiatives focused on improving the student experience, creating an inclusive environment and advancing the institution as a whole.


In March, the Maryland Senate unanimously passed legislation that would allot $577 million to the state’s four HBCUs over the course of 10 years. The institutions involved are Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The allocation of funds was in response to a 2006 lawsuit by the Coalition for Equity and

Maryland Governor Larry HoganMaryland Governor Larry Hogan

Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, which alleged chronic underfunding.

In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake ruled in the Coalition’s favor, finding that PWIs in Maryland illegally duplicated state HBCU programs. The court did not find that Maryland’s HBCUs were underfunded, so the suit remains unsettled.

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, explaining, “The economic fallout from this pandemic simply makes it impossible to fund any new programs, impose any tax hikes, nor adopt any legislation having any significant fiscal impact, regardless of the merits of the legislation.”

The veto leaves this long-standing matter unresolved and puts plans for new programs in limbo. Michael D. Jones, an attorney for the Coalition, said the legal battle continues.

In uplifting HBCU news, Former President Barack Obama headlined a virtual HBCU commencement celebration on May 16, urging the graduates of the country’s HBCUs to “have a vision that isn’t clouded by cynicism or fear.”

Colleges and universities across the nation were forced to cancel graduation ceremonies or hold virtual ceremonies due to COVID-19. Dr. Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, came up with the two-hour “Show Me Your Walk HBCU Edition” virtual ceremony. The event was held in collaboration with the United Negro College Fund and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. 

Obama challenged the HBCU graduates of 2020 to speak out against inequities in society. 

“Injustice isn’t new,” he said. “What is new is that so much of your generation has woken up to the fact that the status quo needs fixing, that the old ways of doing things don’t work and that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick, that our society only works when we think not just about ourselves but about each other.”

In April, Amanda Gorman, the nation’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate in 2017 and a Harvard University senior who headed home in March, performed her poem “The Miracle of Morning” for CBS This Morning.

“To be called forth to kind of be a vocal hope during a pandemic that’s also influencing my own life, in its own way, was frightening and scary,” Gorman told Diverse. “I wasn’t sure if I was capable, but I just swallowed my doubt and trusted in the words, trusted in the power of language and wrote the thing.”

Intercollegiate Athletics

As the college sports landscape underwent changes with student-athletes slowly gaining greater autonomy over their name, image and likeness (NIL), the divide between the wealthier conferences — notably the “Power 5” that control Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) — and other conferences that compete at the Division I level grew. This was spotlighted in a May decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that upheld a ruling that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) cannot limit the education-related benefits that colleges and universities provide to student-athletes who play FBS football and D-I basketball. 

Howard University lacrosse player Tiffany HuntHoward University lacrosse player Tiffany Hunt

This means D-I athletic conferences should be able to set their own rules for education-related compensation or benefits that member institutions provide to student-athletes without interference from the NCAA. This includes athletic scholarships and education-related equipment, such as computers, and services, such as tutoring or post-eligibility paid internships.

Student-athletes also found a greater voice when it came to social justice activism. Groups such as the United Black Student-Athletes Association at the University of Southern California formed to address campus issues as well as national and global issues of race and racism.

“We’re in a pandemic, but racism is at an all-time peak right now,” said Howard University lacrosse player Tiffany Hunt, president of Howard’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. “Student-athletes should be voicing their opinions.”

Tenure Politics

Dr. Paul C. Harris is now a tenured associate professor at the University of Virginia (UVA) Curry School of Education and Human Development following reconsideration of an initial denial of tenure that sparked outrage among numerous minority scholars who found the tenure review to be biased. 

Harris became a tenure-track assistant professor at UVA in 2014 after serving in a non-tenure-track position from 2011 to 2014. When he first went up for tenure, the Promotion and Tenure Committee claimed that Harris’ publication record didn’t meet expectations. More than 4,000 individuals, colleagues and former students among them, signed a petition denouncing the initial decision to deny tenure. 

On July 1, Harris and other minority scholars took part in a Diverse Talk Live webcast to discuss inherent bias in the promotion and tenure process at a number of institutions. Later that month, his tenure case was approved by UVA’s provost. 

On Harris’ UVA web page he notes, “My research focuses on improving the college and career readiness of underrepresented students, and Black male student-athletes in particular, and the role of school counselors in this process.”

Dr. Lupita MontoyaDr. Lupita Montoya

Meanwhile, the appeal of a former assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science has not received positive resolution, and in July Dr. Lupita Montoya filed suit against the university for sex and race discrimination as well as retaliation. An article in the Boulder Daily Camera reported that Montoya’s suit alleges she was paid less than her colleagues and denied tenure and promotion because she is Latina.

Montoya joined CU Boulder’s faculty in 2010. She was denied tenure in 2017 and was given a one-year contract to finish her work. She filed a complaint with the university’s Privilege and Tenure Committee, pointing out possible breaches in protocol. The Committee agreed with Montoya about breaks in policy, but the reevaluation was also denied.

This past March, a complaint she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was dismissed. At that time, Montoya told Diverse she felt her research was undervalued as “service” as opposed to scholarship. Her research focuses on indoor air pollution, especially that impacting underrepresented minorities, including Colorado nail salon workers.

Montoya is currently a research associate at CU and the Boulder Daily Camera reported that she has been published in peer-reviewed journals and awarded a research grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Tenure is one of those areas where we really need to put the spotlight on to see how those practices are aligned with our stated commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Cooper. “If they don’t meet the mark, then we need to figure out how to modify them to be more current and contemporary.” 

On the Move

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a noted scholar of racism in America, was tapped to direct Boston University’s (BU) new Center for Antiracist Research. Kendi previously founded the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, where he was a professor of history and international relations.

“Ibram’s extraordinary vision and scholarship will deepen and further BU’s ongoing commitment to anti-racist work,” said Crystal Williams, vice president and associate provost for community & inclusion. 

Author of the New York Times best-seller How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi has been a prominent voice during this unprecedented year. His COVID Racial Data Tracker initiative is comprehensively monitoring the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black communities. Kendi told Diverse he hopes BU’s new center can be transformative with a solutions-oriented team model for racial research.

Dr. Michael Drake, immediate past president of Ohio State University, was named the new president of the University of California (UC) system. He previously was part of the UC system as chancellor of UC, Irvine and vice president for health affairs for the UC system.

As of Jan. 1, 2021, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson will make the move to Vanderbilt University, where he will hold the Centennial Chair and serve as University Distinguished Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies in the College of Arts and Science and University Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society in the Divinity School.

An interdisciplinary scholar, ordained Baptist preacher and author of more than 20 books, Dyson’s latest book, Long Time Coming: Reckoning with Race in America, was published Dec 1. 


In June, the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from being deported. This means DACA recipients can continue to live and work in the country legally. They may also continue their educations. At present, there are approximately 450,000 undocumented students in higher ed, 216,000 of whom are eligible for DACA. 

History Made

Senator Kamala Harris was not the first woman nominated by a major party to be Vice President of the United States, but on Nov. 7 she became the first woman elected to the office. When former

Vice President-elect Kamala HarrisVice President-elect Kamala Harris

Vice President Joe Biden selected Harris to be his running mate, she became the first African American and first South Asian American to receive such a nomination.

“I see a sea change in the national prominence in leadership representation,” said Wu, who noted that two Asian American Baruch alumni were elected to the New York State Assembly. 

When Biden became President-elect, Harris made history not only for herself but for HBCUs. The former Attorney General of California attended Howard University for her undergraduate education, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities,” said Harris.   

This article originally appeared in the December 10, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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