College Presidents Must Do More Than Reframe, They Must Transform

Josie Gonsalves is a Facilitator, Writer and Speaker on Racial Justice; Nonprofit Expert, and Adjunct Professor.

It is said past is prologue. Yet, the current period of national civil resistance underscores that “the arc of justice” has yet to bend. This Martin Luther King, Jr. implored the nation to heed as he decried the pernicious nature of racism in America in the 1960s. A cry that echoed back to the mid-1600s in colonial Virginia courts. At the core of the current social movements from Black

Lives Matter (BLM) to American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) is the single argument that race is central to every aspect of civil society. More pointedly, that racism is a function of who we are: a function of citizenship and each individual’s position in the structural transactions of society. The over 26 million people on the streets today are demanding the telling of the truth of America.

Nowhere is the truth of the history of this country more hidden than in the academy where scholarship has long framed racialized public policies, laws, and corporate structures to support systems of power and privilege. This paradigm will have to change as those from the streets return to campuses and classrooms. The hypothesis that it is impractical to transform the current journey to “a more perfect union” built on centuries of dehumanization and condemnation of non-white designated peoples is morally reprehensible. Yes, it will be hard. Racism is not only made manifest in systems of laws and practices, but embedded in the psychology of America.

It is this backdrop that college presidents, and particularly Black college presidents, contemplate the coming academic year and years to come. It is clear the present, once again, demands not just a reimaging of the future: it requires the deconstruction of institutional racism across the political, economic, and social sectors of society.

If we agree that race is an organizing tool for America, we have to admit that the academy serves to reinforce it. From the physical sciences and artificial intelligence to business administration and legal studies, and from the arts and the humanities to bio-engineering and management certification programs, pedagogical methods and curricula must be constructed to interrupt the long-term ramifications of de jure and de facto segregation in education policies and outcomes. To this end, the single most crucial transformative motion must be the restructuring of the academic affairs departments of colleges. The academic scholarship of inequity in higher education by Critical Race Theory offers a baseline analytical framework to assess the structures that uphold racism in universities. Lori D. Patton addresses three fundamental elements for critical analysis by college presidents in a poignant essay, “Disrupting Postsecondary Prose: Toward A Critical Race Theory of Higher Education”:

Proposition 1: The establishment of U.S. higher education is deeply rooted in racism/white supremacy, the vestiges of which remain palatable.

Proposition 2: The functioning of U.S. higher education is intricately linked to imperialistic and capitalistic efforts that fuel the intersections of race, property, and oppression.

Proposition 3: U.S. higher education institutions serve as venues through which formal knowledge production rooted in racism/white supremacy is generated.

College presidents must heed the urgency of this moment. The transformation of higher education is a civil rights imperative that Black college presidents are obligated to spearhead. Such an endeavor requires bold, courageous, and precise policies and actions that strike at the very idea of the university and its role in civil society. College presidents must challenge established tenets of the academy. Race-neutral precepts and concepts that govern the overall university have failed to produce the “egalitarian” society the academy has long promised. Universities instead have become institutions to incubate social inequity and economic stratification across civil society.

It is the most venerable of founding fathers, Thomas Paine, who said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”