Book sheds light on college presidents’ struggle for racial parity


“The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom’’ by Eddie R. Cole. Princeton University Press. 358 pages. $35.


In his commencement address at the Georgia State College of Business in 1961, John D. Williams, chancellor of the University of Mississippi, told graduates, “If you want to live with self-respect and lie down at night with a quiet conscience, dismiss from your minds forever the idea that you can have one code of decency for the office and another for your private life.”

A year later, when a U.S. District Court ordered the University of Mississippi to enroll James Meredith as a student, Williams, a “White moderate” convinced that his first responsibility was to Ole Miss students and faculty, found himself caught between supporters of integration and segregation – “and wondering whether another chancellor had ever had cause to feel such bitterness and anguish.”

Shaping policies

J.D. Williams was scarcely the only college president to be confronted by racial conflict.

In “The Campus Color Line,’’ Eddie Cole, an associate professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles, examines the ethical dilemmas and political pressures academic leaders faced during the 1950s and ‘60s.

Grounded in the assumption that presidents had “an obligation to speak out and act against racial injustice,” “The Campus Color Line’’ analyzes how, for better and worse, they shaped policies inside and outside of their institutions.

Cole focuses on seven presidents: Martin Jenkins, Morgan State University, the only Black in his cohort; George Beadle, University of Chicago; Franklin Murphy, UCLA; Williams; Frank Rose, University of Alabama; Robert Goheen, Princeton University; and Fred Harvey Harrington, University of Wisconsin.  Cole addresses a range of controversies, including desegregation, housing discrimination, and free speech.

Values and strategies

Well-researched (but, unfortunately, not all that well-written), “The Campus Color Line’’ provides a detailed account of the values and strategies of these men.

Cole shows how college presidents, especially Mr. Jenkins, used professional and personal networks, testimony before federal commissions, courts, and legislatures, to promote desegregation. And how academic leaders handled the competing demands of students, faculty, alumni, community members, and elected officials.

Although Cole at times seems unduly influenced by the outcome of events, some of which college presidents did not control, his evaluation of them takes into account the institutional and political context in which they operated.

Credit to Rose

Mr. Goheen’s gradual push to diversify the student body and address discrimination, Cole suggests, was justified by Princeton’s culture and traditions and the large number of undergraduates from the South.

Princeton’s racial make-up would not have changed, he claims, if Goheen had attempted to rescind an invitation to Ross Barnett, Mississippi’s arch segregationist governor, to speak at the university in late 1963.

Cole gives Mr. Rose, who did not believe in racial equality, substantial credit for the relatively peaceful desegregation of the University of Alabama.

Determined to protect his institution’s reputation, Rose, Cole suggests, countered the demagogic threats of Governor George Wallace (to whom he privately expressed appreciation “for the splendid leadership you are giving our state”) by quietly coordinating helpful resolutions from alumni chapters, civic organizations, and business leaders.

‘Institutional-minded interests’

On other occasions, however, Cole implies that commitments to racial justice, pragmatic gradualism, and institutional self-interest are incompatible with one another.

He shows little sympathy with Mr. Harrington, for example, because his principal motive for participating in an initiative to pair Black colleges with predominantly White universities was securing media exposure and gaining favorable attention for the University of Wisconsin from federal agencies and philanthropic foundations.

The “institutional-minded interests” of Harrington and others, Cole asserts, caused the partnerships to fall apart.

Further discrimination

Outside of the South, Cole adds, White presidents’ actions “derived from one of the most prevalent white supremacist beliefs: that whites were best at advising Black colleges, and Black people generally about how to rectify societal racial equalities. In short, Blackness was valued as long as it was under white control.”

Shrugging off the cross pressures Mr. Beadle faced, Cole castigates him for moving slowly to ban discrimination by landlords renting apartments to University of Chicago students and supporting urban renewal in the predominantly Black neighborhoods surrounding the institution.

By “displacing rather than embracing” these communities, Cole writes, Beadle and other presidents of prestigious urban universities “furthered spatial and disenfranchisement” at a time when they “could have vouched for millions of dollars to dismantle discrimination.”

Continuing the conversation

Mindful of racial unrest on college campuses (and in the nation at large) in 2020, Cole concludes with the hope that “The Campus Color Line ‘’has shed light on the evolving roles, responsibilities, and limitations of college presidents.

Americans interested in higher education can best continue the conversation, in my judgment, by revisiting and re-evaluating how college presidents have navigated and should navigate the relationship between an institutional commitment to equal opportunity and racial justice and the financial, cultural, and political constraints and challenges they face in what may – or may not – be a new civil rights era.

Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier. 



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