The PEN Pod: On Campus Free Speech and Devalued Black Lives with Eddie Cole
Eddie Cole is an associate professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles. His new book, The Campus Color Line, focuses on the history of the role that college presidents played during the fight for racial equity from 1948 to 1968. Cole joined us on The PEN Pod, in conversation with Jonathan Friedman, program director for campus free speech at PEN America, to discuss college presidents’ central role in shaping racial policies in America, the contradictions in university administrators’ speeches and actions regarding Black communities, and how historical books can provide insight into the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Eddie is up until the 18:31 mark).
I thought I’d start just by asking you to tell us a little bit about the book. What’s important to know about the role of college presidents in the ’50s and ’60s?
That’s a great opening. Ultimately, the book is a history of the Black freedom movement as seen through the actions of college presidents. It’s important to know that the book is national in scope—what I call a national cohort of college presidents—so that gives a variety of institutional types within the book. We’re talking about our traditional, predominantly white institutions, the segregated, all-white institutions in the South, but also historically Black colleges. You’ve got your private and public institutions that range from coast to coast. In the process of this book and understanding the role of college presidents, I went from the Northeast across the Midwest out here to the West Coast, and then through the South. Ultimately, what I’ve found while creating the book is that college presidents were critical actors in shaping racial policies and practices in America. So, academic leaders in the ’50s and ’60s took on an incredible amount of importance in postwar America as elected officials—both on the state level and federal level—as well as business leaders started to lean heavily on college presidents to help them address the nation’s racial problems; as, globally, the United States started having issues trying to push this message of democracy, when it had the blatant hypocrisy of racial segregation.
Is there a lot of difference across the types of institutions?
Yeah, absolutely. In the book, you have a chance to engage with Ivy League campuses, the major Midwest—the big universities across the Midwest—you get out to the West Coast. What’s really interesting—myself at UCLA, at the time that I’m studying at UCLA—it wasn’t nearly the university that it is today. That gives a nice bit of flavor, too. When you think about the Black freedom movement and academic leadership, at the time UCLA has less than 200 students who reside on campus. It’s largely a commuter campus, with aspirations of building out into a campus more similar to how Berkeley was at the time. So, it is pretty interesting when you get this flavor of regional colleges, large universities, private, and public. One of the things that I’m most proud about in the book is that, regardless of your engagement with higher education, if you even somewhat loosely follow higher education, you will find an institution that you’re familiar with and perhaps have an experience with. It’s not just the usual major players featured in the book.
“Think of the California system—there’s a University of California system, there’s a California State University system, and then there’s a two-year community college system. What kind of barriers are in place around who gets into what system? There’s this social hierarchy that still exists today around these different university systems. We know this, but my book really gets into how they came to be. That’s just a few of the ways that my book adds to this narrative that shows that, yes, there is this expansion of opportunity and diversity in higher education, but also there are a lot of failed attempts along the way that we haven’t quite lived up to.”
There’s this standard narrative of how higher education expands and how opportunity becomes more diverse in the second half of the 20th century. I’d be curious to know what your book adds to that narrative.
The book builds upon or intervenes with, obviously, tons of previous historians’ work. I’m thinking about James Anderson’s Education of Blacks in the South that follows Black education opportunities post-slavery, through Reconstruction, and into the early 1900s. Vanessa Siddle Walker, a historian at Emory University, has done a phenomenal body of work around Black educational leaders. Also, histories that have focused more on contemporary timeframes of the higher education level—I’m thinking of Stefan Bradley, who was at Loyola Marymount out here in Los Angeles County, and who has done phenomenal work—Harlem vs. Columbia is one of his first books, but also Upending the Ivory Tower; Ibram X. Kendi—they’ve all done these phenomenal higher-education histories that I’ve engaged with.
Ultimately, what my book adds to that narrative is it gets into the administrative standpoint of what’s going on in higher education history. So, what I always like to tell people is that we’ve all got some familiarity with the 1960s and the 1950s, and student protests, and student activism. Oftentimes, in all of these histories, college presidents make a cameo, as I like to say. They make an appearance, and it’s usually framed 100 percent as how did the administration, how did college presidents respond to student activism, which is a very important take—it’s a very important perspective to have when writing from the perspective of student activists. But I flip the perspective around, if you will, and look at administrators, and not only at how they responded to student activism—I move beyond the point of responses—but also at how they were actually rather proactive in shaping so many different aspects of American life that we don’t typically think about.
For instance, in the book I talk about urban renewal in the process of housing discrimination in major cities across the United States—that comes out of the University of Chicago administrative leaders rallying other college presidents together to actually lobby before the Congress for federal funding that went behind the urban renewal programs. We just don’t typically think about individual presidents being the point people in how that unfolded. We know universities disbanded and displaced numerous Black communities throughout America, but just how did they do it? Also, thinking about college presidents and their role in expanding higher education, there’s a caveat with that expansion. Think of the California system—there’s a University of California system, there’s a California State University system, and then there’s a two-year community college system. What kind of barriers are in place around who gets into what system? There’s this social hierarchy that still exists today around these different university systems. We know this, but my book really gets into how they came to be. That’s just a few of the ways that my book adds to this narrative that shows that, yes, there is this expansion of opportunity and diversity in higher education, but also there are a lot of failed attempts along the way that we haven’t quite lived up to. Oftentimes, the narrative portrays this error.
I was going to ask you about that. Thinking about some of the issues in the book that are still issues today, one of the most prominent ones that we’ve seen is the question of free speech on college campuses. It’s interesting to think of how that was an issue in the ’50s and ’60s, the student activists that you’re talking about in the book, and the Black freedom movement. In your head, what’s changed since the conflicts of 50 to 60 years ago? How are they different now?
