Adam Harris on Historic Racial Inequalities in Colleges and Universities`

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tags: racism, higher education, HBCUs, colleges and universities, racial equity

Welcome to Race on Campus. Inequality is baked into higher education. Think about it: Institutions with the most financial resources, including flagship universities, enroll few Black students. That’s what Adam Harris is arguing in his new book, The State Must Provide. Katie Mangan interviewed our former colleague about his research for the book.


In 2018, Adam Harris, then a Chronicle reporter, brought our readers to Mississippi Valley State University for an inside look at how the Ayers settlement, the culmination of one of the longest-running civil-rights cases in American history, had failed to adequately atone for centuries of discrimination.

Harris, who now writes for The Atlantic, felt that his reporting on inequities in higher education had only scratched the surface. There was more to tell, and the result is a book released this month: The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal — and How to Set Them Right.

I caught up with Adam to ask him about the book. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

I was struck in reading your book, Adam, by how frustrated and almost incredulous you were at how deeply ingrained the racial barriers were in the higher-education system. What made you decide to take such a deep dive into the history of Black higher education?

Part of it grew out of my own experience attending Alabama A&M University. I had really great professors and classmates who challenged me. But the buildings had structural problems, deferred maintenance, the kind of little things that were very different from the predominantly white campus that was maybe 10 minutes away.

Fast forward, I get to The Chronicle, and I started covering federal higher-education policy and HBCUs and digging into these issues a little more deeply. The Ayers settlement in Mississippi was an incomplete settlement. So what did the situation look like for the rest of the states that had settled with the federal government — North Carolina, Kentucky and others? And knowing that a majority of Black students do not attend historically Black colleges, what is the experience like for them, given the wealth stratification happening at this moment? A large proportion of Black students attend community colleges, which are doing yeoman’s work but are often poorly funded or treated as an afterthought.

You write that American colleges and universities have never given Black students a chance to succeed. When did you reach that conclusion?

Once I started to poke into the roots of higher-education policy, I realized that inequality was baked into the system. The Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862 created a class of land-grant institutions that Black students could not attend. Even today, places with the most resources, including flagships, have very small Black enrollments. Just 5 percent of the enrollment at Auburn University is Black, despite the fact that roughly 30 percent of high-school graduates in Alabama are Black. States have grown complacent about these issues because they know there won’t be any repercussions for ignoring them.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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