Adam Harris on the inequalities baked into America’s education system

In his new book “The State Must Provide,” Adam Harris examines the systemic inequities baked into the American higher education system.

In this episode, he joins the Reckon Interview to explain how America’s colleges were created, the emotional toll on students trying to desegregate American colleges, the role of HBCUs, student loan debt, and what the future may hold for colleges in the South.

Find his book and learn more about his work as a New America Fellow and with The Atlantic here.

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Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.

John Hammontree: There’s a statue honoring James Meredith on the campus of the University of Mississippi. In 1962, Meredith faced insults, threats, torment and violence as he became the first Black student to attend Ole Miss. Unveiled in 2006, the memorial depicts a resolute Meredith as he walks toward a portal with the words courage, knowledge, perseverance, and opportunity emblazoned across the top. More monuments like this should exist. It’s a stunning and sobering memorial, capturing a true moment of heroism. But it’s also just that: a moment. And as I read through Adam Harris’s new book “The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal, and How to Set Them Right,” I realized that I’ve never really learned much more about Meredith’s story beyond that scene. Why did he want to go to the University of Mississippi? What did he study? How was he treated when the cameras went away? This monument may reveal Meredith’s fortitude, but it also obscures the reality about educational opportunity in America. Even decades later, the University of Mississippi’s campus remains much whiter than the state that it serves, which is true for all the schools in the SEC, and also all across the country for that matter. And the state of Mississippi has always underfunded its historically Black colleges and universities. Black people also shoulder a disproportionate share of the American burden of student loan debt. Today on The Reckon Interview, we’ll talk with Adam Harris, who also writes for the Atlantic and is a New America Fellow, about the history of American colleges before and after that moment memorialized in Oxford, Mississippi. We’ll also talk about the birth of land grant universities and HBCUs and some landmark Supreme Court cases related to the history of education, as well as how to address current inequities, and what the purpose of higher education should be in today’s America. So let’s go ahead and get started with this week’s episode of The Reckon Interview. Adam Harris, thanks for coming on The Reckon Interview. 

Adam Harris: Thanks so much for having me. 

John Hammontree: Your book starts with a rare snowy day in Alabama, where you set foot on the Alabama A&M campus. And you had a long family legacy at the school. But you write that, you know, it wasn’t necessarily your first choice coming out of high school. What’s your family story at A&M? And how did you wind up at Alabama A&M? 

Adam Harris: As you mentioned I had sort of a family legacy there. My sister was actually enrolled there and playing volleyball at the time, my mom had gone to Alabama A&M and my uncle was a drum major in the early 80s. And so you know, I had always grown up around A&M. You know, the Magic City classic was also a very big thing in our family, my dad went to Alabama State so there was like a bit of a rivalry.  

When I was in high school, though, my thought was that I was going to go to a high major D1 program and play basketball. That’d always been the dream. And, of course, dreams sometimes get derailed. I ended up at Lon Morris junior college after an injury my senior year to show the scouts that I could still play. And those coaches never really came calling. About six months into my time at Lon Morris, I wasn’t, I wasn’t getting acclimated to the campus, it wasn’t the right environment for me. And I had still been in conversation with the coaches at Alabama A&M. They have been some of the first people to recruit me, and they were still kind of on board. And so I made a call and went out that January and ultimately decided after my time at Lon Morris that basketball actually wasn’t the thing for me. So I actually ended up getting an academic scholarship at A&M. It was interesting how much a place can be your home from afar, and it can be the place that you’re associating with as a home from afar, but until you’re actually in it, it doesn’t necessarily feel like it. And then once I got on campus, it was clear that and was sort of a home base. 

John Hammontree: People in Huntsville would be quick to point out now that they’re the quote unquote largest city in Alabama, but it’s still a relatively small city that does serve three major universities, there. Alabama A&M is an HBCU, there’s another HBCU, and then of course, there’s the University of Alabama, Huntsville. And you talk about that you used to drive over to that campus sometimes to work from their library and recognizing the disparity between the campus at UAH and the campus at A&M. How did the two campuses differ? 

Adam Harris: The first thing I noticed, I was a couple of weeks into my time at A&M and I drove over to UAH, because as you mentioned, the library was open three hours longer than ours was, and that was the first thing that sort of struck me as odd because you know, when you’re a student on campus you need to study, and sometimes you don’t want to do that in your dorm. And so I go over and I notice some of the early things right that they had newer buildings. If there were potholes at all, you know, they’ve been filled. They had sort of manmade ponds and all of this this different stuff, they just looked incredibly updated and very new. And I started poking around a little bit I learned that you know, UAH of course is founded in 1950. But they have almost double the endowment of what Alabama A&M had, a place it’s been open since 1875. And so those initial sort of differences, they struck me as odd. But then I also, kind of looking around campus, Huntsville is about 30% Black and UAH’s campus was about 10% Black. And so it just struck me as odd to think of this place as you know, really a regional campus, a commuter campus kind of aimed at serving the city that wasn’t necessarily serving the entire student population of the city. 

