There has never been a racial justice revolution in higher education. Beginning in the 1960s, black campus activists and their allies occupied buildings, but they never captured or seized control of universities and colleges; administrators never let that happen. Over the last sixty years, campus leaders embraced racial inclusion only so far as it could coexist with long-standing values and priorities created in an era when few black students had access to elite universities. Racial inclusion initiatives, then, helped bring unprecedented access to a new generation of black students, but they also reinforced and normalized practices and values that preserved racial disparities. In other words, administrators responded to black campus activists by making racial inclusion and inequality compatible.
I tell this story as it played out at the University of Michigan. Since the 1960s, UM has gained national recognition for its racial inclusion programs. University and college leaders from around the country began visiting Ann Arbor because they saw UM as a model of inclusion. For the same reason, opponents of affirmative action and racial sensitivity training targeted UM in op-eds, books, and lawsuits. Given UM’s reputation, it was no surprise when the university found itself at the center of two of the most famous affirmative action lawsuits of the twenty-first century: Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). In the eyes of black students, though, UM has never represented a model of racial inclusion. Black students’ share of the student body has never matched blacks’ share of the state or national population, and the majority of black students have never reported satisfaction with the university’s racial climate. Nevertheless, black students’ critiques never stopped UM leaders from claiming that racial inclusion was one of the university’s core values. This book explains why.
I argue that institutional leaders incorporated black student dissent selectively into the University of Michigan’s policies, practices, and values, while preventing activism from disrupting the institutional priorities that campus leaders deemed more important than racial justice. This book, then, pays special attention to what administrators were trying to preserve in the face of activism. First and foremost, administrators wanted to sustain the university’s elite status and preserve a system that measured institutional quality by the “merit” and “qualifications” of its student body. Second, university leaders wanted to preserve their goal of creating a model multiracial community on campus. That might not sound like a problematic priority, but the way administrators tried to engineer this multiracial community led to social alienation and high attrition rates for black students.1
I use the term “co-optation” to describe the process of selectively incorporating activism, while preserving long-standing values and priorities. One of the goals of this book is to uncover the repertoires of co-optation. Scholars of social movements recognize that activists rely on repertoires—basically, a toolbox of tactics that activists recognize as useful and often draw on. It’s one reason that protests usually look similar. This book reveals how university officials developed their own repertoires to co-opt activism. These repertoires changed over time, but a select group of tools reappear throughout much of this book.2
First, university officials used a discourse of racial innocence to justify racial disparities and a poor racial climate. Black activists tried to get administrators to see these problems as symptomatic of institutional racism, but university leaders never adopted this activist framework. Instead, administrators preferred to see the university as a victim. In their eyes, UM was caught in a racist society that made it almost impossible to meet many of black activists’ demands. They claimed that racism unfolding outside the campus walls created racial disparities on campus and produced the white students who hurled racist remarks at black students. Administrators had the best interests of black students at heart. Activists couldn’t expect officials to overcome all these obstacles, administrators argued. This perspective helped rationalized the university’s policies, which contributed to the inequality on campus and helped officials resist black activists’ most powerful demands.
Second, executive administrators built an inclusion bureaucracy to channel activism into institutional offices and control the outcomes of dissent. Beginning in the late 1960s, administrators created an unprecedented number of positions, most of them filled by black officials, meant to respond to activists’ demands. Administrators hoped that black students would abandon protest and work for change within bureaucratic channels alongside black officials. Campus leaders, though, rarely gave these new black officials the power and resources to implement new programs independently. White administrators had to approve and fund any proposal; this allowed campus leaders to exercise influence over the character of inclusion, moving dissent into a bureaucracy they could control.
Third, university administrators selectively used institutional knowledge about black students when crafting racial inclusion policies. Beginning in the 1960s, various groups fought over who could interpret black students’ experience on campus. Social scientists, admissions officials, black staff members, and black students all tried to offer their own analysis of everything from black students’ academic performance to their social environment. An important tool in maintaining control over inclusion, campus leaders found, was controlling who could offer legitimate forms of knowledge about black students. The groups they chose changed over time, as campus leaders sought out knowledge that could support their priorities and policy goals.
Finally, discipline became a key part of co-optation. Since the 1960s, the most confrontational protests have been the most effective in producing change at UM. These protests have also invited the harshest disciplinary methods. While administrators created institutional reforms in response to activism, they also took steps to deter confrontational protests by threatening to expel or criminally prosecute activists. For co-optation to work, administrators needed to exercise as much control as possible over the character of reform. The less administrators had to worry about dissent, the more control they had over racial inclusion.
