What is it like to be the first of your race to be in a position? A journal called Public Seminar, focusing on culture and politics, published a collection of essays
and interviews by Black academics that explore the various experiences of professors and administrators in the field of higher education earlier this spring.
The series came together, in part, after the events of summer 2020 in which Black faculty openly shared with colleagues about their own experiences.
Claire Potter, co-executive editor of Public Seminar, said that the personal essays can help advance understanding of how race is experienced, especially within the field of higher education.
“There was just a recurring theme of colleagues bravely pushing back against daily racism, and the ways in which African American colleagues are continually having to navigate everything that’s difficult about being a college professor,” Potter said, “but on top of that, navigate year after year, the sort of recurring frustrations, stumbling blocks and barriers to success that racism creates.”
I talked with Dwight McBride, president of the New School and a contributor to the collection, to hear how administrators of color navigate white-dominated spaces and how universities can offer better support for educators like him.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You’ve talked about being the first. Can you expand on this idea and how it relates to your experiences in higher education?
There’s no great joy in being the first, right? I don’t take pride in that. I don’t. In fact, I think if anything, it should be a reminder to us of just how much progress we still need to be making. I became the first African American president to lead the New School in 2020. I became the second African American, and the first openly gay Black man, to be the provost at Emory in 2017. It was in 2010 that I became the first African American dean to lead the graduate school at Northwestern University.
For me, that’s a part of the evidence that says we have real work to do in an institutional context where we are still achieving Black firsts. I want to be a part of the solution of that work. I’m not just complaining about it. That’s why, for me, this program that we run, the Academic Leadership Institute
, is so important. It’s so close to my heart. Because it’s a program designed specifically to help those colleagues in mid-level leadership, deans, vice provosts — people who have been long serving who might be ready to step up to the positions of provost or president in a variety of institutional contexts. Individually, we were doing so much mentoring and working with people who, because we were visible, people would reach out and say look, I’m thinking and I’ve been asked about this position or the other position. We were doing a lot of this in a kind of ad hoc way so we thought: Is there a better way to do this that also builds a network?
How do you balance the celebration you may receive from those who feel they are finally being represented in a position of power while also tackling a very white-dominated culture?
One of the things I think that is really important is to think about what the alternative is — and that’s the way I keep going. The alternative is to not step up to the roles, to not be a part of the change that we know needs to happen. I don’t mean this casually or hyperbolically. We’re absolutely certain - and our demographics show us - that our country is already looking and will continue to look very different than it did 50 years ago.
I’ve never been a quitter in that regard. As a result, I’m not one that likes to admit defeat. I want to be a part of that change. I want to be a part of building those solutions. That’s what motivates me, and keeps me going even in those moments, some of which I talked about in the article, that challenge your legitimacy — that challenge your intellect. One of the things that I have always responded badly to, even as a child, is being underestimated. It’s a hard thing to respond badly to, if you exist in this body in America, because you are constantly underestimated. That’s been the case throughout much of my own experiences. But I’m happy to say that in most instances, that’s only happened once with most people because soon they come to understand that I do have some things to offer. I do have some value that I bring to the table.