College Leadership Histories: Racism, Integration & Social Justice

The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom is a fascinating work of history. Written by Professor Eddie R. Cole of UCLA, it is a closely researched study of seven college presidents during two intense decades of integration in higher education, from 1948 to 1968. The book offers an up close account of academic presidential leadership, successfully arguing that academia played a profound and complicated role during the civil rights movement. Often overlooked in accounts of how Black Americans fought for access, rights and power, higher education was a site of contestation, opportunity, advancement and frustration. What happened in colleges and universities during this period had long-last impact. Cole’s book offers a new scholarly narrative, demonstrating how higher education both helped and slowed the quest for social justice. The Campus Color Line has rightly garnered awards and attention. It will have an impact on much future scholarship.

Cole, who grew up in rural Alabama, uses a personal lens to explains the genesis of the book. As a young student, he saw clearly the difference between the de jure segregation of earlier generations and the de facto segregation of his own schooling. The color lines were obvious to all and enforced by white power structures. Cole wondered how past educators’ actions might have shaped current conditions. He picked up that question as a professional historian, asking how college leaders influenced racial policies. Did they break down segregation and racism or reinforce color lines?

The book looks at the Black Freedom Movement through the actions and words of college presidents. Higher education was closely connected – implicated – in the major civil rights issues: desegregation, equal opportunity, fair housing, free speech and more. As a historian of education, Cole zeroes in on college presidents, who traditionally have been written about as non-actors, neither ahead nor behind key societal changes. Cole stresses that while there were manifold pressures on presidents, academic leaders made decisions that had real consequences. They were and remain important actors.

In selecting his presidencies and colleges, Cole took pains to make sure that northern institutions are included, as are Black and white presidents. Each of his chapters offers a take on a larger theme. None of the colleges and universities were impervious to larger societal issues.

Chapter One looks at Martin D. Jenkins, an extraordinarily prolific scholar who became president of Morgan State College in Baltimore. Jenkins, a Black leader unafraid of speaking up against established white educators and political leaders, built a network that supported significant change, but he did so separately from white power networks. The second chapter studies two University of Chicago chancellors, Lawrence Kimpton and George Beadle. UC was an extremely active player in its local Hyde Park neighborhood. It championed slum clearance to “protect” the institution from its Black neighbors. Black citizens were relocated, often far from UC, while the institution mounted a public relations effort that was all about improving neighborhoods. Many other institutions around adopted similar tactics, taking advantage of reforms promoting slum clearance. These often worked against inclusion and diversity. Chapter 3 moves to California, where the much-lauded three-tier state system (research institutions, state institutions, and community colleges) stifled and redirected racial protest and pushes for integration. The focus here is on Franklin D. Murphy, the chancellor of UCLA, who tried to advance greater racial equity and received great bureaucratic resistance.

The more well-known story of the University of Mississippi and James Meredith’s enrollment is in Chapter 4. Cole explains, though, that Chancellor John Davis Williams’ formal authority during the event was quite limited. Chapters 5 examines integration at the University of Alabama, which happened without widespread violence thanks to efforts by President Frank Rose, who leaned on relationships with white business leaders, alumni, and political figures. Princeton President Frank Goheen navigated racial integration through debates about free speech. Goheen pushed for racial justice changes at the New Jersey university. In Chapter 7, Cole studies Fred Harvey Harrington, who used his leadership at the University of Wisconsin to promote racial integration without making deeper changes towards integration and equity. Instead, UW focused its efforts on securing. foundation dollars and positive press. They were not the only white university to adopt that strategy.

Cole is judicious in his assessments. This is not a book about the overall impact of all the presidents. It is a study of the relationships between institutions of higher education, their leaders, and the struggle for racial justice. Like all good history, the scholarship reveals complexity. It does not simplify. This is appropriate, for the interplay between academia and racial reform was complicated. The difficulties, struggles and fights during the two decades further highlights the great extent to which academia and white hegemony were and remain intertwined. White supremacy in certain ways has defined higher education, both within the college campus, as well as in local and larger communities. Cole rightly observes that many of these challenges “remain prevalent today.”

The Campus Color Line outlines the struggles and the opportunities that presidents and chancellors experienced in using their institutions and political and academic capital for justice and the common good. Leading an institution is tremendous responsibility. It is demanding and complicated work. Accompanying those operational demands are obligations – moral, social, and societal – institutions of higher education are driven by values. We have higher expectations for colleges and universities. Cole stresses that college presidents “have an obligation to speak out and act against racial injustice.” I strongly agree with him. Being a college president is more than managing; it is directional and aspirational. Cole’s work goes far, I believe, in demonstrating just how important it is that academic leadership steers towards social justice.

David Potash

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