The Public Interest

Desegregating or debilitating higher education?

Q. Whitfield Ayres

Fall 1982

FOR more than a decade the federal government’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR-formerly in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, now in the Department of Education) has required racial desegregation in public higher education beyond that produced by color-blind admissions.  With periodic prodding from a federal judge, the agency has demanded that states eliminate “racially identifiable” public colleges and universities, principally by inducing “other race” enrollment in traditionally black and traditionally white institutions and by improving traditionally black campuses so that they attract more white students. Behind these goals lies a new conception of the “proper” structure and function of public higher education.  The problem, as defined by federal authorities, is the existence of “racially identifiable” or “dual” systems of higher education in nineteen states. These states, located mainly in the southeast but extending as far north as Ohio and Pennsylvania and as far west as Missouri and Arkansas, had at one time established legally segregated public colleges and universities. Beginning in 1938 in Missouri, federal courts gradually struck down racial restrictions on college admissions, yet racial identifiability persisted in higher education just as it did in elementary and secondary schools.

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