Join the Commonwealth Club for a virtual conversation with Professor Eddie Cole, whose research has revealed how closely intertwined some of America’s most pressing civil rights issues―desegregation, equal educational and employment opportunities, housing discrimination, and free speech―have been with higher education institutions. Cole supplements the common knowledge about the roles that college students and other activists played in the fight for and against civil rights by covering the roles played by the nation’s college presidents.
Based on archival research conducted at universities and colleges across the United States, Cole focuses on the period between 1948 and 1968, during which college presidents strategically, yet often silently, initiated and shaped racial policies inside and outside of the educational sphere. With courage and hope, as well as with malice and cruelty, college presidents positioned themselves―sometimes precariously―amid conflicting interests and demands. Black college presidents challenged racist policies as their students demonstrated in the streets against segregation, while presidents of major universities lobbied for urban renewal programs that displaced black communities near their campuses. Some presidents amended campus speech practices to accommodate white supremacist speakers, even as other academic leaders developed the nation’s first affirmative action programs in higher education. Cole illuminates how the legacy of these academic leaders continues to influence the unfinished struggle for black freedom and racial equity in education and in society.