As lawmakers in places like Florida continue to target public education at every level, trying to restrict teaching about Black history and banning books by and about Black, Latino and other marginalized people, the AFT has created a new forum to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion. On March 14, a panel of academics kicked off a series of sessions that will address the intersection of race, higher education and the labor movement, sharing their experiences as Black professionals in higher ed in a wide-ranging conversation that covered the importance of representation, shared governance and academic freedom.
“Racism, of course, is not a new phenomenon, but it is being re-mainstreamed in our political discourse and public policy in alarming ways,” said New York State United Teachers Secretary-Treasurer Philippe Abraham. Setting the context for the discussion, Abraham described legislation that “places whole academic disciplines and academic support offices for people of color and other marginalized groups on the chopping block and subjects faculty decisions to the whims of politicians.” Attacks on critical race theory and teaching Black history combined with attacks on tenure and shared governance “erode the rights of all faculty, but are especially felt by faculty of color,” he said.
“This is not simply a civil rights issue,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who joined the group briefly to lend her support. “This is not simply a labor issue. This is not just an academic freedom issue. This is … about whether or not as Americans we are actually going to move forward to be an inclusive, diverse, multiethnic, multiracial democracy, and you’re on the front lines of that.”
But the group represents a small portion of academics. Across the country, just 4 percent of full professors are Black. Robert Chambers, an AFT Guild member and a communications/theater professor who teaches at multiple predominantly white campuses in the San Diego area, is often the only African American male professor in sight, he said. “When students don’t see themselves in staff, it’s hard to see themselves period,” he said. “We need to hire more people of color.”
Even at Howard University, an elite historically Black university, some departments have no Black faculty or just one Black faculty member, said Marcus Alfred, an American Association of University Professors chapter member and physics professor there. “Representation matters,” he said.
As professors who have gained a toehold in academia, panel participants said they are undeterred by right-wing ideologues and an environment hostile to their teaching. “It has not affected me one bit,” said Rahman Johnson, an AAUP chapter member and communications and journalism professor at Edward Waters University in Jacksonville, Fla., another historically Black university. Johnson’s students discuss the so-called Don’t Say Gay Act and book bans in Florida, and he assigned a report on the racially charged Tyre Nichols beating. “If we don’t do that, where else can they do it?” he asked. “If we go into this situation trying to tailor … how we teach based on what our political persuasion or mandate says, then we are not only not doing our job, but we are also not holding to the tenets of what we believe in as educators.”
“We support these discussions,” said Dawn Bishop McLin, an AAUP chapter member and Jackson State University psychology professor in Jackson, Miss. Historically Black colleges and universities like hers have a particular role to play in teaching about diversity, equity and inclusion, she said. “That’s why many of our students chose to attend an HBCU.”
Shared governance is an issue that the panel agreed needs more attention. Faculty on McLin’s campus are concerned about “academic dictatorship” and are reaching instead for “academic democracy” that provides a place at the table for faculty. “When it comes to academic freedom and our curriculum, we’re saying the faculty have to be involved,” she said.
Johnson, at Edward Waters University, is concerned about amplifying faculty voices by preserving the union on his campus, where the administration challenged the right to organize based on the school’s religious affiliation. Even without official recognition, Johnson’s union chapter has been able to support its members, and unions are helping navigate a fight with the National Labor Relations Board. In San Diego, the union was instrumental in winning healthcare benefits and office hours for part-time faculty, said Chambers, and McLin said AAUP is helping revitalize the chapter at Jackson State.
“At Howard, AAUP principles are the bedrock of our fights,” said Alfred. He is convinced that, as academic freedom and shared governance face increasing threats in our colleges and universities, unions “are the only way to go.”