In just the past few months, Eddie R. Cole, an assistant professor of higher education at William & Mary, has been awarded four prestigious honors, including being named a 2017 Nancy Weiss Malkiel Scholar by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
As a Malkiel Scholar, Cole is one of 10 faculty recognized nationally as “a developing class of scholars in the humanities and social sciences who are poised — like the program’s namesake — to play a significant role in shaping American higher education,” according to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. The Malkiel Scholar honor also includes a $17,500 award designed for research support and to free the time of its recipients.
Cole’s three additional 2017 research honors — awarded by Princeton University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison — will support short-term research visits to the respective universities’ libraries.
“We are thrilled, though not surprised, that Dr. Cole’s work is attracting such interest and support across the field,” said Spencer G. Niles, dean of the W&M School of Education. “His research addresses important and timely questions regarding how college leaders publicly negotiate critical issues of social justice as they arise on college campuses.”
Cole plans to use the research grants and fellowships to work on a book manuscript during the 2017-18 academic year.
“I am excited by this wave of support from some of the nation’s most prominent foundations and libraries,” said Cole. “These honors are confirmation that the project I am pursuing is pertinent to our current socio-political climate and our future. Therefore, I am deeply appreciative of my dean, the provost, and colleagues for encouraging and supporting my intellectual pursuits.”
A New Perspective on a Common Story
Between protests and riots, calls to sit in and stand up, the 1960s was a tumultuous time in higher education history. And while the actions of student activists and state lawmakers are fairly well known to the general public, there are other important figures, specifically college presidents, whose influence on the national race conversation (for better or worse) often flies under the radar to many citizens.
Therefore, in 2015, thanks to a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation fellowship, Cole traveled to 25 colleges and universities across the country, poring over more than a thousand primary sources from university collections, state archives, and various historical societies to learn more about college presidents and civil rights.
“Scholars, rightfully so, have studied individual college presidents, but rarely have they looked at them as a collective across the nation, much less their influence on the civil rights movement,” said Cole.
As it turns out, college presidents often had shared responses. In the course of his research at universities from Wisconsin to Alabama to California, Cole noticed a trend of presidential inaction, or silence, when faced with student protests surrounding civil rights. Rather than address the issues, some presidents opted to err on the side of caution and withheld a response until things were too heated to ignore.
While national trends emerged, geographical differences were also apparent. In the South, undeniably the hotbed of racial tensions, lawmakers, businessmen and donors oftentimes had heavy influence over college presidents and, thus, the fate of both public and private institutions. Therefore, Cole said, college presidents in the South frequently employed creative approaches to addressing race and segregation. Outside of the South, college leaders responded in a variety of ways when forced to balance demands between those who viewed the racial unrest as a strictly Southern problem and those who often pointed out how racial injustice was happening in their own backyards.
“It was as much an issue in California as it was in Michigan and New York and in the South,” said Cole. “So ultimately, this project is the history of the civil rights struggle as told through American higher education.”
A History Ripe for Today
Cole is currently in the process of documenting trends in the ‘60s and other observations from his research into a book, with the hope of deepening our understanding of higher education history and how college leaders have used their voices to shape the conversation around civil rights.
Perhaps more importantly, in the current higher education climate where diversity and discrimination continue to be contested topics, he hopes digging deeper into the past can help influence how college leaders respond to racial issues in the future.
“We tend to jump into today’s challenges with little consideration of history,” said Cole. “But there’s a long history of racial issues on college campuses, and I think if there’s any kind of guidance that can inform how we react to today’s issues, there’s no better time to look back on than in the ’60s.”