Growing Black Ivy: Columbia Conference Explores Black Presence at Elite Schools

By Roach, Ronald | Black Issues in Higher Education, November 18, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Growing Black Ivy: Columbia Conference Explores Black Presence at Elite Schools


Roach, Ronald, Black Issues in Higher Education


NEW YORK

One of the many education access struggles waged by African Americans since the U.S. Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board decision has proven to be one over Black representation at the eight Ivy League universities. Relating both the Brown legacy and the challenges to affirmative action to the recent history of Blacks in the Ivy League, the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University last month convened "The Black Presence in the Ivy League Conference: Where Do We Go From Here?"

The two-day conference held on the Columbia University campus drew about 200 people to several lively panel discussions and roundtable forums that provided a retrospective on Blacks in the Ivy League and took a sobering look at the unique challenges Blacks confront at the Ivies and other elite institutions. The Black Ivy Alumni League, an advocacy organization representing alumni of the eight Ivy League schools, was one of the conference sponsors. Conference highlights included a keynote address by Emory University provost Dr. Earl Lewis and panel sessions on topics, such as Black studies, affirmative action, and recruitment and retention of Black faculty at the Ivies.

"While the Brown decision did not directly impact upon private, elite institutions, the 50th anniversary affords us the opportunity to assess the progress of racial integration in all aspects of our society," said Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, the IRAAS director and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia.

Among the clearest messages to come through during the conference was that while Ivy League schools acted decisively in the 1960s and 1970s, partly in response to Black student activism, to boost Black student admissions and faculty hires, as well as offer Black studies, little to no progress in either of these areas has occurred since the early 1980s. Some scholars noted that challenges to affirmative action have weakened the practice of it as a means to ensure significant Black representation in elite schools.

"Our Black student numbers have remained almost fairly constant at Cornell" since 1980 while the shares of undergraduate seats going to Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic students have grown significantly, according to Dr. Robert Harris, the vice provost for diversity and faculty diversity at Cornell University.

Lewis said that Black students are slightly more than 6 percent of the undergraduate population at the eight schools comprising the Ivy League--Brown University, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University.

He noted that in 1980 Blacks were 6 percent of the Ivy undergraduate population. Black faculty numbers remain quite low at the Ivy League schools, Harris and other speakers contended. "We basically hire from each other," with the numbers of underrepresented minorities graduating from Ivy League Ph.D. programs and getting hired as junior faculty being low, according to Harris.

Renown legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw called upon African Americans affiliated with elite, highly selective schools to mount a more vigorous defense of affirmative action than what its advocates have managed while countering the legal challenges that resulted in the Michigan cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. She also said that Blacks have to demand more accountability from their allies on the affirmative action issue.

"We're overly cautious. We don't tell the story of the benefits affirmative action has had on American society ... It's been enormously successful as a social policy," Crenshaw told a rapt audience during the plenary session, entitled, "Where Do We Go From Here? Moving Blackward into the Future."

THE ENDURING STRUGGLE

Emory's Lewis, who recently became provost at the Atlanta-based school, told the audience that elite institutions have an obligation to help further the cause of American democracy by being diverse and inclusive.

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