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The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Fight for Black Liberation

reviewed by Jesse R. Ford & Kaleb L. Briscoe - April 29, 2021

coverTitle: The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Fight for Black Liberation
Author(s): Eddie R. Cole
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691206740, Pages: 366, Year: 2020
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Eddie R. Cole’s The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Fight for Black Liberation builds on his previous works in 2018 and 2020 at a crucial moment in American society, as we mourn the continuing injustice done to Black women, men, and transgender individuals. This timely work by Cole, associate professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles, is relevant not only for historians interested in college presidents and student access, but also for students, administrators, and faculty. The tensions of race and desegregation at leading higher education institutions in the period 1948–1968 addressed by Cole highlight multiple intersectional viewpoints on the historical challenges that influence the current political landscape of higher education. Additionally, those who are teaching race-related research, civil rights and student activism, and social-cultural political ideologies would likely find themselves in the position of adapting Cole’s presidential framing to their existing historical paradigms. As presidents find themselves again wrestling with campus racial unrest and crisis management issues, Cole's work collectively discusses the historical context that academics might argue is the basis of what we are actually witnessing in contemporary times.

Cole's critical analysis situates his work in a historical context that allows him to investigate racialized tensions during the desegregation process of a cohort of college presidents. Furthermore, Cole (2020) states his work with college presidents during this time period “explores how that unrest impacted their relationships with local community leaders, trustees, faculty members, business leaders, alumni, journalists, state and federal officials, and students alongside concerns about governance, public relations, free speech, academic freedom, and fundraising” (p. 10). Moreover, this work mirrors the greater landscape of the United States in 1948–1968 in which college presidents, like politicians and as academic leaders, shaped racial politics in higher education. Cole’s reflection and analysis call for contemporary college presidents to utilize historical roots when making race-based or racialized decisions on college environments.

Starting with his introduction, Dr. Cole writes how significant education has been in his life, as his parents and grandparents were educators navigating the Jim Crow South. The “role of education in the Black freedom struggle, and their lives molded me,” he writes, and the introduction places his positionality at the foreground of his intellectual geology, as well as addressing the overall need to introduce this body of work to the academy. In this work, Cole twists the Black liberation movement on its head by reflecting on the perspectives of white college presidents and their struggle to navigate desegregation. This approach provides insight into the ideologies of white college presidents during this time, as many grappled with racialized tension from their supporters and oppressors. Historically, this time is known for its push for civil and equal rights in the midst of trying to support Black students (Harper et al., 2009). Furthermore, this work puts college presidents’ influence and power behind the scenes of the civil rights movement. Cole emphasizes that the collective management and obstacles these academic leaders face are frequently overlooked in the affirmative action narrative, but have long-lasting implications for higher education.

Chapter 1, focused primarily on President Jenkins of Morgan State College (now Morgan State University), provides a vivid depiction of what it meant to be a Black college president in the mist of racial inequality in our country. This chapter in particular emphasizes the untold stories of HBCU presidents and the continuing need to develop partnerships in order to advance the equality agenda. These hidden narratives are tightly associated with the disenfranchisement of HBCUs, which saw a significant decline in enrollment and financial support during this time period. Moreover, the connections between community-based organizations and the unified voice of these political and educational institutions positions Black colleges presidents as vital to supporting and developing Black students. This strategy employed by Black presidents (also known as Black leadership) is the basis for creating inclusive and collective environments. This style of leadership, according to Bordas (2016), is focused on people’s “collective interests and concerns with an emphasis on overcoming social, political, and economic impediments” (p. 63).

While the narrative of President Jenkins illustrates the struggles at Black colleges, Cole presents a glimpse of the leadership that has taken place traditionally in white colleges and universities, including the innumerable stories of how these university leaders and organizations discussed ways of maintaining peaceful cultures while addressing political challenges. In addition, Cole’s ability to connect college presidential challenges, racial turmoil, and political climate make this work groundbreaking. This is especially insightful since Cole takes the approach of focusing his work on the dominant white community which had their own way of working against the desegregation within the confines of American society. This work offers a detailed look at the educational system during the Black Freedom Movement while sharing critical insights into the perspectives of white university leaders, free speech rights, and affirmative action policies.

Finally, The Campus Color Line: College Presidents and the Struggle for Black Freedom provides a framework for academics and researchers to think about as they study the effects of race and prejudice in higher education. In order to dismantle systems of oppression, we must explore how they are formed, how leadership influences their formation, and how they are consistently perpetuated.  Cole’s work reminds us as scholars that education, while not always seen as a communal responsibility, is work we all must do, from the presidential, faculty, and administrative level to create a learning atmosphere which acknowledges racialized tensions. We identify with and elevate the historical contributions of this work as Black researchers and scholars committed to dismantling the oppressive white hegemonic structure that perpetuates racialized environments. Furthermore, we encourage academics, researchers, and practitioners to think about the implications of past campus leadership and how it has shaped our educational landscape.


Bordas, J. (2016). Leadership lessons from communities of color: Stewardship and collective  action. New Directions for Student Leadership, 52(1), 61–74.

Cole, E. R. (2018). College presidents and black student protests: A historical perspective on the image of racial inclusion and the reality of exclusion. Peabody Journal of Education, 93(1), 78–89.

Cole, E. R. (2020). Race at the top: Historical insights on the college presidency and racial inequities. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 52(2), 17–21.

Cole, E. R. (2020). The campus color line: College presidents and the struggle for Black freedom. Princeton University Press.

Harper, S. R., Patton, L. D., & Wooden, O. S. (2009). Access and equity for African American students in higher education: A critical race historical analysis of policy efforts. The Journal of Higher Education, 80(4), 389–414.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 29, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23684, Date Accessed: 5/14/2021 11:02:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Jesse R. Ford
    University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    E-mail Author
    JESSE R. FORD, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Teacher Education and Higher Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His program of research uses culturally responsive frameworks to examine the historical social-cultural racialized educational experiences of underrepresented populations in academia. His recent scholarship employs qualitative and quantitative methodologies to tackle inequality in education, particularly within the socialization experiences of underrepresented students, faculty, and administrators across the P-20 pipeline. Dr. Ford’s scholarship can be seen in the Journal of Black Studies, Education and Urban Society, About Campus.
  • Kaleb L. Briscoe
    Mississippi State University
    E-mail Author
    KALEB L. BRISCOE, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in higher education leadership in the Department of Educational Leadership at Mississippi State University. Her research problematizes oppressed and marginalized populations within higher education through critical theoretical frameworks and qualitative methodological approaches. Through her scholarship on campus racial climate, she seeks to disrupt whiteness and white supremacy on predominantly white campuses. Her research shapes administrators, specifically university presidents' responses to race and racism, by challenging their use of anti-Blackness and non-performative rhetoric. Dr. Briscoe’s work has been published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, and Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, to name a few. Her research has been supported by grants from the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA) and ACPA College Student Educators International.
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