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The weight of being ‘the first’

The New School President Dwight McBride greets students. Photo Credit: New School
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Welcome to The Intersection! I’m Naomi Harris, and this is my Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. If you’re new, make sure to sign up for future editions!


Teaching while Black

What is it like to be the first of your race to be in a position? A journal called Public Seminar, focusing on culture and politics, published a collection of essays and interviews by Black academics that explore the various experiences of professors and administrators in the field of higher education earlier this spring.

The series came together, in part, after the events of summer 2020 in which Black faculty openly shared with colleagues about their own experiences.

Claire Potter, co-executive editor of Public Seminar, said that the personal essays can help advance understanding of how race is experienced, especially within the field of higher education.

“There was just a recurring theme of colleagues bravely pushing back against daily racism, and the ways in which African American colleagues are continually having to navigate everything that’s difficult about being a college professor,” Potter said, “but on top of that, navigate year after year, the sort of recurring frustrations, stumbling blocks and barriers to success that racism creates.”

I talked with Dwight McBride, president of the New School and a contributor to the collection, to hear how administrators of color navigate white-dominated spaces and how universities can offer better support for educators like him.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

You’ve talked about being the first. Can you expand on this idea and how it relates to your experiences in higher education?

There’s no great joy in being the first, right? I don’t take pride in that. I don’t. In fact, I think if anything, it should be a reminder to us of just how much progress we still need to be making. I became the first African American president to lead the New School in 2020. I became the second African American, and the first openly gay Black man, to be the provost at Emory in 2017. It was in 2010 that I became the first African American dean to lead the graduate school at Northwestern University.

For me, that’s a part of the evidence that says we have real work to do in an institutional context where we are still achieving Black firsts. I want to be a part of the solution of that work. I’m not just complaining about it. That’s why, for me, this program that we run, the Academic Leadership Institute, is so important. It’s so close to my heart. Because it’s a program designed specifically to help those colleagues in mid-level leadership, deans, vice provosts — people who have been long serving who might be ready to step up to the positions of provost or president in a variety of institutional contexts. Individually, we were doing so much mentoring and working with people who, because we were visible, people would reach out and say look, I’m thinking and I’ve been asked about this position or the other position. We were doing a lot of this in a kind of ad hoc way so we thought: Is there a better way to do this that also builds a network?

How do you balance the celebration you may receive from those who feel they are finally being represented in a position of power while also tackling a very white-dominated culture?

One of the things I think that is really important is to think about what the alternative is — and that’s the way I keep going. The alternative is to not step up to the roles, to not be a part of the change that we know needs to happen. I don’t mean this casually or hyperbolically. We’re absolutely certain — and our demographics show us — that our country is already looking and will continue to look very different than it did 50 years ago.

I’ve never been a quitter in that regard. As a result, I’m not one that likes to admit defeat. I want to be a part of that change. I want to be a part of building those solutions. That’s what motivates me, and keeps me going even in those moments, some of which I talked about in the article, that challenge your legitimacy — that challenge your intellect. One of the things that I have always responded badly to, even as a child, is being underestimated. It’s a hard thing to respond badly to, if you exist in this body in America, because you are constantly underestimated. That’s been the case throughout much of my own experiences. But I’m happy to say that in most instances, that’s only happened once with most people because soon they come to understand that I do have some things to offer. I do have some value that I bring to the table.

What should Black administrators consider when it comes to understanding how to shift and change the culture while also still having to live in the culture?

One of the keys to this work is that you can’t do it alone. If you don’t have colleagues in your institutional context where you find yourself, I think it’s important to build a network of people with whom you can have those conversations. I’ve done that over time. There was a group of presidents we call ourselves COVID presidents, people who became president during the early days of COVID. I started my tenure in March 2020. There’s this informal group of us. We text each other, we support one another, we create and hold space for vulnerability and candor with each other. These are hard jobs for anyone. You add to that, the challenges of being a first, it’s really important to be able to talk to other people who are having or who have had that experience.

If you don’t have people who can reflect back to you what you’re seeing and what you’re experiencing, and who can help you to navigate some of that work, this can be lonely. There are no other presidents on the campus, right? You have to create a network of people that you trust, who support you, and who will be there for you as well.

What can colleges and universities do in order to bring about true change when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion? What types of conversations should be held?

For me, when I think about inclusion, I don’t think about it just as a challenge — something that we have to overcome or something we need. But I think about it as an opportunity. If we think about it through that lens, the biggest challenge is that people have to get out of the mentality of thinking of it as something we will achieve and then we’ll be able to move on and we can tick off the box. That’s not the way this works. You don’t take 400 years of white supremacy in this country and the cultural logics that undergird it, and the institutions that have been born out of it, you don’t take 400 years of that and wipe it away with some programs and with some training.

We have to also be committed to this work for the long term. It’s enduring. It’s work that we have to be ever vigilant about.

The challenges Native students face

Amia Roach-Valandra, a member of Sičangu Lakota tribe in South Dakota, just finished her first year at USC. Photo: Tara Weston

What can get in the way of college? What challenges do students face, especially students of color?

Charlotte West, my Open Campus colleague, dived into the experiences of Native students, who historically are less likely to go to college than their peers. In the pandemic, it became even harder for Native students: 19 percent fewer first year Native students enrolled in college in fall 2021 compared with fall 2019.

Charlotte talked with students like Amia Roach-Valandra, an 18-year-old member of the Sičangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) tribe and freshman at the University of Southern California.

Amia told Charlotte she wanted to encourage other students like her to not give up on school, even when challenges crop up.

“In my college essay, I wrote about growing up on the reservation, how you don’t really see many students going off to college. And I wanted to set that example for Native youth, just for them to have someone that actually made it out and got a degree and was able to come back and help the community,” Amia says. Check out the full story.

Tess Kazenoff, a freelance journalist who’s graduating this spring from California State University Long Beach, also contributed a companion piece. Her story focuses on sports as an important, and under-used, path to college for Native students. You can read her story here.

Studies show that male Latino and Black high school seniors are less likely to want to go to college than before the pandemic, with the percentage saying they planned to go declining over the past three years. Check out the story by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed.

Figuring out the true cost of college is complicated. For those who rely primarily on school guidance or other limited options, especially first-generation students and students from low-income backgrounds, getting to the true price of college can be even harder. Students and families tend to get overwhelmed with the overall price of college — without the additional financial aid — but advocates and experts are trying to help more students access higher education. Read the story by Olivia Sanchez at The Hechinger Report.

Thanks for reading!

I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips or perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at naomi@opencampusmedia.org.

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