In 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement, Emory University desegregated its campus. However, more than 50 years later, the dream of a more equal, diverse community is still a work in progress.
Emory began desegregating its campus following Emory v. Nash (1962), when two of the College’s administrators contested a Georgia law that disincentivized integration by providing tax breaks to exclusively white-only private educational institutions. The administrators would go on to win the lawsuit, and in the following school year, Emory started admitting African American students. “In the long run Emory could never be the truly great national University we all want it to be if it denied admission to qualified students on illogical or irrelevant grounds,” said former University Vice President Judson C. Ward, Jr. at the time.
Nevertheless, simmering campus inequities culminated in widespread protests by Emory’s Black students in 1969. Their demands — except for a few immediate actions by former President Sanford Atwood, including the creation of an African American Studies program — have been implemented slowly over the past six decades.
Regarding faculty diversity, a 2007 study from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education identified Emory as having the highest proportion of Black faculty among top-ranked universities at the time (6.4%). At the time, this must have been encouraging, since the national average for Black faculty makeup is still only around 6% today. Today, just over 9% of faculty members at Emory are Black, which is still higher than the national average. Yet this number remains a glaring reminder that more must be done to achieve equity across higher education.
Specifically, the massive summer protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black individuals forced a racial reckoning at universities, corporations and organizations nationwide. This movement evokes the spirit of the original civil rights movement, which opened the doors to Black students at Emory and other universities across the country. The welcoming of nine Black students to the University in 1963 was a sign of hopeful progress, but Black student activists’ protests in the late 1960s were a stark reminder that Emory was still a homogenous, inequitable place. It still is.
While the proportion of Black students at predominantly white colleges and universities has remained considerably low, Black students and faculty members have been vocal critics of the persistent whiteness in higher education. These are the same voices that repeatedly bring awareness to racism and its detrimental impact on the broader Emory community.
Six years after the Nash decision, the few Black students at Emory took it upon themselves to make their peers and school administrators aware of the racial inequities holding the University back. Finding power in protest, they sought to pave a clearer path toward progress, which the school had hoped to jump-start with its 1963 decision to integrate. The same occurred in 1990, 2015 and 2020. Six years ago, The Coalition of Black Organizations and Clubs presented demands in response to contemporary acts of racism, particularly police brutality. Black students’ need to continue protesting and drafting demands to the administration indicates that racism is still deeply ingrained in higher education. The most recent set of demands from Black Emory student organizations and anecdotes shared on social media pages, like the @BlackatEmory Instagram page, indicate the need for more decisive action from University leaders in addressing bias toward Black students on campus, the treatment of Black clubs and organizations and the role and power of the Emory Police Department (EPD).
Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute, noted that the University’s response to this past summer’s protests must be a continuing and active effort.
“This challenge demands an ongoing response and also demands a regular check-in,” Gillespie said. “So, if Black students and other students of color are complaining of a hostile climate in 2015 and they are still complaining about it in 2020 and 2021, that is evidence that there is some more work to be done.”
Gillespie is confident that the implementation of the race and ethnicity general education requirement and faculty endorsement of the requirement are signs that meaningful change has begun.
“The faculty support of instituting that GER is a sign of progress, but we now have to look at how it gets implemented, what kinds of courses people take,” she said. “We want to look to see how students are influenced by those courses.”
Though it took five years to materialize, this new GER is a model for future anti-racism policy at Emory. It arose based on input from faculty, students and administrators, is a sustainable idea and, most importantly, should successfully push students to engage critically with race and ethnicity. But rather than an excuse to pat ourselves on the back, that success should instead be an inspiration, a guide for future change.
The challenges brought to the fore by this summer’s protests do not exclusively affect students. The inequities also extend to faculty and staff, namely in hiring and workplace treatment. The summer #BlackintheIvory trend provided Black academics a space to share their experiences of racism and prejudice at predominantly white colleges and universities. Their stories, detailing microaggressions, biased tenure processes and more, illuminated the need for immediate, aggressive action to combat racism at the faculty level. Despite Emory’s strong track record for faculty diversity relative to peer institutions, the number of underrepresented minorities among faculty is still far too low.
Last fall, a Wheel investigation by Executive Editor Isaiah Poritz also revealed rampant racism in the University’s treatment of its Campus Services staff, 63% of whom are Black. Higher-level administrators forced employees to work double shifts during the pandemic without overtime or hazard pay, and Emory has failed to mandate COVID-19 testing, making it harder for employees to be regularly tested. They routinely chose outside hires over current staff when promotion opportunities arose, enforced unrealistic performance standards and marginalized female and Black staff. Such blatant discrimination and toxicity indicate that the University’s problems extend far beyond its faculty — for Black, Indigenous, people of color as well as women, Emory isn’t an equitable workplace.
Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law Dorothy Brown acknowledged the work Emory must still do to advance inclusion and address racism among faculty and throughout the University.
“[Emory Law] is still a difficult place for this black law faculty member over a decade later,” Brown wrote in an email to the Wheel. “But moving beyond the law school, if Emory University is to make progress, Emory must be prepared to face some uncomfortable truths.”
One of these, Brown noted, is “learn[ing] how to walk the talk.”
“Accountability is key, and in my experience Emory does not like holding people accountable for their anti-inclusive actions,” she wrote.
Emory administrators should consider plausible solutions to rectify these disparities, such as revisiting strategies for faculty and staff recruitment and hiring, which could increase the diversity of the University’s professors. Cluster hiring, the practice of hiring employees in groups that match a particular academic or demographic need, is one elegant solution that many universities, Emory included, have used to great success in the past. The Emory History Department recently used cluster hiring to find several professors specializing in racial inequality, such as Assistant Professor Maria Montalvo.
Another method would be to modify Emory’s tenure process. Currently, professors are tenured on the basis of four metrics: research, teaching, service and advising. Yet these guidelines ignore a plethora of unique experiences, backgrounds, ideas and skills that may greatly benefit individual departments and the University as a whole. To solve this problem, administrators should convene a panel of faculty, deans and students from throughout Emory’s various schools to recommend a more holistic, inclusive tenure process.
We are not so naive as to think Emory administrators can heal the disease of racism with cluster hiring and tenure modification. These are band-aids. To achieve true and lasting equity, University heads, politicians and voters must address the disparities between Black and white children long before they enroll in college. However, this doesn’t preclude us from identifying the continuing impact of racism and racial inequity in higher education.
“1963” is a stepping stone to giving marginalized communities at Emory a voice and an effort to detail the history that has created the community in which we share today. It is a reminder that the University’s leaders must take more active steps to address the demands of Black, Indigenous and people of color. If the events of 1963 taught us anything, it’s that change is possible, not promised. Making it happen is on us.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Sahar Al-Gazzali, Brammhi Balarajan, Viviana Barreto, Rachel Broun, Jake Busch, Sara Khan, Sophia Ling, Demetrios Mammas, Meredith McKelvey, Sara Perez, Ben Thomas, Leah Woldai, Lynnea Zhang and Yun Zhu.
This article is one part of “1963,” an investigative opinion project. Read the rest here.
Correction (2/16/21 at 12:25 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that the Emory History Department welcomed Assistant Professor Maria Montalvo and several other Latinx professors via a cluster hire. In fact, the cluster hire through which she arrived sought faculty focused on racial inequality, and the three professors who arrived via that process are Latina, Black and Asian American, respectively.