Diversity expert returns to USC

When Shaun Harper was young, you wouldn’t find him outside playing soccer with the other boys. He would be inside, playing school.

“I would always have to play the teacher,” Harper said. “My bedroom wall was my chalkboard.”

Harper is the founder of the new USC Race and Equity Center, where he will work with faculty from USC’s academic schools to solve racial problems inside and outside of the classroom. The center opens in July.

Harper returns to USC after 10 years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he led the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. Harper was an assistant professor of clinical education at USC from 2003-2005.

Having grown up in Thomasville, Ga., Harper is no stranger to racial discrimination. According to Harper, racial politics run so deep in the town that the high school he attended still has two homecoming queens each year, one black and one white.

“I know it sounds like I grew up in the ’50s, but we’re talking about the ’70s and ’80s,” Harper said. “I noticed very early on that most of the black people were poor, and most of the white people were rich. They were in charge of things, and they owned things and they seemed to have lots of power and authority. My people, not so much. It became an intellectual question for me as a kid. I was like this kid, young social scientist, wondering, ‘Why are things so unequal?’”

According to Harper, it was his personal experiences of discrimination that propelled him to pursue a career in education.

“I remember walking to school one day,” Harper said. “I cut across the grass of someone’s lawn, and a white woman came out, and she said, ‘I don’t like n—— on my grass.’ You know, that was very mean to say to a kid, right. But at least I knew where I stood. In corporations, and sometimes in higher education, and in other workplace settings, people don’t want n—— on their grass, or on their staffs or in their executive suite, but they’ll never say it. They’ll just find all sorts of ways to keep us out of those places.”

Harper enrolled at Albany State University, a historically black university, as an education major. While serving on the search committee in charge of finding the university’s new president, Harper realized he wanted a future working in higher education.

“I remember being so impressed by these black people,” Harper said. “They were scholars, leaders. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I want to be like this.’”

Harper recalls how the professors knew how to make their students succeed, as, according to Harper, over 50 percent of African Americans with doctoral degrees completed their undergraduate years at historically black universities.

Harper wants to bring that feeling of community to all colleges and find a way to help black students perform better in their studies. He believes that when tackling issues regarding diversity in education, an interdisciplinary approach is often the most effective.

“I cannot effectively understand, nor respond to racial inequities in education without also understanding how poverty intersects with race [and] how access to high quality healthcare affects students’ educational outcome,” Harper said.

According to Harper, tackling a problem like racism requires dedication and commitment.

“It’s really important to be disciplined,” Harper said. “If you’re going to be a scholar, you have to pick a problem, and you have to stick to it.”

At  the University of Pennsylvania, Harper worked to unite diversity-minded professors from all areas of the school in common conversation. Harper wants to bring this same approach to the USC Race and Equity Center.

“My vision for the USC Race and Equity Center is that the most important conversations about race will be had here,” Harper said. “Through conferences, through speaker series, through digital products, I want USC to be the place that people know they can turn to for expert analysis, for deep thinking and for solutions.”

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