Anti-racism on campus: Lessons from a more optimistic past

At the time I was hired at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (UW-Madison) in 1967, the institution regarded itself as a very progressive and liberal university. UW-Madison was proud of its many highly ranked departments, including sociology, economics, history and political science in the liberal arts.

As a new hire, not yet finished with my PhD dissertation, I was given a year off teaching on full pay to complete my dissertation. At the same time, as was the case for almost all new faculty members, I was assigned to a university committee my chairman thought would meet only once a year. Thus, it would not be a burden on my writing. I was to start teaching in the fall of 1968.

The committee I was assigned to, the Committee on Studies and Instructions in Race Relations (also called the Thiede Committee), ironically soon turned out to be one of the most active on campus.

The increased activity was in response to complaints from black graduate students about the lack of Afro-American faculty members; the limited number of black students; and the total lack of courses focused on black history, literature, music, politics and other areas.

The committee took these complaints seriously, meeting with the graduate students, focusing initially on ways to increase black faculty numbers and black students, as well as considering ways to introduce courses on black studies.

Yet, the fact was that in many ways, the discussion of these issues demonstrated that even a liberal-seeming university in the 1960s often operated in ways that furthered racism, even if this was unintended.

The experiences then, which were positive and marked by major progress on the UW-Madison campus – progress we thought would spread around the country – suggest why efforts to end racism in higher education nationally have been so difficult in the more than 50 years since then.

In spite of the recent successes of Black Lives Matter and other broadly supported efforts to end systemic and institutional racism, the challenges on campuses remain almost as difficult now as they were in the 1960s and are perhaps made more difficult by the internet and social media which have generated strong opposition to those efforts.

In many respects the important public realisation of institutionalised racism has made solving the problem more difficult as it has triggered a major negative response, and some state legislators have moved to outlaw teaching about institutional racism which they see hidden in the guise of “critical race theory” or “left-wing anti-Americanism”.

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