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UCLA Professor Eddie R. Cole discusses history of institutional racism at U.S. universities

<h6>Andrew Somerville / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Andrew Somerville / The Daily Princetonian

Eddie R. Cole, Associate Professor of Higher Education and Organizational Change at UCLA, discussed the history of affirmative action and institutional racism at a virtual event hosted by the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity. The focus of the event was his most recent book, “The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom.”

The book focuses on the role that university and college presidents had during the civil rights movement and how that role has affected aspects of policy making within and outside of the educational realm.

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During the discussion, which was led by Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter, Cole brought up the history of institutional racism at institutions like University of Chicago, University of Alabama, and, primarily, Princeton.

The Campus Color Line at Princeton

“The Campus Color Line” focuses on Princeton under the leadership of President Robert F. Goheen, who held the position from 1957–72.

In 1963, the University hosted Ross Barnett, then the Governor of Mississippi, to speak at a debate event. Barnett was popular at the time for promoting segregationist sentiment and ideals at many universities throughout the United States.

“Think about what that says about your campus climate,” Cole said. “There was something particularly attractive about Princeton that made Barnett want to give a speech to advocate for maintaining segregation.”

Cole also pointed out that Barnett was invited to other universities, such as Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, where he did not speak on the topic of segregation.

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“The campus climate at Jackson State did not welcome such a speech, but it was welcomed at Princeton,” he said.

“The Campus Color Line” focuses on the aftermath of Barnett’s time at Princeton, especially regarding Goheen’s reaction to the speech.

Goheen immediately condemned the speech that Barnett gave, but took it a step further, which Cole made clear.

“It’s one thing to condemn racist speech on campus, but it is another thing for Goheen to start implementing policies and practices where such speech doesn’t have a place on campus,” he said.

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According to Cole, the Goheen administration acted within weeks of Barnett’s appearance to change university policies and hire more Black faculty and staff.

“There is then an increase in the number of Black students on campus after 1963,” Cole pointed out.

The overall issue was brought up during the discussion to demonstrate how freedom of speech is inherently tied to institutional racism at the University.

“A lot of Black history doesn’t necessarily frame free speech as a racial issue,” said Cole, “but it is very much a racial issue. The University was actively recruiting Black students to come to campus at the same time that Barnett was invited to speak by the debate society.”

Affirmative action

Cole and Minter also discussed the intricacies and challenges of affirmative action at colleges and universities in the United States.

“Affirmative action revolves around courses of race in college admissions at two or three dozen universities across the United States,” Cole said. “It really does revolve around the most highly selective predominantly white institutions.”

“The Campus Color Line” explains that the affirmative action’s origin lay in a request from the Kennedy administration in the 1960’s, which asked several institutions of higher education to create a program to help solve some of the nation's racial issues.

These “affirmative action” programs were then created at those institutions to promote the application and acceptance of more students of color. 

“For one brief moment, [university administrations] understood that system-wide change was needed within all colleges and universities,” Cole said. “This was a time when we could imagine and fundamentally change the way we think about higher education in the United States.”

However, Cole pointed out that “interest in particularly Black programs and institutions slowly went away.”

Many institutions did not put into place systems that would promote lasting change, and much of the change that did occur was largely for publicity.

“All of the attention went away from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and shifted towards what was the best photo-op,” Cole said. “A few Black students studying on a predominantly white campus gets more attention than a few thousand Black students who are already enrolled at HBCUs.”

This lack of sustained interest in the success of Black students can still be seen today, Cole says.

“Seeing corporations and universities issue statements that actually say ‘Black lives matter,’ it feels eerily similar to what we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “It takes a sustained interest in Black lives, not just a matter of a one time statement or a publicity facing effort.”

Cole expanded on the longevity of civil rights issues and advised students and activists to remain involved over the next few decades.

“We should be having just as serious conversations in 2021 as we will be in 2031 and 2041,” he said. “You can’t overcome a couple hundred years of seriously embedded racism in just a few programs over a few years.”

Advice to Administrations and Activists

Minter asked Cole to give advice to university presidents and administrators as well as student activist groups on how to promote sustained change within their institutions.

First, Cole addressed university presidents, saying that consistently meeting with activist groups should be a priority.

“Just like you have a standing meeting with finance administrators, for example, you should have a recurring meeting with your university’s activists,” he said.

Cole also emphasized the importance of presidents to build relationships with relative groups. 

“People are what makes your university work,” Cole said. “You are better served in meeting those people and their concerns if you know the social history of the institution.”

When asked to give advice to student activist groups, Cole said that the most important thing they can do is have a method to continue to relay information between student generations.

He pointed out that often the demands of student groups will remain the same throughout several generations of students because the progress is not continued.

The relationship between student activists and campus archives is also very valuable, Cole said.

“Think about the ways that you can preserve your activism and consider filing it with university archives,” he pointed out.

Minter echoed his remarks.

“We administrators have a lot of work to do; we are a work in progress and our institutions are a work in progress,” she said.

When asked what hope looks like, Cole said, “What leaves me hopeful is that somewhere along the way, these individuals in positions of power can and have made decisions that are for the better.”

The event took place over Zoom on Thursday, Feb. 25.

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