Will PWIs Embrace Change in a Nation at Unrest?

By Sara Jean-Francois

Ahmaud Arbery, February 23, 2020. A murder that was concealed and hidden away from this nation at unrest.

Breonna Taylor, March 13, 2020. A murder, again hidden from a nation at unrest.

George Floyd, May 25, 2020. A murder documented and mourned by all of America, not just those who are Black and American.

As the protests began and stories began to change, this divided nation—Haitian, Jamaica, Irish, Armenian, Hispanics, Black or white, all 50 states—collectively said, “No More.”

But we did not get to this place in history by chance. America has a long history of racial injustice, voter suppression, racial discrimination, xenophobia and on goes the list of -isms that build up systems of power and privilege.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of school desegregation in the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education case. However, even after Brown v. Board, students of color continued to be  segregated on college campuses and in K-12 education. As Roby Chatteji of the Center for American Progress noted, racism and discrimination have been embroidered into the very structure of American institutions.

From 1896, when the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate was equal, so long as the quality remained the same, to the 1954 Brown v. Board ruling, Black students have constantly experienced education from the outside looking in. Not until 1965 did the U.S. see legislation aimed at providing greater access and affordability to higher education and K-12 education for low income students, Black students and other racial minorities.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA). The act was meant to strengthen the foundation of colleges and universities and provide provisions for access and affordability for low-income students. The legislation created the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to provide students with access to federal funding for colleges in the form of grants and loans. The law’s titles also created college success  programs such as the TRIO programs to help low-income students, students of color  and students who are the first in their families to go to college. The HEOA also made way for other legislative steps to affect higher education in a manner that held each university accountable. For example, in 1972, Title IX tied federal support of institutions to the condition of non-discrimination policies on the basis of gender.

Even after Brown v. Board, Title IX and the Civil Rights Act of 1965, many colleges and universities continued to function as predominantly white institutions for the affluent classes, and many still do. Today, as colleges and universities champion the term “Antiracist,” many U.S. institutions of higher education remain pervasively white-centered, and white-dominated.

Two types of institutions

The U.S. landscape of higher education has featured two types of universities: one for people of color, the sometimes formally recognized Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and the other, more informally known as predominantly white institutions (PWIs), where only white students were generally admitted.

More than 50 years after Johnson’s HEOA aimed to foster equality and access for all students regardless of class or creed, issues of equity, access, inclusion and race continue to permeate student life.

Dozens of student-led movements have gone on to change the face of higher education in a way legislation never has. In the summer 2014, fresh off the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police killing of Michael Brown, students began to openly and loudly advocate for their own rights, the inherent right to equitable and inclusive educational environments on predominantly white campuses. Of note, the student-led protest at the University of Missouri that boiled over throughout the academic years of 2014 through 2016. The protest, like many others, emerged as a result of a growing list of racially bias incidents of discrimination, aggression and hate speech toward students of color that were met with silence when reported by students. As a result of the years of protest and resistance at Missouri, students at PWIs throughout the U.S wrote several articles of demands for redress for students of color and other marginalized groups.

One journey

When I entered my first semester of college in 2015, Black students made up just 3% of my undergraduate institution. In 2019, as I began the first year of my master’s program, I was 1 of 3 students of color in my cohort of 30.

It is clear that even today, universities remain segregated based on race, class and several other factors. Universities that were once “predominantly white” remain the same, while  some students of color seek welcome and comfort at institutions that are designated “Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs),” including HBCUs that hold significant ties and legacies in Black and Brown communities. Although MSIs face significant financial and sustainability challenges given the long history of underfunding and under-resourcing, they remain a pivotal part in the higher education landscape.

As Cobretti Williams wrote in his article for HigherEdJobs, “It is abundantly clear that MSIs present a significant opportunity both for higher education and racially and ethnically minoritized college students. Compared to predominantly white institutions, MSIs have made a concerted effort to preserve language, history and culture among these groups through curriculum, student programs and student services.”

That said, it is not beyond reason that students of color would prefer to go to institutions that cater to their needs, cultures and their generational forms of knowledge. The hard truth is that traditional PWIs do not adequately make space for the cultures, knowledge base and languages of students of color, though these institutions often are the ones that can afford to financially support students of color and those who come from low-income backgrounds or are the first in their families to attend college.

The history of higher education has been one of exclusivity and prioritization of those who are white and affluent. Whiteness culture has been and continues to be at the center of university life and campus relations; this remains true even if universities themselves cannot accept it. As seen by the performative initiatives that have been put forward in the name of establishing “antiracist” campuses. If higher ed does not outwardly acknowledge and dismember the legacy of Eurocentrism in higher education, then higher ed can never be antiracist.

Aiming to diversify

Universities have spent more than a half century since Johnson passed the HEOA and signed the executive order that established Affirmative Action, fighting to increase compositional diversity while surrendering students of color to an inherently racialized environment that undervalues their identities, cultures and lived experiences.

In 2015, as I began my journey as a first-generation Black college student, I often found myself struggling to adapt to the culture, the environment and, yes, the academic rigor of my institution. However, unlike the academic adjustments, which got better overtime, the inherently white-centric culture of my institution did not change. I constantly found myself resentful of an institution that could spotlight non-Western cultures when it benefited them to do so while also dismantling the credibility of different cultures within the classroom.

My institution, not unlike the thousands of PWIs around the world, used performative allyship as a method of recruitment and marketing, and fell short in enacting inclusive policies to support students of color on camps. I often find myself struggling to find my own identity as an alumna because of the inherently controversial relationship that most students of color have with their PWIs. We argue that higher education is a form of credential-building, a method of increasing social and cultural capital, a form of upward mobility. But do these benefits remain true for students who are unable to expand their networks without facing the blissful ignorance, or bigotry, of their fellow alumni?

I use this point to establish the premise that PWIs are not unlike HBCUs. In the same way the HBCUs were established for the enhancement of Black students, PWIs are doing just the same for white students. However, the fundamental distinction lies in necessity and history. While PWIs continue to serve the historically white demographic they were created to educate, HBCUs are still filling a void in higher education for Black students that was initially created because of a racist and discriminatory system. But in the latter case, supply does not meet the demand.

In light of the significant demographic shift projected by the year 2036, and the increased visibility of issues of race, racism and violence against Black and other minoritized populations, it is clear that HBCUs will always be necessary within U.S. higher education because systemic racism is written into the lining of higher education policy and institutions. PWIs, however, do not have to remain historically and presently white. Researchers predict that by the year 2036, minority students will make up 57% of all graduating high school students (28% Hispanic, 13% Black, 8% Asian and Pacific Islander, and 6% multiracial). The demographic shift indicates a growing need not simply for institutional enrollment changes, but also for reassessment of institutional culture. If colleges and universities continue to center whiteness culture as the premise for all else, enrollment decline will be the lesser evil, as higher education will begin to face it’s very own, hand-crafted, racial reckoning.

Sara Jean-Francois is assistant director of NEBHE’s Regional Student Program, Tuition Break. She recently earned her master’s degree in public policy from Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, where she conducted significant research on race-conscious campuses and issues of equity and inclusion within higher education policy.



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