Staff, faculty and students from the USC Pullias Center for Higher Education, a research institute housed within the Rossier School of Education, convened for a Zoom call in July. Unlike the typical mid-pandemic virtual happy hours and cups of coffee, this meeting was more than just another last-ditch attempt at socialization.
About a month after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police — followed by nationwide and ongoing protests, growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and a widespread public demand for institutional accountability — the meeting had one objective: to call the Center to action.
The goal of the Zoom call, Zoë Corwin, a research associate professor at the Pullias Center, recalled, was simple — to mobilize resources and faculty expertise at the center to help advance the conversation around racial inequity in the United States.
“We came together as a center to say ‘Alright we’re all working on different things,’” Corwin said, “‘But how can we take our expertise and share it in ways that we feel will be helpful for the greater society?’”
During the meeting, Jordan Harper, a doctoral student at Rossier and a research assistant at the Pullias Center, proposed an idea: Higher Ed Conversations In Black. Inspired by Ed Gordon’s book, “Conversations in Black: On Power, Politics, and Leadership,” Harper envisioned a bimonthly publication that offered a space for Black educators to share stories and ideas around problems of racial inequity in higher education. The series would be posted to the Pullias Center’s webpage in a blog-style format.
“The initial plan was to actually create a guide around racial equity more broadly for administrators, faculty, staff, students,” Harper said. “[We] realized time was of the essence, so if we wanted to do something we would have to move very fast.”
Three months later, Harper’s idea became a reality. With the support of the Pullias Center, Harper and Corwin released their first issue “Good and Necessary Trouble” in early September.
The publication invited a handful of prominent Black USC educators, including Rossier Dean Pedro Noguera and professor of education John Slaughter, to answer questions about the online school year, the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing instances of police brutality in the U.S. Many of the contributors urged readers to take up the “good and necessary trouble” of staying vigilant in their fight against “anti-Blackness and white supremacy” as they headed into the new school year.
“It is exciting that all the projects were brainstormed and visioned by students, postdocs and faculty in our center,” wrote Adrianna Kezar, director of the Pullias Center, in an email statement to the Daily Trojan. “We hoped to help frame discussions about key issues in higher education and foreground the views of Black scholars and leaders that are sometimes overlooked.”
The goal of the publication, according to the Pullias Center website, is to “curate questions around higher education issues” for Black scholars that will be answered in each edition. Invited contributors will offer 100-200 word responses that will be uploaded in a discussion-style format. Harper and his team at Pullias hope to use this question-and-answer structure to highlight the often-overlooked voices of Black scholars as they address key issues of inequity and inaccessibility in American higher education.
With their first issue completed, the Center looks to continue the series on a bimonthly basis, with the next issue set to be released in November.
For Harper and Corwin, the current state of the pandemic and online learning presents a new set of equity problems for higher-ed institutions. Students, who once enjoyed access to the same libraries, workspaces, tutoring centers and living facilities, are now stuck at home with varying levels of access to academic resources and safe work environments.
“I think that we are all going through a lot of stress related to COVID right now,” Corwin said, “and I think Black students have a whole other deep level of stress and trauma that they have undergone this summer … [Zoom] is a very intimate space, and that’s exhausting.”
In upcoming editions, Harper and Corwin look to address Zoom-related equity issues. Harper cites the over-policing of Black and brown students as an example of a new and important issue facing higher education today.
“One way I see this policing manifesting is the requirement to have cameras on in Zoom,” Harper said. “Some people don’t want [others] to know what their background looks like.”
Harper and Corwin plan to also invite Black thought leaders to discuss issues surrounding the soon approaching 2020 presidential election and highlight the experiences of Black graduate and doctoral students at USC and elsewhere.
“What’s exciting about this project is that … higher ed is constantly changing,” Harper said. “There’s always something new to discuss. It’s kind of challenging, but it’s kind of exciting to just go with the flow.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Zoë Corwin’s first name as Zoe and misstated Corwin’s role at the USC Pullias Center for Higher Education as staff when she is a research associate professor. The Daily Trojan regrets these errors.