Dr. Claudine Gay’s forced resignation highlights anti-Blackness in higher education

AYA WALLER-BEY

by Aya Waller-Bey, Contributing Columnist, Michigan Chronicle

We spend too much time discussing highly selective institutions like Harvard University.

That’s especially true when, according to the Education Data Initiative, most college students don’t attend private or Ivy League schools, but instead attend one of the nation’s 1600 public and open-access universities.

However, the resignation of Harvard’s first Black female president, Dr. Claudine Gay, earlier this month warrants an overdue discussion — not one about Harvard, but a conversation about anti-Blackness and racism in higher education and beyond.

Prominent bad-faith actors – including conservative Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and conservative “activist” and anti-Critical Race Theory advocate Christopher Rufo – insist that U.S. college campuses are overrun by queer, anti-Semitic, liberal progressives who are committed to brainwashing students or compromising merit.

But proof to the contrary is in the pudding.

Since integration, Black students, staff, and faculty have launched complaints against their universities for racial discrimination. They have been protesting and leading demonstrations like the 1970 University of Michigan Black Action Movement (BAM) protests and subsequent movements including the “I, Too, Am Harvard” campaign in 2014.

Yet, individuals like billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman led campaigns to dismantle diversity equity inclusion (DEI) and remove Black academics from top leadership roles. In the case of Harvard and Dr. Gay, their attempt was successful. They also leverage political resources and power to challenge academic programs, staff, and faculty that engage in scholarship that accurately retells and depicts the brutality of this country’s founding, as was the case in Florida with the defunding of DEI efforts and banning of Black studies programs.

This is bigger than Harvard and Dr. Gay. What we are witnessing is a concerted effort to disempower Black and other racially minoritized people – to remove, rewrite, and reframe stories about our past and our futures to satisfy the appetites of racists and White mediocrity. The attacks on education at all levels – from the removal of robust resources and programs that aid the development, learning, and creativity of children to the defunding of public universities and elimination of affirmative action at the nation’s most selective universities – are assaults on Black racial progress.

The evidence is clear. Classrooms and workplaces benefit from more racially diverse individuals, and the absence of Black people from C-suites, operating rooms, and academic spaces reinforces and reproduces racial inequality and discrimination. According to a study by Harvard Business Review, companies with diverse leadership teams and inclusive cultures were 45 percent more likely to grow their market share and had a 70 percent higher chance of capturing new markets. Also, college racial diversity contributes to more positive educational outcomes.

The conservative game plan is to continue to identify Black leaders and professionals in visible or consequential roles, attack their credentials and qualifications, cast doubt on their deservingness to occupy their positions, and build complaints that suggest that diversity, equity, and inclusion campaigns have led to unmeritorious hiring practices or reverse racism.

This is a tactic of discouragement with hopes that other ambitious and promising young leaders decide not to apply for that role, pursue that graduate degree, or advocate for that promotion. It’s also an attempt to minimize the contributions of Black people to the social progress and innovation this country so proudly boasts as the beacon of democracy.

Yet, suppose we accept their claims that Dr. Claudine Gay’s decade-long career at Harvard was plagued with plagiarism and misrepresentation of her work or that Black people gain access to opportunities unfairly because of their race. In that case, we betray our history and our reality.

Aya Waller-Bey completed her B.A. in Sociology with a Social Justice concentration and minor in African American studies at Georgetown and earned her MPhil in Education at the University of Cambridge in England. She also completed an M.A. in Sociology from the University of Michigan, where she’s currently a Ph. D. candidate studying trauma narrative in college essays. She has presented her research at local and national talks and symposiums, conducted storytelling workshops, and written op-eds for intern

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