Higher Ed is Unprepared – #BLM Guest Post

[We continue to solicit #BLM guest posts. We pay $150 for accepted posts. 1000 words ballpark; profanity welcome. Art also welcome. Due to overwhelming response, new submissions will not go up until August/Sept. Please send a draft or query/pitch to Karen at gettenure@gmail.com]

Dr. Johnathan Flowers is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Worcester State University. His current research focuses on developing an affective theory of experience, identity, and personhood through bridging American Pragmatism, Japanese Aesthetics, and Phenomenology. Flowers’ work also explores how identities are lived affectively through technology and society, with a specific emphasis on race, gender, and disability. 

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By Dr. Johnathan Flowers

This fall, everything that is happening in our streets, from the calls to defund the police, to demands for institutional reform that decenters white supremacy, to demands for equitable treatment backed by direct action, is going to be into our classrooms, in our committee meetings, and our departments. 

Because institutions of higher education continue to assume that the demands for structural change do not include academia, because they largely do not see themselves as the subject of the calls for reform that emerge from the ongoing demonstrations, because they do not believe white supremacy to be a structural problem that affects all aspects of the organization of their institution, our institutions are unprepared to respond for when these demonstrations come home. 

We can see this lack of preparedness through the ways that institutions have responded by focusing on white supremacist violence as solely a problem of policing, which some institutions have taken to include campus policing, and not a broad social problem affecting all parts of the institution. To be clear, I’m not saying that campus police reform isn’t a necessary response: I am saying that it should not be the only response to police violence by higher education. If institutions were serious about their opposition to police brutality, they would investigate the ways that the curricula taught in Criminal Justice programs across the country maintain and reinforce white supremacist assumptions about Black criminality. 

More seriously, if institutions were serious about their commitment to diversity and equity, they would reconsider their practice of “ghettoizing” the intellectual traditions and experiences of the Black community into token diversity requirements, often taught by Black faculty and staff, and often treated by departmental advisors as “optional, “elective” or irrelevant to a student’s program of study. 

But broad structural reform might be too much to ask, so let’s move on. Institutions of higher education are unprepared for what will come with the fall because they have failed to address the rampant institutionalization of whiteness across their campuses. What do I mean by this? I mean the organization of all aspects of the institution around a “default” white experience. 

We can see this in how departments determine if a new faculty member is the right “fit” in line with white standards of professionalism, which ultimately determines who is and is not admitted into the academy. We can see this in the ways that white faculty are ill-equipped to mentor their Black students and junior colleagues through the perception that the default “student,” which the institution claims to serve, is assumed to be a white student. After all, academia has not earned the name “Ivory Tower” for nothing. 

The result of this is that every response to racism, to systemic injustice, to white supremacy, must be centered around preserving the comfort of whiteness. So, when Black faculty, staff, and students pose a challenge to the comfort of whiteness by posing serious concerns about racial injustice and racial violence on our campus, they become a problem to be solved by the institution. 

Sara Ahmed’s “Against Students” is excellent here: because the equitable treatment that Black faculty, staff, and students demand is not in line with the treatment institutions think they deserve, the demands of Black, faculty, and students are dismissed as “asking too much,” of an overtaxed institution. Black faculty, staff, and students are framed as not being satisfied with the meager scraps offered, and thus not having a “genuine” complaint.

Rather than focus on the racism that has motivated their complaint, institutions focus on the Black faculty, staff, and students that made the complaint, as the problem to be solved. As Black faculty, staff, and students become problems to be solved,  the institution seeks to pacify them. We’re all aware of these pacification techniques: forming a committee or taskforce to investigate campus climate, or through hosting a listening session on racial injustice so administration can “hear” the concerns of the Black community; or, as we have seen from institutions across the nation, issuing statements reaffirming a commitment to diversity and equity. What is common to all these pacification techniques is the absence of concrete reforms. 

But we will not accept listening sessions or open forums because we recognize them for what they are: incremental change that presents the illusion of a response while allowing the institution to keep whiteness in place. More seriously, we are  returning to our campuses with a newly heightened sense that direct action, protests, and demonstrations work: if they work on police, they can most definitely work on a college campus.

And when we come, who will be there to help save higher-ed institutions?

Not the Black faculty, staff, and students who have endured countless varieties of white supremacist violence by merely existing on campus. And why would we? Even when we attempt to make change, we must repeatedly expose ourselves to white supremacist violence through being forced to explain again, and again, the impact of white supremacy on our academic lives, only to see that change rendered impotent by the demands for white comfort.

Not the departments of Ethnic Studies, African American Studies, Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, many of which were established as a result of direct action taken by faculty, staff, and students, direct action that mirrors much of what we are seeing in our streets. And why should they? Despite using them to demonstrate their diversity credential, these departments have been resented and resisted by their home institutions for decades. They’ve undermined through resource deprivation, ghettoization, and have been among the first to be targeted in this time of COVID related austerity. 

Not the multi-cultural resource centers, which have been relegated to diversity month programming, rather than comprehensive support for the students they are intended to serve. While the individuals running these resource centers often go to heroic lengths to fill in where their home institutions have failed their students, the institutions fail to act.

None of these resources will be available because they will all be deployed in service of our faculty, staff and students who are demanding change. These resources will be on our campus quads protesting, holding teach-ins, fighting tooth and nail in our committee meetings, or finding some other way of disrupting the ongoing “business as usual” of institutional racism and oppression within our institutions. 

And they will do so because they recognize that the conditions that allow white supremacy to claim that Black lives don’t matter in the society beyond the ivory tower are the same conditions that allow white supremacy claim that Black intellectual lives don’t matter within the ivory tower.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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