Civil Rights Symposium Focuses on Inequality in Higher Education

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By Hazel Scott/ASU

“America’s colleges and universities have a dirty open secret: they have never given black people an equal chance to succeed.” – Adam Harris, an excerpt from his book “The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal – and How to Set Them Right”

Harris, an award-winning staff writer with The Atlantic, spoke about “Exploring Inequality in Higher Education” during Alabama State University’s Civil Rights Symposium on Thursday, February 8, in the Ralph D. Abernathy Auditorium.

His talk focused on the long history of imbalanced support for institutions that enroll high numbers of Black students and the unique legacy of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities).

“From its inception, our higher education system was not built on equality or accessibility, but on educating, and prioritizing, white students. Black students have always been an afterthought,” Harris said.


Harris explained that HBCUs have been underfunded for decades and used the history of higher education to tell the audience why he believes this to be true. 

“There have been political and other obstacles erected to block equitable education in the United States for HBCUs," he said. 

Harris explored the role of Civil War-era legislation, intended to bring agricultural education to the masses, had in creating the HBCUs and how that has played such a major part in educating Black students when other state and private institutions refused to accept them.


Harris weaved through the social and political obstacles erected to block equitable education in the United States, pointing out some of the issues HBCUs deal with because of funding inequities. 

“Another big issue for historically Black campuses are things like poor campus housing conditions and other campus facilities that need to be fixed. And the most common reason is usually a lack of available funds.”

Harris said Historically Black Colleges and Universities  play an important role in African Americans lives.

HBCUs are institutions that were founded predominantly after the Civil War to educate Black students who had been shut out from the rest of higher education. In the 1960s, it received its official designation as HBCUs.”

Harris said to continue to produce historymakers, HBCUs  (like Alabama State University) deserve to be celebrated for the service that they provide and “provide them with the funds that they have so long withheld from them.”

Dr. John F. Knight, Jr. (retired administrator for ASU) made an appearance to discuss how knight1in a federal case he was instrumental in advancing and fought for fairness in higher education. For 25 years, he served as the lead plaintiff in Knight v. State of Alabama, a lawsuit that provided remedies for desegregation in Alabama’s colleges and universities.

“Because of this lawsuit, ASU and Alabama A&M University were awarded millions of dollars from the state of Alabama to establish endowments and make major capital improvements,” Knight said.

The landmark case, Knight noted, promises to continue to change the face of the state of Alabama and that of of higher education in the state for centuries to come.

The program culminated with remarks from ASU President, Dr. Quinton T. Ross, Jr.

“Students you must take all this in. Alabama State University is where history is made…When you walk into your classroom always understand that excellence is what is expected because excellence has been demonstrated throughout history.”