Emphasizing the coercive process of co-optation raises important questions about intent. Did UM officials co-opt black student activism with the specific intent to perpetuate racial inequality? The simple answer is no. None of the university officials covered in this book since the 1960s fit well into the conventional backlash narrative, which focuses on the people who resisted the black freedom movement because of racial animus and a desire to protect white privilege. The most powerful UM administrators expressed sympathy for racial equity. In an ideal world, they wanted black students’ representation on campus to match blacks’ representation in the state population. They wanted black students to perform well in the classroom and thrive socially on campus. At times, this sympathy made it easier for activists to win concessions. After reading thousands of pages of correspondence among UM leaders, it’s clear that administrators would have celebrated a student body that reflected the racial demographics of the state of Michigan and a racial climate that made black students feel welcome—but only if that happened on administrators’ terms.
By highlighting administrators’ sympathy for racial equity, I’m not privileging their motivations over the outcomes of their policies. While preserving racial inequality didn’t motivate policies at UM, campus officials usually knew that their inclusion policies would likely maintain racial disparities. If administrators were surprised about the outcomes, they were often surprised by the degree of those disparities, not by the mere existence of inequality. Consequently, racial disparities at UM can hardly be called unintended outcomes. This isn’t a book, then, about good intentions gone bad; this is a book about how people who created and maintained racial disparities still believed they had good intentions.
I wrote this book because I felt that the scholarship on the history of race and higher education lacked in-depth analyses of the implementation of racial inclusion initiatives over the last fifty years. Many historians have contributed to a flourishing literature on the black campus movement (BCM). Ibram X. Kendi, Joy Ann Williamson-Lott, Stefan Bradley, and Martha Biondi, just to name a few, have given us a fuller understanding of black campus activists’ tactics, demands, and intellectual foundations. These excellent works pay attention to the people who ran universities, but scholars have yet to fully uncover the techniques administrators used to resist and co-opt activists’ demands. Aside from administrators’ use of the police and disciplinary campus codes, we still have an incomplete understanding of what black activists were up against in reforming higher education institutions.3
Part of the problem is that much of the scholarship on the black campus movement doesn’t extend beyond the mid-1970s, when most scholars agree that the BCM fell apart. It’s an inconvenient end date for anyone who wants to understand the legacies of the movement. At the University of Michigan, as at many universities across the country, the late 1970s and early 1980s represented an era of racial retrenchment. Black enrollment plummeted, and complaints about the campus racial climate increased. To understand the outcomes of activism, scholars need to extend their studies beyond the moment the movement lost its organizing power.4
Ending studies in 1975 also encourages celebratory scholarship that highlights the victories of activists and downplays their failures. This plays into the hands of conservative critics who believe colleges and universities have too easily succumbed to black protesters, bending to their every demand. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Clearly, black campus activism led to important reforms, but scholarship on the movement too often overstates the impact of black activism and fails to explain how campus leaders retained control over the priorities and values of higher education. Without attention to this process, it’s impossible to understand the persistent racial disparities on campuses across the country.
Scholars of critical race theory offer a model of institutional change that more closely resembles reality at elite universities. This book’s focus on co-optation follows the insights of interest convergence and interest divergence, two fundamental ideas in critical race theory. In the context of higher education, these ideas posit that minorities can win institutional change only when the interests of whites and minorities align. Conversely, when minorities’ proposals for institutional change don’t align with whites’ interests, those proposals will fail. Not all whites, just as not all minorities, think alike, of course. But whites with power over the University of Michigan have thought enough alike to create and preserve a set of core institutional interests that perpetuate inequality. As critical race theorists would expect, only black activist proposals that aligned with those interests had a chance for implementation at UM.5
One of the lessons of this book is that it’s important not to confuse reform with disruptive institutional change. Reform introduces practices that can make the university more inclusive while preserving the core institutional priorities that have long sustained racial inequality, ensuring that disparities persist. Disruptive institutional change for racial equity is different; it sees the university’s core values as the root of the problem. The goal of disruptive change, then, is to rethink the entire purpose and structure of elite institutions to create a truly equitable university. Black student activists offered disruptive ideas. They got reform instead.
Most universities don’t make it easy to study the history of racial inclusion policies. I’ll be the first to admit that I was naive about the difficulties I would face in writing this book. Once I started traveling the country in search of institutional records, I quickly learned why we know so little about racial inclusion programs, especially those created after the 1970s. While some archives are filled with internal documents concerning initiatives produced in the 1960s and 1970s, more recent records are difficult to find. Many universities have likely destroyed these records or kept them hidden. Some acknowledge their existence but refuse to let researchers access them.