And as I got into covering higher education, I had a lot of questions about whether my experience was just me sort of being melodramatic about what I was saying and, you know, thinking the grass is greener on the other side, or, or if what I noticed was an anomaly that the HBCUs often had institutions right down the road that received greater resources that were able to build an endowment in a shorter period of time. And what I learned in working at the Chronicle and my time at the Atlantic, and then writing this book was that it’s not an anomaly, but it’s really rooted in how our higher education system is set up. 

John Hammontree: And you chart that over the course of the book. One of the things that you point out is the rise of these land grant institutions. From the beginning they were almost entirely segregated. Alabama A&M is a land grant institution, and then Alabama, and then Auburn, of course, is one as well. And Auburn was initially, you know, segregated to be entirely white, and then still is very, very, very white compared to this student body. Can you describe what a land grant school is, how they were set up, and why this disparity was kind of baked in from the beginning? 

Adam Harris: Yeah! So, a land grant institution: Back in 1862, the federal government passed what’s known as the Morrill Act, which gave states land. Land that was, you know, expropriated from Native Americans through lopsided treaties, violence, etc. They gave states land that they could sell in order to fund an institution.  

But the issue was, you know, with that original 1862 act is, a lot of states did not create separate institutions for Black students. They did not fund separate institutions for Black students with that original money. And so these, these 1862 institutions were often only attended by white students. And when you think of that act, right, that was one of the largest investments that the federal government ever made in American higher education. You get Iowa State University, you get Michigan State University gets greater funding, Penn State, Cornell is a land grant, Auburn is a land grant as you mentioned, Oklahoma State University. So a lot of these major institutions, high research producing institutions, institutions with, you know, more than 20,000 students, 30,000 students, are built out of this land grant. So really kind of the foundation of the state university system that we recognize today.  

Fast forward about 30 years, those institutions are going back to Congress saying we need more money, you know, we’re performing a vital service, we are the place that you know, there were places to teach people the art of man slaying, there are people, places to teach people how to be lawyers, how to be doctors. But before we arrived on the scene, they weren’t places to teach farmers the arts and the sciences. There weren’t places to teach literacy — basic literacy —  to people, predominantly white men. And that’s the role that we were facilitating. So they go back to Congress asking for more money, and there’s a quirk that Congress ultimately ends up putting in the 1890 legislation that says, okay, we will give you more money, but you cannot discriminate against Black students in the language, right? So it has sort of be equal opportunity. And so some states ultimately say, okay, we will enroll some Black students, select Black students. Iowa, which was the first state to accept the land grant, enrolls its first Black student in 1890, and that’s George Washington Carver. But other states say, Okay, fantastic, we will use that too. And we’ll use part of our funding to fund these HBCUs. And so a lot of people sort of think of the 1890 Land Grant act as like, this is what established getting greater funding of HBCUs, when in reality, it was the predominantly white institutions needing more money and the Black institutions being sort of funded as an aside. 

John Hammontree: And obviously, before the war, in the South, it was illegal in many parts of the South to teach enslaved Black Americans how to read, how to write, even reading things like the Bible. What types of educational opportunities were there for Black Americans in the North? You write about the case of this very unique school in Kentucky that was actually a co-ed and integrated university that was established in the South before the war started? 

Adam Harris: Yeah, so, before the Morrill Act, really there were there were limited educational opportunities kind of writ large in America, which was one of the reasons why you have something like the Morrill Act.  

But as you as you mentioned, as I write in the book, right, there were explicit laws that barred Black people from being taught to read. After Nat Turner’s Rebellion, they banned teaching Black people, you know, to read the Bible. It became to the point where the thought was, if you have a literate population of Black people, there will be an uprising.  

And so in the North, you see a sort of piecemeal effort at education taking place both at the K-12 and higher ed level, where you have places like the Institute for Colored Youth in Pennsylvania and you have Oberlin which enrolls a certain amount of Black students, but you don’t have like large influxes of Black students into educational facilities.  

