- Desegregating Private Higher Education in the South: Duke, Emory, Rice, Tulane, and Vanderbilt
This historical perspective provides insight into the challenges of desegregating higher education in privately funded and elite institutions in the South. It begins in the late 1940s, post World War II, and ends in the middle of the civil rights movement, the early 1960s.
Melissa Kean, Centennial Historian at Rice University, selected Duke, Emory, Rice, Tulane, and Vanderbilt to examine, and does so providing narratives of the college presidents who are often placed in the awkward position of pandering to trustees, donors, alumni, faculty and students. Interestingly, while white southern public institutions faced challenges admitting African Americans into graduate programs, for example, law or medical school, Duke, Emory, Tulane and Vanderbilt initially resisted admitting blacks into theology. Kean argues that these institutions functioned as "guideposts for their own stewardships". These schools were led by "locally powerful businessmen, bankers, attorneys, and clergymen" who "saw their schools as extensions of their private domains" (8). Rice, however, known for its strong science, engineering, and architecture programs did not offer theology; therefore, it conveniently excused itself from the fracas. After twenty years the white southern establishment yields at these five institutions. Kean references 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education as the turning point. Race relations became the forefront topic of discussion across the nation. These private institutions' stance against desegregation became threatened. Out of touch trustees and alumni, grounded in southern tradition, pressured presidents to continue with the old south in contrast to the majority of students and faculty open to desegregation. And, at the same time, funding from major foundations and the federal government was jeopardized. The threat of loss of [End Page 298] funding even presented a problem for Rice. Desegregation became a financial dilemma, rather than a moral issue. Presidents at Duke, Emory, Rice, Tulane, and Vanderbilt became acutely aware that "there was no more room for evasion, ambiguity, or bitter-end posturing. They would either change or not. If they did, they would be rewarded. If they did not, they would be punished" (233).
This history is worth reading, and should be required in classes teaching the history of higher education. Kean has organized twenty years in five chapters. Five sub-chapters exist within those chapters highlighting each college's perspective on desegregation through its president. Upon learning more about the presidents' position on desegregation the reader becomes aware of the pressures he faced from his boss—the board of trustees, including alumni, private donors, private Northern foundations, faculty, students, and, finally, the nation. Kean could have easily titled her book—The Fall of White Southern Establishment in Private Higher Education—because this is what it details. Kean's honest depiction of the desegregation of private higher education illustrates the reluctance to do so by a group of powerful white men who did not want doors opened to the grandchildren of former slaves.