Black college presidents detail battles with racism

Campus leaders also chart new paths toward full equality for people of color
Lee Pelton
Lee Pelton

“I have been pulled over driving while black more times than I can remember,” Emerson College President Lee Pelton said in a campus message detailing his experiences of racism in response to the death of George Floyd and detailing the ensuing protests.

“I have been spit on by a white parking lot attendant,” Pelton wrote to his Boston-area campus. “I was stopped 20 feet from my house by two white police officers in their cruiser, the searing heat of their spotlights on the back of my neck, guns drawn on either side of my car because I looked like a black man who was alleged to have stolen something from a convenience store.”

Pelton is among a number of black college presidents expressing anger and describing lifelong experiences of bigotry since Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked protests across the nation.

Pelton, who said he has watched video of Floyd’s death over and over, also recalled the humiliation of having to go to a back alley to order food from a restaurant in Conway, Arkansas in the 1970’s.

“Black Americans are invisible to most of white America,” he said. “We live in the shadows—even those of us, who like me, sit at the table of bounty. Ironically, at our colleges and universities, we are hyper-visible in classrooms, workplaces, social settings, and as we go about our daily lives.

Pledging to confront racism

Higher ed leaders of color and their colleagues are also are beginning to chart paths toward full equality on their campuses and in their communities.

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In a letter to his campus in Wisconsin, Madison Area Technical College President Jack E. Daniels, III called for definitive action, including criminal justice reform. He also urged college and universities to recommit to supporting students of color and local businesses.

“It’s time we speak up and act on issues of race if we are going to truly embrace equity and inclusion,” Daniels wrote. “It’s time for our white co-workers and neighbors to speak up about the injustices being placed on our people of color.”

The presidents of several colleges and universities in and around Louisville, Kentucky, made a pledge to confront racism.

“Black Americans still face obstacles that leave them, in far too many cases, lagging behind their white counterparts on important indicators of education, income, health, and wealth,” wrote the group, which included Neeli Bendapudi of University of Louisville; Susan Donovan of Bellarmine University; Travis Haire of Ivy Tech, Sellersburg; Ty Handy of Jefferson Community and Technical College; Jay Marr of  Sullivan University, Louisville; Tori Murden McClure of Spalding University; Alton B. Pollard, III, of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; and Ray Wallace of IU Southeast.

They vowed to dismantle structural racism while also improving access to higher ed for students of color and creating pathways to meaningful, high-demands. They also recognized the need for more black professionals in healthcare, education, engineering, law and many other sectors.

At Bloomfield College, New Jersey’s only four-year predominately black institution, President Marcheta P. Evans asked students in a letter how the institution should move forward.

“Though difficult to come together due to continued social distancing, we can host virtual social justice forums, we can hold digital vigils, we can connect with you on social media,” Evans wrote. “We can bring about change together.”

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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