But as you also mentioned, there is an institution in the South, Berea College, which is founded by this Presbyterian minister who is like, wait a minute, what are we doing here? Like, if we are Christians, if we believe in you know, the Book of Acts where it says, God is made of one blood, all the people of the Earth, then we should be treating everyone as our brothers and sisters. Right? His parents owned enslaved people. But he, you know, he had gone north. He went to Layne Theological Seminary in Ohio and, and learned, it was taught that, you know, he was sort of convicted by that experience. And so he creates this institution, Berea College that is integrated, that is co-educational, founded before the Civil War. He’s literally run out of town by enslavers, and comes back after the Civil War. It’s like that’s not enough. He was, you know, he was shot at in his home. His friends were literally tarred and feathered. But he comes back after the Civil War because he has that commitment to interracial co-educational education.  

And one of the reasons why I wanted to follow Berea is because, you know, the broader sweep of higher education does not have that, you know, foundational plank that Berea had, right? This idea of educational equality, this idea of equity and education, that were central to John Fee’s philosophy, that were the reason why that institution by, you know, the late 1800s, was a 50/50 institution, right, with roughly half Black students, half white students, and it was successful, right. It’s a place that produced Carter G. Woodson. And that that original mission was only torn apart because of intentional state action, because the legislature passed a law aimed at the institution to segregate schooling in in the state of Kentucky. 

John Hammontree: And that was part of this larger Jim Crow movement, obviously, but your book focuses on higher education. But after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, you do have that brief period where the Freedmen’s Bureau are trying to set up public education opportunities at the K-12 level for white and Black southerners alike and all over the country as well. And like you said, the state comes in, and forces these institutions to segregate. Why did the state of Kentucky pass the Day Laws? And how does that fit into the larger Jim Crow movement in the South? 

Adam Harris: After that 1890 Morrill Act, there were several laws that had sort of started to introduce this idea of separate but equal. So there was like the Separate Car Act down in Louisiana. That was ultimately what was challenged in Plessy. v. Ferguson. There was, you know, the Morrill Act where they say you can create a separate, you know, equal institution for, for Black students. And then you get this decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that kind of codifies this lie of separate but equal.  

And so after that you have states — Oklahoma, Alabama, Kentucky, other states — passing laws. Alabama passed section 256 in 1901. Right, this is after my granddad’s dad was born. This is not that long ago. They passed section 256 in 1901. Kentucky, the story that they tell in the local area about how this law came to be was that, this lawmaker was passing through Berea on the train. At the depot, he sees a Black woman and a white woman hugging, and says this is the road to you know, miscegenation, this is the road to interracial marriage. This is the road to sort of the eradication of the white race. And he effectively goes and writes legislation to ban integrated education in Kentucky. And so it was really interesting. And it’s always interesting to think about how recent, the actual laws that were enshrining segregation — even if it was customary before, right, we’re in a state like Mississippi, the faculty at Ole Miss is like in the 1860s, 1870s, we would rather close and we would rather, you know, have this institution shuttered and all resign, then enroll a Black student — that was actually codified in that early 1900s period, gives us, just kind of shows the proximity to, and how recent, this history really is. 

John Hammontree: And one of the ideas that you drill down on — and there are several court cases that that challenge this idea — is separate but equal was never actually equal. The historically Black institutions were not receiving the same level of funding, they didn’t have the same types of programs. They were done kind of pro forma in order to have the opportunities there. And you start outlining this series of cases to challenge that, and one of the first things that struck me was the case of Lloyd Lionel Gaines. Who was Gaines, and what was he trying to accomplish? 

Adam Harris: So, Lloyd Gaines. He was born in Mississippi, moved up to Missouri when he was young, and gets into Lincoln University of Missouri, which is a historically Black college. And he wanted to be a lawyer. He was like, ‘I want to practice law in St. Louis, I want to practice law in Missouri. And the best way for me to do that is to attend a law school in Missouri.’  

The problem was, there was no law school set up for Black students in Missouri. Missouri had been practicing this sort of scheme that a lot of Southern states had, where they would effectively send students out of state — Black students who wanted to get a graduate education — they would send them out of state to get that education rather than educating them there in Missouri. And the NAACP ultimately ends up taking up Lloyd Gaines’ case, and it works its way all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Supreme Court finally says, ‘Okay, if you were going to embrace this idea of separate but equal, like, if you want to, we will let you have the lie of separate but equal. But you at least need to have a separate option.’ You know, when you don’t even have a separate option, how are you going to say that you have separate but equal in your state.  

