The Past is Prologue: W.E.B. Du Bois and Black Higher Education

Excerpts from AERA 2018 lecture by Distinguished Professor of Education, Sociology and African American Studies Walter Allen

By Joanie Harmon

Professor Walter R. Allen is the Allan Murray Cartter Professor of Higher Education and Distinguished Professor of Education, Sociology and African American Studies at UCLA. He co-directs The Center for Capacity Building, which conducts empirical research to improve equity, diversity, inclusion, and excellence in higher education in California, the U.S. and internationally. Allen is also co-investigator for “Educational Diversity in U.S. Law Schools,” a national, longitudinal study of how race, ethnicity, and gender influence teaching and learning at 70 law schools among 8,000 law students.

A prolific author, editor, and writer, Allen’s 200-plus publications include “As the World Turns: Implications of Global Shifts in Higher Education for Theory, Research and Practice” (2012); “Towards a Brighter Tomorrow: College Barriers, Hopes and Plans of Black, Latino/a and Asian American Students in California” (2009); and the article, “Everyday Discrimination in a National Sample of Incoming Law Students,” which was written for the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education in 2008.

Professor Allen served as an expert witness in affirmative action and higher education discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger (for Student Intervenors); and U.S. v. Fordice (MS). He has also testified on race, education, and inequality before the United Nations in Geneva and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Trained as a sociologist—he earned both his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago—Allen landed his first position in academia at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an institution with an infamous history of segregation among both the student body and the faculty, until the early 1970s.

“We were literally the first generation of Black professors in sizeable number to move into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which had settled a court case charging them with continuing discrimination,” Allen recalls. “One of their arguments was that they would have liked to hire qualified Black faculty, but they couldn’t find anyone. But once the university was under a court order and the settlement was in place, they found Black psychiatrists, lawyers, people in sociology, mathematics, English—everything. Not only did they find us, but they brought us from the top tier of schools.

“It was challenging because you moved into a space where people were not necessarily accepting or understanding of you,” he says. “We had encounters with janitors, police officers … students walking into a class, seeing who was teaching it and leaving because it was a Black professor.”

These experiences influenced Professor Allen’s research, which includes issues of inequality, access, diversity, and equity in higher education.

“Scholarly discourse and popular events show that ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same,’” notes Allen. “A half century after the Civil Rights Movement, we have the Black Lives Matter movement and students demonstrating for greater campus diversity. Race-ethnic stereotypes and discrimination are deeply embedded in our society and do great harm to students of color. I am encouraged that many young scholars in the field are determined to confront, research and solve these inequities.”

“Educational researchers and practitioners must continue to lead the struggle to improve educational access, quality and achievement for all groups, but especially for those communities most disadvantaged in our ‘knowledge economy,’” says Allen. “Today, more than ever before, higher education is the Holy Grail. College graduates earn more, therefore they also have a better quality of life. Education continues to offer a more certain pathway to a better future. Sadly, forces have converged to limit educational opportunities for the poor, the disenfranchised, and for many students of color.”

In his 2018 W.E.B. Du Bois lecture at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Institute (AERA), Professor Allen addressed the issues surrounding Black higher education, as predicted decades ago by the 20th-century sociologist, author, and civil rights activist.

“Either the United States will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States.” – W.E.B. Du Bois

Not only did W.E.B. Du Bois predict the problem of race, or predict the problem that race has posed for the 20th century, [but he also predicted] the current status of Blacks in U.S. higher education.

While Brown v. Topeka in 1954 may have outlawed separate and unequal on the books, I grew up across the river in Kansas City, Missouri and there, Jim Crow continued to have us on the hooks. Racial separation was a real and constant feature in our lives even though the Supreme Court had said stop it, cut it out! Du Bois recognized and recorded our dignity and degradation as a people struggling, striving, and thriving under the clouds of white supremacy.

It was a decade after Brown, before White campuses operating with all deliberate speed finally began to accept Black students in any substantial numbers under pressure from the courts and from federal enforcement agencies, and not to forget, their response to the explosion of urban riots across the country, a.k.a. urban rebellions. But significantly, by 1975, the majority of Black college students were attending traditionally White institutions. Ten years before, the majority of our college students had been at historically Black colleges and universities.

Du Bois predicted that the problem of higher education is going to be primarily a problem of the state. Now given the height and importance of a college degree in today’s society, higher education has become and continues to be an intense battleground for racial equity. Public universities and institutions account for the majority of U.S. college graduates. This is especially true for Blacks, as shown by the results from a 40-year empirical study of the status of millions of Black students. We studied enrollment and completion trends for Black college students since 1975 at four-year public universities in the 20 states with the largest numerical Black populations. In each state, we focused on the state flagship university, the prominent Black serving institutions (BSIs) and where present, the most prominent HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Traditionally, BSIs have played very important roles in the higher education of Black students because they have for reasons of history, economics, and geography concentrated and regularly graduated Black students.

