Race Discrimination in Public Higher Education: Interpreting Federal Civil Rights Enforcement, 1964-1996

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Race Discrimination in Public Higher Education: Interpreting Federal Civil Rights Enforcement, 1964-1996

John B. Williams. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 1997, 203 pp., $23.75

ALTHOUGH I SOMETIMES APPROACH books about law that are written by nonlawyers with some trepidation, Race Discrimination in Public Higher Education by John B. Williams, professor of education at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, explains convincingly why desegregation in public higher education has been such a dismal failure.

Some less informed observers might attribute segregation in the university systems that Williams analyzes-in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana-to the long-standing existence of and support for historically black colleges and universities (which Williams refers to as TBIs, or traditionally black institutions). Williams shows that such an explanation is too facile. The reality of discrimination in public higher education is characterized by the concerted efforts of state and university officials to perpetuate inequities, disregard judicial mandates, and obfuscate issues when required to explain continuing patterns of segregation.

In his case study of Georgia's university system, Williams describes its administrators' misguided assumption that they had limited authority to act against segregation; their reliance on allegedly uncontrollable external factors as an excuse for doing little to eradicate segregation; their mistaken position that state policies unrelated to desegregation, such as increasing enrollments of white students in all institutions, were responsive to civil rights concerns; and their deliberate decisions to minimize compliance or to perpetuate noncompliance. Moreover, the refusals of several governors to fund the universities' requests for capital necessary for desegregation constantly shifted accountability from one state entity to another.

In his analysis of Mississippi's system, Williams focuses on the implementation of the Supreme Court's 1992 decision in United States v. Fordice. The Court held that a state is required to eliminate the present effects of discrimination if these effects can be traced to its prior system of segregation, are without some educational justification, and could in fact be eliminated. Notwithstanding the Court's edict, Williams argues that Mississippi's system of higher education continued to be segregated because of different policies for undergraduate admissions at TBIs, on the one hand, and traditionally white institutions, on the other; duplicative academic programs at these two types of institutions; unequal funding for landgrant programs; and unequal library resources and monies for equipment of every sort.

Williams's analyses of the university systems in Alabama and Louisiana are not as detailed as his examination of the systems in Georgia and Mississippi, but he highlights deficiencies in Alabama (for example, inequities in funding and physical facilities) and also reports one of the more outrageous and perhaps little known facts about Louisiana State University: it awarded most of its fifty-- four minority scholarships to white students over a two-year period.

Williams does not spare the federal government from criticism, as he discusses the reasons for federal inaction and lack of oversight by the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education (formerly, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. …