And, as I got into Lloyd Gaines’ story, you know, it’s really interesting that there’s like an intimate human connection there. Because you see in him, how the people then the names that are attached to these fights, what they’re going through, as they are going through that, right? This was several years of his life that he was fighting in a battle, that his name was in the press that, you know, he’s risking actually risking his life in order to get an education. And, and I often think of it in regards to now, he didn’t want much different than what students want today. Like, I want to go to law school, I would like to go to law school in my state, and there’s not an option for me. And, you know, I, the last thing is, I think about this letter that Lloyd Gaines wrote to his mom before, ultimately, you know, the sort of end of Lloyd Gaines’ story is that he disappears. He’s never heard from again. And one of the last letters that he writes to his mom, he talks about how he’s just a man, you know, not a man who has dedicated his life to this cause but just a man. The sort of humility in that statement, he ends it with an exclamation point. I’m a man! That idea of, these are people, these were people’s lives, I really wanted that to come through in the book to say that, yes, this was a cause and a fight that they were fighting for. But they were also, you know, these are people’s lives. And I think that people, I would hope people can sort of connect to those people.  

John Hammontree: You do a great job of outlining his story, and also James Meredith’s story when he desegregates University of Mississippi. And like you said, Gaines goes missing. And we don’t know what happened to him. But given the times, it seems equally possible that he could have just gone off somewhere and chosen to live in anonymity, or what may be more likely is that is that he was killed for his efforts to attend law school. And, you know, reading those sections, I was kind of struck by, we sometimes remember these people as moments in history, like in Alabama, we remember the moment of Vivian Malone and James Hood, and not the fact that, you know, they were tormented for that following year and ended up having to drop out of the University of Alabama, and kind of the human cost that you were talking about, of people, you know, making these strides. So Gaines disappears. And the NAACP starts looking for other cases to kind of pursue and take to the Supreme Court. Another case you talked about is Ada Lois Sipuel versus the Oklahoma Board of Education. And what was her story? 

Adam Harris: So Ada Lois also wanted to be a lawyer. She had been in, she’s from a town in Oklahoma, Chickasha, Oklahoma. And when she was younger, there was a lynching in Chickasha. And, you know, this was a man who did not receive due process of law. And so in the back of her mind, she had this idea that if she could get into the justice system, if she could become a lawyer, maybe she could help affect change. She’d seen the ways, you know, Thurgood Marshall came and spoke at her at her school when she was younger. And so she had this idea of becoming a lawyer and helping to affect change.  

And so ultimately, as the NAACP is looking for new people to take up this mantle, and they, you know, there was this sort of idea that they can’t manufacture these cases. They have to sort of arise organically, And so, Ada Lois, she graduates from Langston University, that’s the HBCU in Oklahoma which is still there, and which you know, even today educates almost as many Black students as University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University combined. And she goes to the school, she graduates, she has a fantastic time with her professors. But as we were talking about a little bit earlier, the institution was you know, underfunded. The buildings were old. You know, the green spaces wouldn’t drain right, all of these sort of little things. And so she ultimately applies to law school at Oklahoma.  

And she goes through this series of trials where you really get to see how, you know, piece by piece, little by little, the state was pushing back on this equality, right? This is 10 years after the Supreme Court says, ‘Hey states, you at least need to have a separate option for Black students.’ And they don’t even have a separate law school for Ada Lois in Oklahoma. And so when the Supreme Court once again says, ‘okay, at least create a separate option for her. If you don’t, if you don’t have a separate option, you know, you need to enroll, you need to enroll her at the University of Oklahoma.’  

And so when they get that order, the state sets up a law school. In five days, they hire three faculty members, pay them part time for what will be full time work, set up a curriculum, basically rent out a floor of the capitol building so that they can have a law school for Black students in the state. She ultimately doesn’t attend. But you know, one of the reasons I wanted to use Oklahoma is because it really shows even after this, there are several levels to which Oklahoma kind of goes above and beyond to maintain its system of segregation. So after Ada Lois, before she’s even enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, it takes another challenge to help her get in.  

Ultimately ends up being George McLaurin, who after he is, the Supreme Court says you need to admit him into into the school of education for graduate school, they put them out in the hallway, when they say you know, you can’t have him, you know, in an anteroom and segregate him from students, they put a little literal bar in the classroom. And so you know, the granular details of the state’s commitment to maintaining segregation. You know, where actually, it’s like, intellectually, I knew how far and how committed states were to it. But when you see those granular details, they were, you know, incredibly shocking. 

John Hammontree: Yeah, that that story of him having to sit in the hallway for, quote, unquote, attending classes was, yeah, it was eye opening. So you have that period there where, you know, schools are fighting tooth and nail to avoid desegregation, whether it’s, you know, in the K-12 level of the Little Rock Nine, or the story that you describe of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, and there’s that really heated period, you know, the early days of the John F. Kennedy administration, I think, is when we’re first kind of introduced to this idea of affirmative action. And that’s a term that, you know, it’s been used by a bunch of different people and a bunch of different ways where the meaning has kind of gotten lost over the intervening decades. But what was kind of, in its purest form this idea of affirmative action, then? And, in your opinion, what has it kind of become today? 

Adam Harris: So originally, the idea of affirmative action, as introduced by John F. Kennedy into the federal lexicon in 1961, was to sort of help eliminate the barriers to actually hiring in the federal workforce, those sort of historical barriers. So it was sort of, in a lot of ways, kind of like a remedy for that historical discrimination that Black and brown people had faced. And as it moved into higher education, as you know, you have the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965, you have the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and so colleges start looking at their student body saying, well, there’s the chance that we could have federal funds withheld if we don’t increase our, you know, minority population.  

And so you see, as a series of schools start to implement affirmative action programs, race conscious admissions program, to start to address that historical discrimination that these groups face. But the interesting thing about affirmative action, the way we’ve thought about it for the last 40-50 years, is that affirmative action was effectively blunted as a remedy for historical discrimination in 1978. So 17 years after it enters the federal lexicon, it is challenged, and the Bakke case, of Bakke versus the University of California Board of Regents. And in that case, in that decision, you know, Justice Louis palace, like, you know, Allan Bakke, a white student who was trying to enroll at the University of California Davis’ medical school, he said, you know, it’s not his responsibility for this sort of legacy of discrimination. So, so he shouldn’t be discriminated against as a way to help other students get into these institutions.  

But, you know, it’s the sort of the flaw in thinking there is that it’s a penalty for this individual student rather than something that is helping the system remedy. So it’s the higher education system that had an issue, which is why the University of California allotted originally 8 of 50 seats for Black and brown students, and then 16 out of 100 seats. So there were still 84 other seats that he was applying for that he was ultimately not able to get into. That decision has really had an important impact on both the conversation around affirmative action right now. Because it’s like people are still thinking about affirmative action in the pre 1978 context, when in reality, you know, if you look at the AAU institution, so American Association of Universities, it’s about 66 of the most highly selective institutions in the country. Roughly about 5% of the student bodies across all of those institutions are Black. And so it’s not like it opened the floodgates and Black students are just getting into institutions everywhere, and it’s high percentages, Blacks and everywhere, because they have, because race is used in admissions, it really obscures the perception. That decision kind of really obscures the perception and the reality of affirmative action at this moment. 

John Hammontree: And, during that case, where Bakke had, and in some ways, it seemed like that case might have been manufactured by the UC system and Bakke together, they were kind of passively encouraging him to challenge this case. But I’m gonna paraphrase, but Thurgood Marshall says something about you know, it’s a matter of perspective, are you keeping people out? Are you ensuring that some people get in? And I thought that was a really interesting way of framing it as you just kind of outlined. And then in the decades since that decision, Black college students have kind of been hit from two different fronts, because you’ve had, you know, the efforts in California and Michigan and places like that, to eliminate affirmative action, which, as you’ve written about in the Atlantic recently, there may be a case that we’ve kind of eliminated across the board upcoming soon. But then you’ve also had states kind of use the quote unquote, integration of universities and as an excuse to cut funding to HBCUs. Because everybody has access to these historically white institutions, then why should we continue to fund these historically Black institutions. And, and so it just kind of gotten worse and worse and worse over time, where you talked about in the book that, you know, there are now fewer students at Auburn University that are Black than there were in 2002. So in these last 50 years, how has the state of Black education evolved in the United States? 

Adam Harris: Enrollments of students at Black colleges, kind of from their peak, have declined. Black students, or Black colleges no longer have a monopoly on where Black students attend. So now, you know, it’s roughly about nine or 10% of Black students in the US go to historically Black colleges and universities.  

But I think the thing that we are seeing at this moment is a sort of stratification happening where the institutions with the most resources enroll the fewest Black students, and the institutions with the fewest resources enroll the most Black students. So if you look at a state like North Carolina, where you know, more than 75% of Black students who attend college in North Carolina do so at one of the five Black colleges or the state’s community colleges. And minded, there are 12 — it’s either 11 or 12 predominantly white institutions in the state of North Carolina. And so that is a large chunk of students. And if you just did the Black colleges in the PWIs, it’s 25% of the Black students in the state go to the Black colleges. 22% go to the PWIs. So across 12 institutions, there are fewer Black students than there are at these five, public HBCUs.  

