Reflections and follow up with guest editor Dr. Dianne Wright, 15 years later

In 2006, Metropolitan Universities journal published issue 17.2, African Americans: Struggle for Recognition in the Academy. Dr. Wright’s introduction of the issue begins with the statement, “During the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement and the climate of social unrest of that era led to efforts to diversify higher education in the United States. Unfortunately, however, after almost four decades of implementing policies designed for more diversity in American educational institutions, we are still grappling with the issue of race and under-representation of African Americans in all aspects of higher education in the United States.” Halfway through 2020, nearly a decade and a half after publication, we are in the midst of another movement focused on addressing inequities in our country’s history. Americans, while still in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, are protesting and advocating for meaningful change.

Dr. Dianne Wright, retired associate professor of educational leadership and research methodology at Florida Atlantic University, and adjunct professor and scholar at Barry University, served as guest editor for the 2006 issue. We recently reached out to Dr. Wright to return to some of the perspectives shared and synthesize what has changed since publication, where more work needs to be done, and suggestions to continue progressing towards more equitable higher education environments.

Can you please comment on your reflections of the progress, or lack thereof, for recognition of African Americans in the academy over the years?

I think that in terms of the progress of Blacks/African Americans in the academy over the years, the numbers of faculty and senior level staff have increased, but minimally at best, as evidenced by statistics such as—of all full-time faculty in degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the fall 2017, 41 percent were White males, 35 percent were White females, and 3 percent each were Black males and Black females (IES/NCES, 2017). In terms of senior level staff (i.e., presidents, provosts, chief finance and development officers, chief information officers, etc.) progress continues to lag, though Blacks/African Americans are seeing significantly more progress in areas such the chief student affairs officer and, more recently, chief human resources officers (CUPA-HR, 2017–2018). But, regarding the latter, a lot can also be said in terms of where Blacks/African Americans are making substantial progress in comparison to those executive/administrative areas where they are not. The question here becomes, what can be done to more positively impact this trending of events?

Board composition has also become more diverse, reflecting an increase of Black/African Americans to 13.6 percent as of 2015 (AGB, 2016) for public universities. Further, in terms of board impact on African Americans, and particularly those attending traditionally white public universities, system-wide boards have become more diligent in terms of enacting policies that are designed to address not just access, but success (i.e., closing the achievement gap between African American students and the majority population). Of late, this is often done in the form of “metrics” established at the state system-wide level. Along these same lines, the federal government has also done its part in terms of cracking down on higher education institutions with high default rates, with threats of withdrawing federal financial aid where students (many of them African-American) during the intervening years were evidenced as admitted to institutions of higher learning, but without necessary support structures in place to more effectively assure their graduation with a degree leading to, assumptively, greater employability.

However, faculty racial diversity gaps, though also improved, continue to exist. Worse yet, there is still the blatant issue of tokenism, meaning that somehow one can relieve him or herself of any accusations of racism or discrimination if they have their “one” Black/African American on staff/faculty for public display as their “diversity hire.”

On a positive note, and as a result of recent student protests seen across the country, with student protesters seeking reform in racially insensitive practices on campuses and demanding their voices be heard, the chair of the State University System of Florida Board of Governors recently stated, “now is the time for universities to undergo an examination of their campus cultures.” More specifically, he has indicated that he wants to hear how Florida’s public universities are addressing diversity, equity and inclusion. But, just “hearing” about it is not enough. He, and others in similar positions, will need to provide leadership, including their vision, in terms of what needs to be done and why in ways that address both the institutional and structural racism and discrimination that continues to prevail within institutions of higher learning.

What actions do you think leaders (presidents, trustees, etc.) in higher education need to do in order to pave a path for meaningful change to address the struggles Black and African Americans face?

One of the things that I often think about is that college presidents don’t give the public speeches or presentations to the campus community that they often gave in the past (over two centuries) reflecting their values and views regarding racial equity in the way and to the degree that they did leading up to the last decade and a half. And, when they do, it is usually the result of a crisis situation. My experience is that this topic also does not have the depth, meaningfulness, and seriousness that it, at least, appeared to have decades ago. Further, more often than not, boards of trustees, who are ultimately responsible for the selection of these institution heads, seldom engage in other than superficial attention and focus during their public questioning of presidential candidates on this topic. Presidents and boards of trustees must do more in terms of sharing their visions with regard to race and equity on the campuses they serve or wish to serve, noting in particular that African Americans have “grown only more impoverished due to high debt burdens that are not offset by economic advances” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 7, 2020, p.A44).

The 2006 issue concluded with an epilogue, The Future of African Americans in U.S. Higher Education. Professor Emeritus, Robert Hall expresses in the piece, “hindrance after hindrance and crises after crises experienced by Blacks in higher education have been chronicled. However, the real question is what will be done to remedy these concerns? … Have there been improvements in terms of the ‘struggle’ that these authors (featured in this issue) began writing about over three years ago (2003)? Is there resolution or hope for the future? Or simply idealistic thinking?

Could you reflect a bit on these questions asked in 2006? Has the current public health and economic crises impacted what your response would be if this was asked earlier in the year?

What was expressed in the volume’s epilogue is consistent with what’s still being expressed now, a decade and a half later, i.e., “hindrance after hindrance and crises after crises experienced by Blacks…have been chronicled,” and the same questions asked,… the real question is what will be done to remedy these concerns?…Have there been improvements in terms of the “struggle.” Is there resolution or hope for the future? Or simply idealistic thinking?” To say the least, the former is disheartening.

As I reflect on these questions, I liken them to the recent protesters who continue to ask these same questions and can only hope that those behind me will witness real answers, true action, and more progress during their lifetime.

What recommendations do you have for readers to develop dialogue in their professional roles?

My recommendations include that past errors made either as a result of fear, defensiveness, or simply embarrassment, be faced head on in terms of reality and truth. As I say this though, my recommendation also includes the recognition that all, i.e., both sides (black and white) are responsible for the current circumstance, and neither is without guilt. As such, each will be required to accept this truth. Take for instance myself and other Blacks/African Americans—much of what is being said aloud now, up until now, was verbalized regularly and often amongst ourselves, but not to those who should have heard it more often, and often enough—and given the opportunity to hear and face the brutal truth regarding the pain and suffering that continues to occur.

I would recommend that as our campuses prepare for the fall 2020 term that they start off the semester with “honest listening sessions,” and not just with students, though these are perhaps most important, but also with underrepresented groups of faculty and staff leading to concerted, positive, and productive action. Or else this moment for learning and moving forward in the area of race and equity will be lost, and errors of both omission and co-mission will continue.

Answers were submitted on July 6, 2020 by:

Dianne A. Wright, PhD
Adjunct Professor and Independent Scholar
Barry University, Miami Shores, FL
Retired Associate (Tenured) Professor
Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL