The Legacy of Slavery in the Academy

New England institutions of higher education are deeply embedded in structures of racial hierarchy. Recent studies have shown the historical centrality of slavery and settler-colonialism in the founding and financing of the region’s colleges and universities. They reveal and confirm that the bodies of Black and Indigenous people were the original endowment that made many institutions of higher education possible.

While not all institutions are directly entangled with the history of slavery, most places of higher education in New England have benefited from the practice in some way or another. New England ships carried enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and North America. New England mills, built and financed with profits from the slave trade, spun and wove cotton grown and harvested by enslaved people. The Northern legacy permeates all aspects of the region’s institutions of higher education, including the endowments of longstanding educational institutions, but also embedded in the very brick and stone warehouses converted to waterfront luxury condos and restaurants, or the preserved colonial buildings and structures used for academic buildings. All postsecondary institutions in New England – large and small, public and private, well-endowed and modestly funded – have benefitted from the enslavement and colonization of Black and Indigenous people.

Beyond Slavery: Structural Racism & Institutional Inequalities in the Academy

Beyond slavery, institutions of higher education played a historical role in and continue to perpetuate racial inequality, and are implicated in the material and conceptual subjugation of Black and Indigenous peoples, as well as other people of color. Throughout New England, institutions of higher education reified and reinforced white supremacy by underwriting, funding, and propagating ideologies and pseudo-science that justified slavery and broader racial inequalities. Postsecondary institutions house and support the disciplines that presented Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) as inferior and valueless. The scholarship and pedagogies of institutions of higher education – in religious studies, anthropology, biology, and history, to name a few – dehumanized Black people, and were used to legitimize violence against them. Institutions of higher education continue to uphold white supremacy by fostering disciplines and areas of studies that explicitly exclude the voices, knowledges, and experiences of BIPOC people, sanitizing and “whitewashing” the history of disciplines, and diminishing studies of non-white people. Furthermore, postsecondary institutions are accountable for the continued occupation of Indigenous lands, supporting residential agreements, gentrification (“neighborhood revitalization”) of Black neighborhoods and other marginalized groups, racially discriminatory hiring and tenure/promotion policies, and instituting policing practices that profile BIPOC residents and students.

Racial Inequities Among Faculty

There is a wealth of scholarship on the experiences of BIPOC faculty that documents how they are overworked (particularly in “diversity” work or the labor of advising and mentoring BIPOC students) and unsupported. They also often find their scholarship systematically denied, hidden, and obscured. The exclusion and erasure of BIPOC faculty in higher education is indicative of the historical and ongoing denial and erasure of BIPOC people in the nation more broadly as producers and purveyors of knowledge.

DEI Initiatives Fall Short

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) frameworks often fail at achieving equity and are ineffective in addressing the structures in higher education that harm BIPOC faculty. They do not promote the work necessary to transform institutions into spaces that can serve, nurture, and uplift them.

Postsecondary institutions often take up DEI as reactions to events or moments in the society in general or on campus (such as racial protests and demographic change among students) and therefore tend to lack institutional vision.

In contemporary manifestations, the “diversity” aspects of DEI (hiring more BIPOC faculty or recruiting more BIPOC students) is foregrounded with far less attention to exposing and dismantling white supremacy. In this way, DEI initiatives tend to be divorced from addressing systemic institutional issues that drive racial disparities, and have become ineffective in creating, developing, and fostering campus cultures that affirm and value BIPOC faculty (as well as their BIPOC student counterparts). 

The most common approaches to DEI generally foreground helping white faculty to engage with people of different races and privileges the preferences and outcomes of white people overall –  while neglecting the actual needs of BIPOC faculty. By re-centering white people, DEI thus recreates and perpetuates the invisibility of BIPOC faculty. DEI initiatives emphasize training and individual behavioral change, at the expense of institutionalized changes to their culture and operations. 

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