And, you know, I think at this current moment, that stratification is where you see a lot of that discrimination sort of rearing its head and those vestiges of discrimination rearing their head. It doesn’t just apply to those Southern states. If you look at California, the same kind of stratification is happening between UC Berkeley and the community colleges, even going down the list of you know, Berkeley and UCLA, UC Irvine, etc., kind of, if you go down the list, you see where more Black students are enrolled in the Cal States, more Black students are enrolled in the California Community Colleges. And so I think that we’re in a place now, where, unless there is a significant injection of resources into those institutions that are receiving fewer dollars, that don’t have that sort of historical momentum, right, that the institutions that have been allowed to build that historical momentum — Ole Miss. Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, North Carolina, University of Georgia often didn’t enroll a lot of Black students, and still don’t enroll a lot of Black students. And so it’s almost a situation where we need to, if we have the idea of equity in mind, we should be thinking about, okay, which are the schools that are enrolling a lot of minority students, which are the schools that are enrolling a lot of low-income students?  

I think the other thing that people often miss about HBCUs is more than 60% of students who attend Black colleges are Pell-eligible, so they’re eligible for federal grants for low-income students. These institutions are serving a student body that has often been underserved — low-income students, Black students — by the majority of higher education. And until those institutions are funded, I think you’re going to continue to see that that inequity rearing its head. 

John Hammontree: I think it may be useful for our listeners, for me to kind of admit some of my own ignorance and historical biases on this topic. You know, we both grew up around the same time. And I was not aware of how big of a deal the Magic City Classic was until I was an adult. I mean, obviously, I knew the Iron Bowl, I knew Alabama versus Auburn, I did not know A&M versus State, and I grew up in the Birmingham suburbs. You know, I think particularly for white people of my generation, it’s easy to kind of think, ‘Okay, well, what was the point of what Vivian Malone and James Hood did you know, if we’re going to continue to have predominantly white institutions and HBCUs?’ And so, you know, it becomes easy to think, well, maybe we shouldn’t fund those, because maybe we should focus on creating more opportunities for for Black people at predominantly white institutions. And, you know, I mean, I do think that there’s an interesting question there, because obviously, we’ve had some closures of historically women’s colleges where or they’ve become co-ed colleges and things like that. It’s not the same situation. But I think it’s easy to fall into that line of thinking, if we don’t kind of get educated by the role that HBCUs play. If we are trying to create equality in the system now, should we dedicate resources to creating more opportunities for Black students at PWIs, or equal funding for HBCUs? Or do it all, do both? 

Adam Harris: I think it’s a both situation, right? And, you know, as you pointed out, you know, HBCUs, even though they’re about 3% of the nonprofit, four year institutions in the country, they educate 25% of Black stem graduates, 50% of Black lawyers and doctors, 80% of Black judges. So there’s still like the very important and permanent role that they’re playing in educating the Black middle class. But there’s also I often look at an institution like North Carolina A&T and what it’s been able to do in spite of being historically discriminated against, right? This is the third largest research-producing institution in the state, and public institution in the state. So, you know, that’s just behind UNC in North Carolina State University. And it’s been able to do all of that in spite of receiving fewer dollars. When it made the transition over to become an R1 institution — or a high research, Carnegie classified high research-producing institution — you know, it didn’t receive any additional dollars to do that. When two other PWIs did it, you know — and this is in the 2000s — when two other PWIs did it, they received $10 million apiece.  

And so this is like, there is still this kind of current discrimination that is happening for these institutions. And yet they persist. And yet, they are able to if you just kind of looking at A&M, the current alumni… Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, is an A&M graduate. And so just looking at what the institutions are still producing, kind of shows their continuing importance. But also right if, in this broader conversation about closures in this, I often think about where HBCUs where it was identified that HBCUs were owed funding, and where states just kind of continue to let them languish, and the fact that they are still around.  

So I think going back to the early 1900s in Kentucky, when they bring down William T.B. Williams, you know, a kind of famed professor in the Black college sphere, taught at Hampton University in Virginia, had taught at Tuskegee in Alabama, and they bring him in to say what would it take to raise our institution up? To raise our public HBCU to the standards of Tuskegee? And you know, he gives them the rundown. He’s like, Look, if you — the girl’s dorm is fire prone and lacks fire escapes, the men’s dorm is a mud puddle, the electrical plant doesn’t have power, and the buildings are old, the professors are underpaid, the students are fantastic. But it’s gonna take a lot to raise the physical plant back up to where it needs to be and to address a lot of these issues. And the state’s like, well, we have $40,000, you can fix it with that right? And, ultimately, they don’t even end up spending all of that. And so and this is in the early 1900s that they’re identifying this issue. And you know, even things like, as simple as the drainage, and simple as the buildings being old.

