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Higher Education’s ‘White Power’

President of higher ed research group documents white dominance in the academy and urges scholars to use their work to help disenfranchised people.

November 10, 2017
 
A slide from Shaun Harper's ASHE presentation

HOUSTON -- Shaun R. Harper has not been shy in recent months about calling out racism where he sees it in the academy. In August he told faculty at the University of Virginia that the white supremacists who had marched on the campus and in the city of Charlottesville with tiki torches days earlier were not the only ones in town. “Many more work and attend school here,” he said.

And in September he told a group of admissions officers that it “would be nice if a mostly white professional association and its members more powerfully, more responsibly and more loudly advocated for racial justice on behalf of those who don't have the resources that they deserve in high schools across our nation.”

Harper, a professor at the University of Southern California's school of education and executive director for the university's Race and Equity Center, turned it up a few notches Thursday in his presidential address at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

Taking the stage as Kanye West's "Power" pulsed in the background, Harper said he felt obliged -- to relatives in the impoverished rural Georgia town where he grew up, among other people -- to use his platform as a highly visible scholar and president of the association to "try to ignite a paradigmatic shift in the study of higher education" and to identify white power "in academia and even, yes, in the study of higher education."

Harper dispassionately documented the ways in which he believes American higher education was historically and continues to be dominated by "white power" -- architecturally, compositionally, curricularly and editorially.

It was “racist and exclusive from the start,” he said, conceived when African-Americans were enslaved and Native Americans were being slaughtered. “White people determined what a university is, what its culture will be, how it will be arranged.”

Compositionally, it “remains an overwhelmingly white profession,” and given that reality, “it is white people who get to determine who gains access, how many of us are let in. It is white people who determine the metrics of deservingness to have a seat at the table.”

Curricularly, white supremacy is evident in fact that white people "determine what is worthy of being taught and learned," and "whose voices are legitimized."

And "the leading journals in our field are led and edited by white people," Harper said. "They work hard, and they are good citizens of our field. They are also really powerful. They have the power to determine relevance and rigor in what is published."

The Kanye West song contains the line “no one man should have all that power.” “No one racial group should have this much power and this much of a stronghold on an enterprise,” Harper said.

The implications of that concentration of power are significant because of the ways those in power acculturate and socialize those who enter the profession.

The mostly white faculty "pass on certain norms and expectations and patterns" to the graduate students they train, and the socialization norms, Harper argued, "have a hypnotizing effect on people of color," discouraging them from being too "flashy" or "loud," from writing about topics they perceive as being "too narrow" or from using their scholarship to advocate for underrepresented or disadvantaged groups.

With the world "on fire" now, Harper said, citing mass shootings, sexual harassment and attacks on immigrants, this is not a time when scholars can or should sit back and "write stupid, pointless, unimportant papers," Harper said.

"I have too much power to do that," he said. Researchers like those in the audience need to "do a better job for the people, upholding our commitment to the statement of purpose that brought us to the study of higher education … The world needs us to ask better questions."

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