The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study hosted a virtual panel focused on how COVID-19 has exacerbated racial and economic inequalities in higher education Thursday.
The panel — titled “The Impact of 2020 on Higher Education: Colleges, COVID-19 and a Time of Racial Reckoning” — featured Harvard Graduate School of Education assistant professor Anthony A. Jack, UCLA Associate Professor of Education Eddie R. Cole, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Associate Professor of Philosophy Jennifer M. Morton. The event, which drew more than 600 attendees, was moderated by Graduate School of Education PhD candidate Kemeyawi Q. Wahpepah ’09.
The panelists discussed how long-standing challenges — such as food and housing insecurity, as well as lack of access to internet and healthcare — are driving an extra-wide wedge between marginalized students and their peers in the pandemic era.
Morton further stressed that students of color and students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds shoulder “ethical costs” as they grapple with a dilemma between pursuing higher education or fulfilling familial obligations.
“As those students were starting their lives, getting excited, going to college, and trying to get a degree, they were also in this position of having to help families, friends, and others around them,” Morton said. “This push and pull of feeling torn between pursuing their own educational advancement, their own opportunities, and being there for the people that they love was very difficult for the students.”
Jack said universities have a responsibility to support their economically disadvantaged students during the ongoing pandemic. He suggested that universities should make resources, such as the option of on-campus housing, available for students who “know that home and harm are synonymous.”
“It’s not just the universal reality of pain that COVID brought,” Jack said. “It’s the uneven effect of that pain, that hurt, that loss, that certain communities are grappling with that universities have to be able to be prepared for.”
Looking beyond the effects COVID-19, the panelists also discussed the general state of support for people of color in higher education. They agreed that finding the right mentors and building a network was “crucial” to their own academic journeys.
Cole emphasized that internal resources, such as commitment and focus, were equally key to success.
“For faculty of color, particularly people new to academia, you just have to stay focused on your heart and what you know your work is to be and what questions you are committed to pursuing,” Cole said. “That is what will support you just as much as other people — knowing what you’re committed to, knowing the work ahead of you.”
This event was supported by the Radcliffe Institute’s “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery,” a University-wide, presidential initiative created in 2019 to examine Harvard’s connections to the slave trade.
Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery Project Manager Cristine Hutchison-Jones said that this panel illuminated the present-day impacts of slavery in higher education — especially how they interact with COVID-19.
“This particular program emerged from our focus...on how the extraordinary challenges facing communities of color in 2020, including health disparities laid bare by the global pandemic and protests for racial justice, are impacting our university community,” she wrote in an email to The Crimson.
Moving forward, the Radcliffe Institute plans to continue its research — led by sociology professor William J. Wilson — on the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on students of color.
Correction: November 20, 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly named the host of a virtual panel focused on how COVID-19 has exacerbated racial and economic inequalities in higher education. It is the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, not the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies.
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