Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League

reviewed by George McClellan & Erin Talley - December 14, 2018

coverTitle: Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League
Author(s): Stefan M. Bradley
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 1479873993, Pages: 480, Year: 2018
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Stephen M. Bradley’s Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League is an interesting and important contribution to the literature on the history of eight elite institutions as well as American higher education more broadly. Specifically, the author explores the ways in which the Black Power Movement played out in the lives of students, in particular African American students, enrolled at Ivy League schools during the mid-1960s. Bradley discusses the movement’s effect on student efforts to bring about change at these institutions as well as these institutions’ responses to their efforts.

In addition to an opening chapter discussing desegregation at the Ivies before the mid-60s and a concluding chapter discussing changes in the lives of the students and at the eight institutions following that time, the book includes chapters focusing on events at each of the Ivy institutions individually. Four themes are reflected in all 10 of the chapters: “admission of black students and the various steps the Ivies took to circumvent traditional methods of relying upon prep schools and alumni in an effort [sic] attract and keep matriculants from different backgrounds,” “students who arrived during the mid-1960s and sought not to assimilate,” “the power to control place and space,” and “the birth of Black Studies in the Ivy League” (p. 19).

The second and third of Bradley’s four themes are the most richly elaborated. The book is most compelling and most powerful in the telling of the stories of students who arrived at these institutions during times of great national change and who, for a variety of reasons and from a diversity of perspectives, sought to bring that change to campuses which in so many ways were (and still are) emblematic of the power and privilege associated with Whiteness and wealth. Bradley deserves recognition for his ability to convey both the heft and nuance of the stories of individual students and of the dynamics among the groups of students who came together in the various actions and activities. This includes a fascinating exposition of the role of the historically Black fraternities and sororities; Bradley is himself a member Alpha Phi Alpha, a group which rightfully draws attention in several chapters. He also documents the struggles and strength of the young African American men at Ivy institutions (and African American women enrolled at their sister schools) who thoughtfully situated their efforts locally as a way to shape their own environment with any eye toward broader transformation. It is particularly interesting to learn of these students’ sensitivities to the communities surrounding the campuses where they were enrolled, and of their purposeful networking with other African American students at other Ivy campuses. One cannot help but to compare and contrast the experiences and actions of these students with those of students today who are driving movements like #ConcernedStudent1950 and #BlackLivesMatter.

Other individuals at these Ivy League institutions receive far less detailed treatment than the students. Perhaps most interesting is the important role played by the very few African American faculty in supporting the students, even while at times not finding themselves in full agreement with their goals or tactics, and the concern of senior university leadership to protect perceived institutional prestige at almost any cost.

The book also addresses institutional action and reaction to student initiatives in the form of changes to admissions practices and the creation of Black Studies programs. However, the discussion of the admissions efforts lacks enough detail to be powerful, and one comes away wondering how much change has really taken place between the mid-60s and the current day when it comes to an admissions system that is truly open and inclusive, and that embraces the rich diversity of candidates’ lived experiences.

In contrast, the book’s recounting of the origins of Black Studies is quite robust. Bradley provides real insight into the thinking of faculty and administrators involved in the opening of these programs of study and the trials and tribulations of establishing curricula and campus connections for those offerings. The birthing and painfully slow but important development of these academic endeavors is certainly one of the most significant changes discussed by Bradley, and one which has had a positive effect across American higher education. The limited but critical role of students in advocating for Black Studies as well as the internal differences of opinion within the African American faculty community regarding the wisdom of creating such programs are among the most intriguing aspects of this section.

There is a great deal to commend in Upending the Ivory Tower, but there are modest concerns to be noted as well. One is that the organization of the book, which gives attention to individuals and events at each of the eight institutions, presents challenges for the reader in fully appreciating the four overarching themes. Another is that Bradley, who describes himself as an outsider to the Ivy world, is a bit fawning at times in his description of these eight institutions as being truly extraordinary in the landscape of American higher education. It is easy to see that they are unique; it is equally clear that they are not without equal.

Even with these minor discordant notes, this book is valuable in that it centers students and student experiences in the telling of an important part of the history of American higher education. It is timely in that the struggle to push higher education institutions to ensure inclusion and full opportunity for all is as real today as it was 50 years ago.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 14, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22603, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 7:04:09 PM

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