Amid Attacks on DEI, Black Alumni Must Take a Stand to Protect Black Students

As administrative and legislative decisions take steps to erode the scope and funding of diversity offices, Black alumni must take a more vocal and firm stance to support, affirm and protect current and future undergraduates.

Students listen to a lecture in Dr. Michon Bensons African American Literature class at Texas Southern University on Sept. 7, 2023 in Houston. (Brett Coomer / Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

The historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling made way for both the University of North Carolina and Duke University to admit their first Black undergraduate students in 1955 and in 1963, respectively. With the 70th anniversary of the landmark case last month on May 17, we are reminded of the power of institutions to both negate and affirm the importance of diverse spaces in education through policy and administrative changes.

Decades later, the protection of these diverse spaces remains critical for the future of our country, considering education’s mobilizing ability to reduce gaps in life expectancy and wealth. Though Black students represent 12 percent of undergraduates nationwide today, major disparities in higher education access and outcomes still exist. For instance, only 40 percent of Black students graduate from four-year universities and colleges within six years, a stark contrast to the 64 percent graduation rate of their white counterparts.

Despite the role of education as a gateway to opportunity for marginalized populations, recent judicial, educational and legislative actions have obstructed this path, ranging from the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action last summer to at least 10 states restricting the implementation or funding of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs.

One of the authors of this piece, Rotimi Kukoyi, experienced this firsthand as a student when the University of North Carolina System’s Board of Governors voted to repeal and replace the system’s DEI policies amid pressure from the state legislature, with UNC Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees specifically voting to divert $2.3 million of these funds to police and public safety instead. Similarly, neighboring Duke University recently discontinued its Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholarship Program, which provided a full ride for “exemplary students of African descent,” created to honor the first African American president of Duke’s undergraduate student body. The actions taken in North Carolina and throughout the nation set the tone for what a post-affirmative action world looks like for Black undergraduate and graduate students—a landscape that undermines principles of distributive justice by prioritizing equality over equity. 

Though students may find support from Black faculty at universities, these faculty members are also facing challenges within their own positions. In 2021, Black women and men accounted for merely four and three percent, respectively, of full-time faculty in degree-granting post-secondary institutions nationwide. Even more, this academic year has witnessed prominent Black leaders in academia, from Claudine Gay, the former president of Harvard University, to Sherita Golden of Johns Hopkins University, endure significant challenges. Their experiences range from scapegoating to overt misogynoir, highlighting the persistent adversities faced by Black leaders within the academic sphere.

If these faculty leaders who are committed to protecting and creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for Black students themselves are also under attack by the same system, then who can these students turn to? The only other people who have been in these Black students’ shoes: alumni. 

As administrative and legislative decisions increasingly erode the scope and funding of diversity offices and their associated positions, Black alumni must take a more vocal and firm stance to support, affirm and protect current and future undergraduates in an anti-DEI landscape.

While colleges and universities may remove support from their own DEI initiatives, Black alumni have the opportunity to form their own groups independent of the university to promote policies that benefit marginalized students. If these initiatives are self-funded—bypassing the university, a route increasingly constrained by public defunding of DEI—then they can be directly accountable to the students and alumni rather than to the university administration. This independence enables alumni to develop and maintain mentorship programs, scholarship endowments and advocacy groups that operate autonomously. By securing funding and managing initiatives outside of the university’s financial and administrative frameworks, alumni can ensure their efforts are tailored specifically to the needs of Black students and remain free from institutional constraints and political pressures. 

Additionally, Black alumni can leverage their positions outside of the university system to create institutional change that student organizations and faculty may lack the support or resources to pursue. This could include financially sponsoring faculty, events and lectures that celebrate diverse cultures and history, both on and off campus, in response to the loss of funding created by new legislation.

The current political landscape in higher education aims to erode the success and retention of Black students, who find themselves inadvertently caught in an apparent battle against buzzwords.

In the absence of DEI officers to hold universities accountable for protecting the well-being of marginalized students, alumni must serve as watchdogs in their place, monitoring and reporting on whether universities are genuinely meeting the needs of their current students. These groups can hold institutions accountable by publicly sharing their findings, engaging with media, and using legal avenues such as filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to pursue Title VI discrimination lawsuits and working with civil rights organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund to ensure compliance with diversity and inclusion standards.   

Lastly, alumni must be vocal at the ballot box. As the most potent opposition to DEI initiatives stems from federal and state pressures, we cannot overlook the power of our votes to directly elect officials who recognize the value of diversity in our schools. Due to the growth of restrictive voting laws, the turnout gap between Black and white voters remains significant and is widening. Still, to create systemic policy reforms, we must collectively influence elections.

Though this may be a daunting task for alumni to take on, it is an essential one. The current political landscape in higher education aims to erode the success and retention of Black students, who find themselves inadvertently caught in an apparent battle against buzzwords. 

Beyond advocating for DEI initiatives, alumni must also champion other policies that can significantly impact enrollment and graduation rates for Black students. One of the authors of this piece, Faith Crittenden, deeply understands the financial hurdles in higher education from her time as a Pell Grant recipient during her undergraduate years and now, a decade after graduation, as an alumna. Within their alma maters, alumni can collaborate with university foundations to establish dedicated financial trusts for Black students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Still, further actions from President Joe Biden are crucial to address the broader issue of student debt.

Alumni must be strong advocates for federal student loan forgiveness, recognizing that the financial burden of student debt disproportionately affects Black students. By recognizing all student debt as a significant financial hardship and taking steps to cancel it, President Biden can address the long-standing disparities that have prevented Black individuals from building generational wealth, meaningfully promoting increased educational outcomes for Black students.

Echoing the words of the late civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis, “Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.” As Black alumni, it is imperative to do your part to protect current and future generations in higher education, working to uphold the history, traditions and progress you contributed to.  

Ms. Classroom wants to hear from educators and students being impacted by legislation attacking public education, higher education, gender, race and sexuality studies, activism and social justice in education, and diversity, equity and inclusion programs for our series, ‘Banned! Voices from the Classroom.’ Submit pitches and/or op-eds and reflections (between 500-800 words) to Ms. contributing editor Aviva Dove-Viebahn at Posts will be accepted on a rolling basis.

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About and

Faith Crittenden, MD, MPH, is a pediatric resident at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital in New Haven, Conn. She is also a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project and the National Black Child Developmental Institute.
Rotimi Kukoyi is a public voices fellow of The OpEd Project and The National Black Child Development Institute. He is a sophomore Morehead-Cain scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studies health policy and management, biology and chemistry.