These are issues that are persistent, I’ve often referred to it as, like, if the HBCUs, were given a toothbrush in the early 1900s, the late 1800s, to do some of that preventative maintenance, to do, you know, to upgrade buildings as they, as they needed to be upgraded, it would have been a lot less expensive. But carrying on that toothbrush analogy, it turns into a cavity if you’re not able to brush your teeth. It’s like, Okay, well, I guess I can go and get it filled, but then they’re not given the money for the filling. And so it turns into, okay, now I need a root canal. And it’s going to be, instead of $3.50 for a toothbrush, a two pack of toothbrushes, you have to spend, you know, $1,000 or $1500 for a root canal. And so it’s like all of that has spiraled. And so yes, it’s going to be expensive to address that sort of legacy of discrimination at these institutions. But you have to think about the fact that these institutions are still filling an important role in American higher education. And they’ve done that without the funding. So what would they be able to do if they were giving the funding that they’ve been blocked from receiving for so long.  

John Hammontree: And at the predominantly white institutions, you know, it does seem like oftentimes, whether it was integrating schools in Birmingham and things like that, that the sort of white establishment solution is, oh, well, we’ll just close the Black options. But then, you know, you get to a school like, Alabama, or Auburn, where, even in 2021, the opportunities for white and Black students are not equal. And we are starting to see some of these major institutions like Alabama — or discussing the book, Georgetown — you know, start to make cosmetic changes, I guess, or very superficial changes. Whether it’s taking bare minimum things like taking the names of slave owners off of buildings, or acknowledging, you know, that the history of the institution was was built by selling slaves and things like that, you make a pretty compelling argument that, that that’s not going far enough. What more should these institutions be doing?  

Adam Harris: And, you know, it’s not to say that it’s nothing for the institutions to rename buildings. In part because I mean, it’s like naming and history and remembering is incredibly important. But, you know, for an institution like Ole Miss, a place that the professors were, you know—in the 1860s, I think of this a lot in concert. So, in the 1860s, early 1870s, the professors at Ole Miss were saying, hey, parents, don’t worry, we’re not going to enroll Black students, if we did that we would all resign. At the same time, you have Alcorn State being founded, so an institution for Black students. And they’re given a guaranteed appropriation, they’re told they’re going to have a guaranteed appropriation of $50,000 a year starting in 1871. But by 1875, as the so-called Redeemers sweep back into office with the quote unquote, White revolution, they reduce that appropriation to $15,000 a year. A year later, they reduced that appropriation again to $5,500 a year. And this is mirroring when the University of Mississippi is saying we would close rather than enroll a Black student. And so does that institution have a responsibility to help the institution that was being shafted out of funding, at the same time as it was being lavished with funding and explicitly saying it would rather close than enroll a Black student?  

And so I do think that those institutions that profited from slavery, as Georgetown did so like 272 people to literally keep their institution afloat, that we’re actively profiting from, you know, state investment when, while barring Black students during Jim Crow — those institutions may have some responsibility to help the institutions that were serving the population that they would not. But at a sort of more macro level, even beyond the institutions themselves, you know, the state and the federal government had a very explicit role in creating, maintaining and defending the inequitable system that we recognize today.  

So, you know, I know that states have to run a balanced budget, but they should be factoring in that history into the way that they think about their funding for higher education now. As Amos Hall said in Oklahoma in the 1940s, Yes, it is going to be expensive, but the creation of the inequitable higher education system that we recognize is not our doing. It’s the state’s doing. It’s the federal government’s doing it. The onus is on those entities to fix it.  

John Hammontree: Two movements that are happening right now that sort of seem to fit with the theme of this book: you’ve obviously got a movement on the right to, you know, fight against the idea of quote unquote, critical race theory which would suggest Well, there is no inequity in the history of higher education and so we shouldn’t do anything about it. And you have this movement on Left, or at least some segments of the left, that recognize this disparity and also recognize kind of the historic importance of HBCUs. Whether it’s vice president Kamala Harris being a graduate from an HBCU, so many mayors in cities across the South, including Birmingham’s newly re-elected Mayor Randall Woodfin, is an HBCU grad, and things like that. And so recognizing the importance of that, and trying to make some efforts to level set funding, whether it be private donations… you tweeted recently about the largest donation to Alabama A&M by a private donor, which was made anonymously, which I think was $2 million. But then things like Stephen Curry, you know, making a major donation to Howard University to fund a golf team and things like that. So we are seeing some major private donations primarily to kind of well known institutions like Howard and Morehouse, and places like that, but not as much kind of a lower level. But you know, the Biden administration did make an unprecedented investment in HBCUs. And there are some talk about student loan debt cancellation, which would disproportionately impact Black Americans. You know, is it, is there a sign of progress, are we taking steps towards that being enough? 

