Land-grant institutions should do more to deal with past and present racism (opinion)
Land-grant institutions should do more to deal with past and present racism (opinion)

The land-grant universities have always held a special place in the history of our country. When they were conceived in 1862 during the national crisis of the American Civil War, Vermont senator Justin Morrill and President Abraham Lincoln put into place a plan that would create our nation’s public university system. Eventually becoming the envy of the world, the land-grant universities followed a mission that provided access to a college education for the sons and daughters of working-class parents at a cost they could bear.

The social unrest that has followed the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor is now demanding a coherent response befitting the majesty of these land-grant universities. Linked in time to the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the emergence of a significant call to end racism requires a strong response from these institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, to date we have seen a lot of talk and a lot less action. Conversations and blue-ribbon committees cannot and will not be part of the answer to our society’s ills right now, especially from predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Only action will speak to the needs of the people.

Auspiciously, these PWI land-grant universities can and should take two concrete steps that will go a long way toward righting past wrongs and creating a pathway toward healing our nation’s wounds. Step one involves the need to recognize and recompensate the transgressions committed against Native American tribes in the building of the land-grant universities. We have all the information needed to accomplish this initial activity. Tristan Ahtone and Bobby Lee’s “Land Grab Universities” report has provided extensive documentation of the tribal lands that were taken, typically by brute force or unjust treaties, to grant the land used to establish public universities.

There are two remarkable features of the "Land Grab" report. First, the records unearthed by these investigative reporters includes a site-by-site demonstration of specific lands that were taken from specific tribes and given to specific land-grant universities. Therefore, we know which tribes were wronged, and we also know which institutions of higher learning benefited from these land dispossessions. Second, we also learn from this report that the money generated from the sales of the real estate parcels is still clearly identifiable within the budgets of the PWI land-grant universities. That means we also know the specific amount of money that is owed to these tribes.

In fairness, it should be noted that some PWI land-grant universities have provided some recognition of the land-grab history of their institutions. Land acknowledgment statements are now given at the beginning of certain events, for example. In fact, the growing number of universities employing these sorts of proclamations has made them almost fashionable. Yet, contrition without restitution rings hollow over time.

South Dakota State University has figured out how to move beyond talk and create meaningful action. The Wokini Initiative -- “Wokini” means “new life” in the language of the Lakota and Dakota tribes -- is a shining example of how to recompensate Native American tribes. President Barry Dunn and his staff members raised the funds that matched the estimated annual income generated from the 160,000 acres taken from local tribes. The money has been used to develop scholarships and programs aimed to support tribal members as university students, as well as financing for an American Indian Student Center. The path has been illuminated, and now other land-grant universities must find their own way to some similar form of restorative justice.

Step two for the PWI land-grant universities surrounds the need to form more intensive partnerships with their sister historically Black land-grant universities. Known as the 1890 land-grant universities, these institutions of higher learning were created as part of a congressional act that followed the “separate but equal” doctrine of the time regarding the education of people of color. They certainly were separate, yet they were hardly equal. Among other inequities, the 1862 land-grants always have been funded more generously than the 1890 land-grants. Much of this resource imbalance has been centered on the disproportionate amount of match money received by the PWIs in comparison to the HBCUs.

The actions needed to be taken at this moment in history involve collaboration that is both political and practical. On the political side, the PWI land-grants must end their silence about the disparities in match money. There is not a better example of institutionalized racism right now, and so there should be no rest in lobbying efforts until the HBCU land-grants receive the same proportion of funding. The level of seriousness on this issue should be underscored by the PWIs making a pledge that, in the absence of funding, they will give up some of their match to make things more equitable for the HBCUs. This is what walking the walk looks like when you get past all the blather.

The practical side of collaboration between the PWI and HBCU land-grants involves both an elevated extension partnership and a more substantial connection among academic programs. The 1862 and 1890 land-grants maintain extension programs, yet the cooperation among personnel is scant. Much more can be done here. On the academic side, there are big gains to be made for all parties involved. As a modest beginning, PWI objectives aimed at greater representation of students of color can be accelerated through efforts to build and maintain pipeline programs that offer entrance into graduate work for the best and brightest HBCU undergraduates. Over time, these sorts of initiatives can create connections for faculty members to initiate collaborative research and community engagement activities as well.

All of what is proposed here is easier said than done. And that is the point. If PWI land-grant universities are serious about taking some sort of action on the antiracism front, they need to do something concrete. Otherwise, it is just more of the same idle chatter that has been going on for a very long time. The difference this time, though, is that the world is watching.



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