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The months-long tenure struggle between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Nikole Hannah-Jones was never about debates over the 1619 Project.
The fight was about power — about the White conservatives who thought that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Black journalist had gained too much of it.
“I have studied power my entire life from within institutions where I wielded none. I have written about it. I have reported on it. I have read about it. I have observed it. And, over the years, I have worked myself to accrue it, which is really what angers so many people,” Hannah-Jones herself noted on Twitter.
She had barged into the overwhelmingly White world of academia, unsettling it. And for that, she was punished.
UNC eventually granted tenure to Hannah-Jones, who, notably and defiantly, declined the position and opted to join Howard University, a historically Black school.
Still, the episode, like Cornel West’s announcement this week that he had resigned from Harvard University, cracked open conversations about how privilege and systemic racism play out in higher education.
How is racial inequality entrenched in universities and colleges? What did the tenure saga reveal about the experiences of Black students at majority-White institutions like UNC? And with Hannah-Jones relocating to Howard, will HBCUs get the respect they deserve?
To parse these questions about race in higher education, I spoke with Adam Harris, a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers education, and the author of the forthcoming book, “The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal — and How to Set Them Right.”
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How is inequality baked into our higher education system?
Even the foundation of the public higher education system — in particular, as we think of it today — wasn’t necessarily built on the idea of broad accessibility for everyone. It was built on the idea of creating places to train White male farmers. There were places to teach men the art of war. There were places to teach men the law. But there weren’t places to teach men how to be productive farmers.
What grew out of that was the 1862 Morrill Act, which was a way to give states land scrips — often for land taken from Native people — that could be sold to fund schools. These institutions were attended almost solely by White men for the first few decades of their existence and in some instances by White people for more than a century.
From that foundation, you have different iterations of bolstering and defending that inequality. The federal government goes through iterations of programs where it’s funding institutions that are locking Black folks out and going to court to defend segregation laws.
Meanwhile, the institutions Black students attend are underfunded. However, they’re still over-performing. After all, these are the institutions that are creating Black doctors and Black lawyers and building the Black middle class.
The biggest losers in all this were UNC’s Black students, who missed out on the opportunity to have someone of Hannah-Jones’ caliber on campus and who may question whether the school really values them. Does this tension reveal anything about the experiences of Black s
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