This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.
Any debate about critical race theory in America can feel so pointless because it’s generally subject to shape-shifting, bad faith, misunderstanding, and competing definitions.
It’s become the type of topic that gets much attention but little actual illumination. Are we talking about the actual legal ideas of Derrick Bell, the Harvard law scholar who laid the groundwork for this theory? Or are we shifting to make it mean any uncomfortable teaching about race in America?
Mississippi is one of the latest states to take up legislation to ban the teaching of critical race theory. The Republican lawmaker who proposed the bill that was passed by the state senate in January said all it would do “is prohibit a child or a student from being told they are inferior to another.”
Yet, he conceded that he couldn’t point to even one instance of critical race theory being taught in Mississippi.
Well, turns out there is one — and Molly Minta, our reporter at our partner Mississippi Today, took readers inside that single class, telling the story of what happened to one white conservative student who enrolled.
Brittany Murphree, as Molly reports, grew up in Rankin County, one of the most Republican counties in one of the most Republican states. Before she started law school at the University of Mississippi, she was the president of her high school’s Teenage Republicans chapter, interned for the governor, and even voted for Donald Trump one time.
So when she told her dad that she was taking “Law 743: Critical Race Theory” this semester, he responded with mostly contempt: “Why would you take that class? It’s the most ridiculous concept.”
Murphree, though, thought this was the type of opportunity she would only get in law school.
“I’m either gonna completely agree with this, or I’m gonna be able to say, ‘No, this class is terrible,’” she told her friends. “The best way to have an opinion about this class is literally to take it.”
This semester, Murphree is one of four white students in the 13-person class (Mississippi’s law school is 74 percent white overall). And almost immediately, the course proved to be a revelation for her. Derrick Bell’s ideas were more complicated than she understood. Calling the theory Marxist misunderstands its origins. And it can be used to critique the thinking of Black civil rights attorneys just as much as white people.
So after just two weeks of the class, she was dismayed to learn that the state legislators were considering a bill to ban the discussion of critical race theory in Mississippi schools and universities.
“Why are they so fearful of people just theorizing and just thinking,” she thought. “We’re not going to turn into, like, communists. Y’all chill out.”
She was so frustrated she wrote a scathing, heart-felt letter to the 27 members of the Mississippi House Education Committee — even though it may end any dreams of working in local Republican politics.
“To date, this course has been the most impactful and enlightening course I have taken throughout my entire undergraduate career and graduate education at the State of Mississippi’s flagship university. …The prohibition of courses and teachings such as these is taking away the opportunity for people from every background and race to come together and discuss very important topics which would otherwise go undiscussed.”
Teaching critical race theory isn’t the problem, she told them. It may even be the solution.
+ Molly’s story: Inside Mississippi’s only class on critical race theory
++ A great episode of WNYC’s The United States of Anxiety last year explored The True Story of Critical Race Theory with Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker.
An Expanded Board
We’re thrilled to welcome LaSharah Bunting, Amy Kovac-Ashley, and Arlene Notoro Morgan to the Open Campus Board of Directors.
Our three new board members are experienced leaders in journalism, education, and philanthropy:
- Bunting — a media executive with nearly 20 years in journalism, including at the Knight Foundation and The New York Times — is vice president and executive editor at Simon & Schuster.
- Kovac-Ashley works with local innovators in newsrooms across the country as executive vice president & chief of news transformation at the American Press Institute— where she oversees grant-funded projects and its work on workplace culture; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and community listening and engagement.
- Morgan — a long-time journalist and educator, including at The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism — is now assistant dean for external affairs at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication.
They join Scott Smallwood and Ted Weidlein — a long-time executive and editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Chronicle of Philanthropy — on the board. We’re grateful to have their expertise and insights as we move into our next stage of growth.
Elsewhere on Open Campus
Colorado lawmakers may waive college tuition for foster youth In Colorado, only 1 out of 10 kids in foster care age 13 or older enter college by the time they turn 21. Those students struggle to pay for college while supporting themselves without the safety net other students can count on.
Also in Colorado: Colorado wants residents connected to high-paying jobs. It will need more than one-time funding. State planners hope the federal pandemic relief money can help retrain residents who lost their jobs and put high-wage jobs within reach of a diverse cross section of Coloradans.
In Northeast Ohio: University of Akron and its city form new group to advance cooperation. “The city and the university are intertwined at many levels,” the mayor said, “and the future of our region depends on each of us thriving.” (Read Amy’s previous coverage about town-gown tensions in Akron.)
In Mississippi: Mississippi universities got millions in pandemic relief. It’s hard to know how they spent it. Mississippi’s eight public universities received $508 million from the federal government. Nearly two years later, it’s hard to get a clear picture of what the universities did with those dollars.
In The Job: The growth of apprenticeships. In the United States, the gold standard for this model is career-connected learning where students can earn credits toward a college degree.
In Work Shift: New federal program extends training and ‘a compass’ to small business owners. The Small Business Administration is investing in more support and training for minority entrepreneurs and businesses in underserved communities.
In latitude(s): Green-card exemptions for Ph.D. graduates in science and math. A U.S. House bill aimed at boosting American competitiveness would exempt STEM Ph.D. graduates from limits on immigrant visas.
Come Be Our Operations Manager
We’re hiring an operations manager to support the day-to-day functioning of our far-flung and growing team — national reporters, local network reporters, partner newsrooms, and fundraising staff. You’ll become the point person for our finance and human resources matters, playing a key role as we grow from a small startup into a more mature organization.
This is a full-time job, with a starting annual salary of $65,000. Learn more, and apply, here.
Keep in Touch
Please share. Forward this newsletter to colleagues, family, and friends who might be interested. They can sign up for their own copy here.
Sign up for our free newsletters. Get regular insights from our expert reporters on critical issues in higher ed. Sign up here.
Support our journalism. Here’s where to donate.
Work with us. Apply to be our operations manager.
Run a newsroom and want to improve your coverage of higher ed? Let’s talk.
Got a story tip or a question? Please send it along.