The events that have surrounded and engulfed our nation over that past months have had a significant impact — and made an indelible mark — on the state of higher education and what it means to students and families. In early March, the public health pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 began to essentially rewrite the playbook for colleges and universities across the nation on how they would and would not recruit, engage and teach their students. Faculty, students and administrators began to feel the loss of connection to each other, with their interactions being quickly assigned to a virtual world. The class of 2020 found itself devoid of the opportunity to participate in the ceremonies that celebrate one of the biggest milestone accomplishments in one’s life due to social distancing restrictions. Just a few months later, the horrible murder of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers helped to finally wake up our nation and bring global attention to the violence and atrocities Black people in America continue to endure. Protests called out racism and racial injustice to affirm that both Black lives and Black livelihoods do matter.
In general, it is easy to focus on what was lost to us through each crisis. The health pandemic brought the uncertainty to newly minted high school graduates on if they would be able to keep their plans for college and for institutions, if and when they would be able to open their campuses to students again. The protests in cities throughout the United States that devolved into violent confrontations reminded colleges and universities that their responsibility for encouraging, promoting and protecting civil discourse and constructive activism may have gotten lost. However, this focus distracts from some of the educational accomplishments achieved by African Americans during this time. Nicholas Johnson became the first Black valedictorian of Princeton University in the school’s 274-year-old history. High schools in Texas, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia named their first Black valedictorians as well. The oldest law school in the United States, the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary, named A. Benjamin Spencer as its first African American dean. And finally, our first African American president and first lady helped lead the nation’s first national high school and HBCU graduation celebrations. We cannot allow these accomplishments to be overshadowed by the things that crises can take away from us.
As students and families begin to pivot towards the upcoming academic year, I pray that we are reminded of what has been added to the many educational accomplishments that continue to help write Black history in America. Crises will always illuminate what has been subtracted from our lives, well-being and culture. Our resilience reminds us of our power to change the narrative and add more to our progress than we have lost. Through education, we must continue to focus our efforts on addition and not subtraction.
Dr. Sean Huddleston is president of Martin University, Indiana’s only predominately Black institution (PBI) of higher education.