In many ways, they have and they haven’t changed. Ultimately, I’d say things are the same in the sense that college presidents now are still grappling with how to deal with, say, the traditional white supremacists that disrupt the speech on campus, the potential violence in the public critique of that, and all the things that come with that—even just the pure expense of security. We can see that in headlines today. Also, in a lot of ways, what I noticed in studying college presidents is that what has changed most often—this is probably such a unique takeaway, because I look at free speech before the free speech movement of 1964—what I see in the book, among administrative leadership, is that oftentimes in the ’50s and ’60s, a university president could actually step out on their personal beliefs, in the sense of pushing for free speech but also taking a hard-line stance on how things should change around a speech opportunity.
“Ultimately, I’d say things are the same in the sense that college presidents now are still grappling with how to deal with, say, the traditional white supremacists that disrupt the speech on campus, the potential violence in the public critique of that, and all the things that come with that—even just the pure expense of security.”
Just a little snippet in the book: Some of the segregationist governors in the South really grew in popularity and had their very own speaking tours outside of the South. They were going from Harvard to Yale to Princeton—you name a university, they often showed up. In one particular instance, a college president in the book, I worked through this narrative around how this president used racists coming to campus to speak as an opportunity to actually put behind the university’s talking points some actual actions that supported how the university stood for racial equality. One of the interesting things in the narrative is the president actually goes before the trustees and makes the statement that he was unable to separate his personal beliefs from his role as president. And this is unfolding with Robert Goheen at Princeton University, who is just a fascinating figure on his own, much less in the context of other presidents. So, when you think about that opportunity, you don’t see that as much today.
I often wondered, as I was pulling the book together, how much the contemporary setting of college presidents being so politically connected on such a high level made them strategic and less likely to stand out on their personal beliefs. You see these very canned responses oftentimes from academic leaders today. So, I wonder about the differences between what the position has evolved into compared to what it was in the ’50s and ’60s, most often with someone who was much more closely connected to their previous role as a faculty member. Now you have people who’ve been in administration so long, so many decades before, and it’s quite fascinating.
You recently wrote in The Washington Post that playing football this year would “continue to devalue Black lives.” I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the history of how you see this issue in higher education. Are there college leaders today that you think are addressing the calls for racial equity and justice adequately?
This push for major college football right now is directly connected to what I’ve seen throughout history, in the sense that you see administrative leaders who see a particular moment, and they contradict themselves. What I mean by that is—post the recent police state-sanctioned killings of, say, George Floyd in Minneapolis, or Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky—you saw numerous academic leaders release statements about the value of Black lives on their campuses, and how they stand with citizens and students who are up in arms about these most recent, high-profile killings of unarmed Black people. What you see is, you get that statement on one hand, but then this global pandemic that we are in has a well-documented, disproportionate impact on Black communities in particular.
You see student athletes, such as football where the vast majority of these athletes—we’re talking about 50, 60, 70 percent on some teams—are Black. What does it mean to ask those particular students to come back and participate in a sport that grosses billions of dollars, but they’re unpaid outside of the traditional student athlete stipend? They have to come to campus and run the risk of not only contracting it themselves—even though there’s an argument about how lethal it is for people in that age range—but also, what does it mean for those students to want to go see their family on their weekend off? Or be around friends who may have preexisting conditions, or maybe are more high-risk? Ultimately, what I was arguing is that there’s this historical arc, if you will, where our college presidents have used these particular social moments—we saw it in the 1960s—to coop language similar to what the movement was using, but also still contradicted themselves in behavior, and continued to take actions that would devalue Black lives.
I discuss it in my book, and particularly as we think about affirmative action, and what that initially was planned to look like. The initial affirmative action programs in higher education were focused on Black colleges, not predominantly on a selected number of white institutions around college admissions. So, it is really interesting that in the book I show how colleges came together at that moment and made it very much about their campuses, and we see it right now, again, with major football. I see this moment where, again, the campuses are put before the actual Black lives.
“What I mean by that is—post the recent police state-sanctioned killings of, say, George Floyd in Minneapolis, or Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky—you saw numerous academic leaders release statements about the value of Black lives on their campuses, and how they stand with citizens and students who are up in arms about these most recent, high-profile killings of unarmed Black people. What you see is, you get that statement on one hand, but then this global pandemic that we are in has a well-documented, disproportionate impact on Black communities in particular.”
What are you reading right now?
That is a great question. I never thought I’d become one of those people who are rotating between three books. I’ve got Adom Getachew, a professor at the University of Chicago—her book Worldmaking After Empire is ultimately about imperialism, and it follows the decolonization of Africa. I’ve just been fascinated by the book, and just trying to conceptualize this particular global moment that we’re in, and trying to understand. We have a lot of activists using language around decolonizing the curriculum, but I was also just trying to see it from a national perspective. That book is quite a fascinating piece of work, and it’s definitely worth checking out. And then two other books I have on my shelf—one by Carl Suddler, a historian at Emory University, called Presumed Criminal and published by New York University Press. It’s a quite interesting look at Black youth and policing in New York City after World War II.
If you want to understand this current moment that we’re in right now—any calls for defunding the police or abolishing police—that’s a great book with a historical perspective. It’s so spot on, and scarily, eerily similar. It is connected to today. The final book, revisiting a classic, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America. Again, as we think about right now, as people are making calls to have this sort of racial reckoning on a national scale, Du Bois’s work is just so insightful for understanding how these opportunities—how these moments of social reconstruction—have come before, and how he just tears it apart. It’s just a genius book that is worth revisiting, particularly in this moment as we think about how history has been used strategically in the past, and what it means to do historical work, like I myself do, and think about history in a truth-seeking manner. What does it really mean for us as we try to work toward the present?