Adam Harris: Yeah, I think that just seeing like that first part, right, the philanthropy piece of it 2020 was a record year of philanthropic giving for HBCUs, several HBCU has recorded their largest ever single donations. The thing that, as you mentioned, a lot of it wasn’t really evenly felt across all HBCUs. There a hundred-some odd HBCUs. And that was only felt by a certain subset section of those of those institutions. The Mackenzie Scott donations went to 22 or 23 of the 100 HBCUs and at A&M, you know, it’s still— a $2.2 million gift is nothing to scoff at. That’s, that’s a large donation and impressive donation. But it’s also kind of thinking about in the scope of the institution’s history, it’s the largest donation in 146 years. And so, you know, I often think about like, what would what would have happened if that institute was receiving similar donations in previous years, even, you know, one such donation every 10 years would have been, you know, transformational for the institution. Michael Bloomberg gave over a billion dollars in one fell swoop to Johns Hopkins. So like, what would that look like if it was spread across the sector. So I think that even though 2020 was was a record year, I am hesitant to say that that sort of philanthropy is going to be the salve for historical discrimination.  

But what may help, as you mentioned is, you know, the Biden administration is literally tripling the funding for HBCUs. This year, they get about 15, across about 15 programs, HBCUs each year get about a billion dollars from the federal government. This year, they’ll get about 3 billion thanks to some of the COVID relief packages. And that’s already been incredibly helpful for the institution. A way to make that, like such a move towards that being a remedy for that historical discrimination is to make it recurring, to sort of make that additional funding recurring funding that the institutions will receive. So it’s not just a one time injection.  

You know, in addition to that, the current sort of student debt crisis, you know, where we go from here, I think it’s important, as we’re thinking about higher education policy towards the future, you think one about, you know, ameliorating some of the issues of the past. So the fact that, you know, Black students take on more student debt, they’re more likely to, they’re more likely to take on loans more likely to take on more loans, and more likely to default on those loans. Thanks to you know, the way that generational wealth works, etc. And so there needs to be a push to eliminate that.  

On the other side of the coin, you have to think about, okay, how do we prevent those students from going back into debt. And one way, of course, to do that is through debt free college, tuition free college. And the Biden administration is pushing their two year free college plan that would affect community colleges. And as I mentioned, no more than 50% of the Black students who attend college in North Carolina, do so at one of the community colleges. And so that there is actually a really big kind of racial justice piece to that, as well. But you know, on the campaign trail, a lot of you know, a lot of the Democrats who are running for office factored in HBCUs into their pre college plans, kind of acknowledging that historical discrimination that these institutions face and the potential pitfalls of crafting a free college plan that private HBCUs, for example, were shut out of. So you know, if you create a four year public free college plan, and Tuskegee isn’t a public institution, and Dillard and Tougaloo, etc, aren’t public institutions, what happens to those schools? So, as we’re, you know, moving forward, and as those policy conversations develop, you know, it is really important that, you know, the lawmakers are keeping that sort of racial equity lens, both it’s for institution sake, but also for the students sake, at the forefront of their minds.  

John Hammontree: To close, I mean, you’ve covered higher education for I think most of your journalism career in some form or fashion. You’ve got two kids of your own. Projecting, you know, to around the age when they will be making their college decisions, most of these institutions you wrote about, you know, started with kind of the goal of, you know, we’re going to train farmers, and we’re going to train kind of the average citizen. What is the purpose of higher education now? And what will it be when, when our kids are grown up? 

Adam Harris: You know, historically, you know, before 1965, higher education was thought of as a public good, right? The Founders, when they were thinking of higher education, they were thinking of it as the place to teach people, the arts and the sciences, but also how to be a good citizen. So they had like, this idea of a national character wrapped up. And this idea of higher education, I think that we’re actually at an inflection point where people are searching for a way to craft that national character, a way to teach citizens how to think deeply, and higher education could be that space. I think what would be necessary to make that a reality is one, that the institution’s living up to the higher ideals which they kind of hold claim to. But also, when they’re going, you know, when kids are going off to school, I was, I was talking to my parents, and also my wife about this. You know, I would love it if they went to an Alabama A&M. Or, you know, my dad went to Alabama State, my sister went to Hampton, I would love it if they’d go to one of those institutions.  

But I would hope that when they would enroll there that America had a better understanding of higher education as not just a place where people, you know, you get your credential, and that’s what helps you go off and get a job. But really, in that sort of original sort of intellectual ideas, a place where students are able to explore. The more that higher education is tied to it’s just another stepping stone to a job, the more people think of it as that’s all it’s only a private good and the more expensive it gets because the public’s not willing to pay for something that is only for the private good. But I think, you know, in just the skills that students learn in colleges, it’s, I think, the more we understand it is something that benefits the entire public, the better off you’ll be. 

John Hammontree. Well, Adam, thank you so much for your time, and everybody can find “The State Must Provide” wherever you get your books. Thanks. Thank you. And that’s our show folks. 

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