There are reasons that universities haven’t offered the type of historical documentation that scholars covet. In a world where anti–affirmative action lawsuits have become commonplace, there isn’t much incentive for universities to provide lawyers with ammunition. Contributing to the problem, some universities have poor preservation practices regardless of the subject matter or legal threat. Whatever the reason, the lack of transparency has left racial inclusion policies shrouded in mystery. This book tries to take that mystery out of some of the nation’s most contested practices.
Because of the lack of transparency, some scholars studying racial inclusion policies have looked outside university archives for answers. Usually they rely on published institutional sources meant for the public’s eyes. Others depend on interviews with higher education officials. Scholars have to work with what is available, but these sources hide as much as they reveal. As I found once I dove into the institutional archives, published sources meant for the public often conceal the institution’s most controversial policies and practices. They also rarely accurately explain the motivations behind the inclusion policies. I also found that interviews with former officials were important supplementary sources, but these officials frequently confided that their memories were hazy. Some were unwilling to talk about controversial issues, many never responded to interview requests, and at least one person lied to me.6
That’s why getting into an institutional archive was so important to me. Archival sources aren’t perfect, but I wanted to read the internal reports, memos, and personal correspondence that weren’t produced for someone like me to see. I wanted to see how officials justified inclusion policies in the moment and if they anticipated the consequences of their decisions. I wanted to see how their inclusion policies shifted with the ebb and flow of activism, a changing political economy, and a growing backlash to affirmative action. I wouldn’t be able to do this with small pieces of evidence that offered insight into a few years of policy making at one university and a few years of decisions at another.
Early in my research, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to write this book. Eventually, though, I arrived at the University of Michigan. When I first set foot on campus, UM had just stepped out of the national spotlight. A few years earlier, the university had defended its affirmative action practices in two of the most highly publicized Supreme Court cases of the twenty-first century: Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). When I walked into the university’s archives, I stood in front of the most significant collection of documents on racial inclusion practices that I had ever seen. I sat down and went to work. I returned summer after summer—and some winters—until I felt I could offer a book unprecedented in its historical coverage of the long-term implementation of racial inclusion initiatives.7
While the University of Michigan is the most transparent institution that I’ve encountered, its archives still hide stories that limit the scope of this book. For example, I focus on undergraduate students for a reason. Undergraduate admission was more centralized, taking place within the Undergraduate Admissions Office. The office worked with the various schools and colleges to create selection criteria, but the admissions office carried out the duties of selection. This centralized office produced an incredible amount of paper. Memos, reports, and meeting minutes survived the long decades and ended up in the university’s archives. Graduate and professional school admissions worked differently. Individual departments—and professional schools in some cases—control who enters their graduate programs; they haven’t handed over the selection process to a centralized graduate admissions office. If these schools and departments have been good record keepers, they haven’t been as transparent as the Undergraduate Admissions Office. Trying to tell the long history of affirmative action admissions for graduate students in the history department, for example, would be almost impossible through archival records. The university’s law school has kept better records, but much of its affirmative action documentation won’t be available to the public until 2020.8
In focusing on undergraduates, UM’s largest college—the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA)—gets special attention in this book. LSA enrolled the vast majority of undergraduate students and the majority of black students. As such, executive administrators focused much of their resources and attention on LSA when crafting inclusion policies. It’s not surprising, then, that conservative lawyers brought a lawsuit against LSA when they wanted to contest the university’s undergraduate affirmative action admissions practices. Gratz v. Bollinger didn’t challenge all of UM’s undergraduate admissions practices; rather, it specifically targeted LSA’s admissions policies.9
Because undergraduate students tied affirmative action admissions and efforts to improve the racial climate to affirmative action hiring, I also offer insight into the university’s efforts to hire black faculty, staff, and administrators. Much of this hiring, like graduate admissions, unfolded within academic units, making this story difficult to tell. But because the university created a centralized office to oversee affirmative action hiring, I was able to uncover some of this story. As a result, this book reveals the importance of affirmative action hiring policies to black students’ experience at UM. This is an issue that’s often lacking in the scholarship on the history of affirmative action admissions, as affirmative action hiring and admissions are often studied separately. Black student activists, though, never saw these as isolated issues.
My hope is that in reading this book, you will understand what black activists have been up against in trying to transform higher education. External forces, of course, placed obstacles in the way of racial justice at UM. But this book is a reminder that some of the fiercest roadblocks to racial justice in selective colleges and universities have come from the people working within institutions who claimed to be champions of black students. Explaining how these administrators could see themselves as advocates of racial inclusion while overseeing an institution that perpetuated racial inequality is one of the central goals of this book.