Race, Class, Power and Privilege

How should higher education respond to systemic inequities?

February 25, 2021

Perhaps you read a recent article in The New York Times that detailed a controversy at Smith College involving many of the hot-button issues of our time: race, class, power and privilege.

It is a piece perfectly designed to infuriate liberal and conservative readers alike. Its overarching theme speaks to our historical moment: that the beneficiaries of privilege are wholly blind to their advantages and condescending toward those with less power. And far too often, their superiors do nothing to push back.

The piece also plays to a certain generational prejudice: that students at elite schools (and younger employees at elite companies, including The New York Times) feel emboldened, empowered and entitled in ways that are upending a host of values that their seniors hold dear, such as a sharp journalistic separation of news and opinion.

Then there are other “dog whistles”: how social media amplifies complaints and intensifies passions, prompting administrators to respond before they’ve had a chance to carefully investigate a campus issue, and how outside groups quickly weigh in and pile on campus incidents, transforming a local controversy into a cause célèbre.

I’m as susceptible to such emotional appeals as the next reader, and it’s hard not to respond like one of Pavlov’s dogs to the portraits of hyperprivileged students, supplicant administrators, thought police and mandatory re-education programs.

Thus, it came as a bit of a shock to realize that the Times article involves an incident that occurred in 2018.

I do wish the news media offered follow-up pieces that provide retrospective update on past incidents. From my point of view, it certainly makes sense for involved parties to publicly state how they’d handle such an incident differently today, spelling out the lessons that they learned.

But I write not to weigh in on the Smith controversy, but to reflect on more pressing issues involving inequality and privilege.

Much as Hollywood tends to reduce social and political issues to personal melodrama, there’s a tendency among journalists to personalize academic inequities and to focus on individual incidents rather than on systemic problems.

  • That the business model of all too many selective institutions depends on admitting large numbers of full-pay or near-full-pay students, including, at public institutions, international students and out-of-state students.
  • That to encourage more affluent students to enroll, many of these institutions take steps that conflict with their academic mission: overemphasizing sports that attract students from wealthier backgrounds, favoring study abroad programs that only more affluent students can afford, tolerating (or even promoting) a party atmosphere and Greek life, and expanding the number of undemanding academic programs.
  • That certain “implicit biases” discourage these institutions from admitting substantially more community college transfer students.
  • That many institutions “balance” their interest in inclusion with other values, especially their reputation and selectivity.

Despite half a century of expressed commitment to diversity, racial inequity pervades higher education, with students of color grossly underrepresented at flagship campuses and highly concentrated in the least resourced institutions.

We know what needs to be done. We need to:

  • Fund the institutions that serve low-income students more equitably.
  • Significantly strengthen advising for lower-income students in high schools, community colleges and four-year institutions.
  • Expand pre-college programs to better prepare underprivileged students for success at highly selective institutions, while enhancing discipline- and skills-specific learning centers and supplemental instruction.
  • Institute more equitable admissions policies that recognize that talent is far more widely distributed than current practice recognizes.
  • Make transfer more seamless.
  • Take steps to ensure that campus life is more inclusive, for example, by expanding access to intramural athletics and participation in extracurriculars and perhaps by abolishing fraternities and sororities.

If there’s any lesson that we ought to take away from last summer’s protests, it’s that systemic inequalities are first and foremost a matter of policy and practice, not of mind-sets or even of values and culture.

There are a number of steps we can take to address inequities on a campus level:

  • We can conduct an equity audit, looking closely at gaps in grading and participation in majors, and whether whole groups of students find themselves closed out of particular fields of study.
  • Rather than mandating more and more graduation requirements, we can do more to integrate essential content, competencies and skills (including awareness of cultural inequalities) in as many classes as possible.
  • We must ensure that many more students engage in high-impact, educationally purposive activities and in more engagement and co-curricular activities.
  • We should pressure our four-year campuses to better connect with high schools and community colleges, more aggressively recruit a diverse student body, offer bridge programs, and expand opportunity and undergraduate research and mentoring programs.

But equity at scale requires action at the metropolitan, regional, state and national levels.

Years ago, the historians Arthur Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. argued that American history flows in cycles, alternating between period of activism, idealism and reform, and seasons of cynicism, drift and irresponsibility, between eras committed to public purpose and those devoted to private interests.

We may well have entered another era of aspiration, social concern and reform.

If higher education’s democratic promise is to be realized, this will require us to reverse the trend that has gathered steam since the late 1970s: the increasing stratification of the higher education ecosystem, in which disparities in institutional resources, admissions selectivity, student preparation, student-faculty ratios and spending on instruction and student support have reached unprecedented levels.

The bifurcated realities of contemporary American higher ed will likely prove to be politically unsustainable. The heavy reliance on part-time adjuncts, the disparities in the treatment of professors and professional staff, and especially the huge gaps in per-student funding across institutions has already prompted a counterreaction.

Heed the words of Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” The history of higher education has allowed each institution to rest on its own bottom. But I suspect that in the years ahead the most advantaged institutions will be required to give back and share their wealth and privilege.

To paraphrase another biblical verse, a higher educational landscape checkered with deep divisions cannot stand.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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