Summarizing our findings across that 40-year period studied, the overall proportion of Black undergraduates enrolled in Black and public flagship institutions has remained consistently low. Significantly, Black undergraduate enrollment at flagship institutions has reliably been below the proportional representation of Black people in the state.

A striking example is Mississippi, where Black people are nearly 40% of the state population but only 13% of undergraduates enrolled at the University of Mississippi. Black undergraduates enrolled at UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of Michigan, and Texas, Austin, was 4% or lower in 2015. This, despite the fact that the Black population in those states was as follows: 7% in California, 15% in Michigan, 13% in Texas. The percentage of Black undergraduates enrolled only reached double figures at five state flagship institutions nationally: The University of Alabama, Louisiana State University, Maryland College Park, and the University of Mississippi. The State University of New York, Albany had the highest percent Black enrollment at 17%.

Over the period studied, BSIs showed the most prominent growth in educating Black college students. This seems to support anti-affirmative action arguments. You have Black students rejected from flagships who will simply cascade down to lower ranked institutions better suited to their academic qualifications. Don’t buy the hype! In that, this pattern of displacement—the removal of Blacks from higher status, more elite, public higher education institutions— represents substantial net losses in overall Black undergraduate enrollment.

So, you see a mixed picture with the BSIs but ultimately, it’s a picture of more losses than gains. Our analyses revealed that while Black students increasingly attended low tiered BSIs, Black enrollment at public flagship institutions remained stagnant, or in most cases, declined. Although Black students are mostly denied admission into the ivory gates of “Public Ivy” Campuses… HBCUs and BSIs offer those students opportunities to attend and complete college. By comparison, Black students have largely declined in numbers at the nation’s most elite publics.

By contrast, HBCUs only represent a mere 3% of all institutions of higher learning in this country. Yet in any given year HBCUs produce 25% of the Black students who graduate with B.A. degrees.

Black Higher Education- Where do We Go from Here?

Black students demanding change at Howard University recently ended their occupation of the administration building. Many of their demands were of the most basic sort: better dorms and food; an end to sexual harassment and discrimination on campus; and expanding the student voice in shared governments. However, the students also made demands … calling for fundamental changes in the university and in the society to address racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and state violence. In this respect, those Howard University students shared tactics and goals with the Black Lives Matter movement driven nationally by young, Black, and multicultural students, community activists, and related groups. No doubt, many of the Howard students straddled both movements as they demand more relevant education rooted in the real world and as they seek solutions to the problems that plague their own lives and those of their friends, families, and communities.

We too, once dreamed of a new different world that we were determined to risk life, limb, and, heaven forbid, even career, to realize. These students recognize and call out inherent contradictions that Du Bois pointed to. In 1930, when he asked, “What is the true purpose and value of higher education?” (Here I have to correct him and expand a bit. He was talking about men, but we mean everybody.) He said, “The whole question as to what the education of Negroes was truly aiming at is the matter of a man or a woman’s earning a living. The object of education is not only to make men or women competent but to make complete men or women.”

So, the tension between work and education, which he spoke to in his 1930 graduation speech at Howard University, continues to plague higher education today. Economics and economic inequality challenge the integrity of this enterprise on all levels. Students stagger under the crushing burden of loan debt and are frustrated and discouraged after graduation when they fail to find economically viable employment. Today, as in 1930, quoting Du Bois, “We are graduating young men and women with an intense and overwhelming appetite for wealth and no reasonable way of gratifying it, no philosophy for counteracting it. Universities are also feeling the economic pressures resulting from government refusal to pay for quality higher education. Sadly this trend is fueled by society’s reluctance to invest in the higher education of an increasingly non-White demographic.”

Du Bois then poses an interesting question as follow-up: “How are we going to place the Black American on a sure foundation in the modern state?” The modern state is primarily businesses. The world must eat before it can think. The Negro has not found a solid foundation in that state as yet. He is mainly the unskilled laborer, the casual employee, the man or woman hired last and fired first. The man or woman who must subsist upon the lowest wage and consequently share a new burden of poverty, crime, insanity, and ignorance.”

So, speaking from beyond the grave, Du Bois’ voice joins an emerging and present college student leadership and movement. These young people challenge us to revisit and revamp our approaches to higher education in order to emphasize, “first, training as human beings in general knowledge and experience, then technical training to guide and do a specific part of the world’s work.” It is essential that academics and universities join with Du Bois to recognize that three great things are necessary for the spiritual equipment of the institution of learning: “Freedom of spirit, self-knowledge, and a recognition of the truth.”

Our young Black and multicultural students at Howard University and across the country do us a great service when they insist that we re-discover and manifest our better selves. To them, I say, Amen and Thank You.