It was jarring when I arrived at the University of Kentucky as a new political science graduate student fresh out of the Naval Academy and Morehouse College three decades ago. The department had very few Black graduate students and no Black professors. “Man, this is a really white space,” I thought. As I learned more about the Bluegrass State, I realized many people thought things were better 70 some odd miles away at the University of Louisville. Many considered U of L the “Black school” when compared to UK.
In recent years, Kentucky, not Louisville, has been the university to seriously invest in fighting anti-Blackness and changing the course of its campus. UK has pushed a robust Black faculty hiring plan that has yielded impressive results. Currently, according to Derrick White, Professor of History and African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky, UK has 76 full-time Black faculty members in its College of Arts and Sciences alone. That rivals or exceeds U of L’s total number of full-time Blacks across its entire university.
U of L shamefully began last school year with only 24 Black professors in A&S, its largest college. Ten were in one department, Pan-African Studies. Multiple Black scholars left during the year, dropping that already paltry number into the teens. It’s unclear how many have been replaced.
For many years, Louisville bragged that it houses the state’s only Black Studies department at a public university. Indeed, Pan-African Studies is one of the oldest in the country and celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023. What is not currently discussed is that several moves have been made over the last few years at Louisville that endanger PAS, its only academic unit solely dedicated to studying and teaching about the Black experience.
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University core curriculum changes have funneled student traffic away from PAS. Budget model changes have stripped it of funds, an area where it was previously among the strongest in the country. Its full-time faculty has almost been slashed in half with no current plan to address the losses. U of L has reduced PAS’s general funds budget literally to $0. Meanwhile, UK’s administration has developed the “Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies,” hired multiple faculty members to work with it, and dedicated $200,000 a year of guaranteed money to it in perpetuity.
Full-time Black faculty numbers have dropped like a stone across U of L. The environment is so bad that most refuse to even entertain counteroffers to stay. The school’s interim provost recently claimed there is now a long-requested plan to address and correct this problem. That remains to be seen.
Readers may say, “Wait! Didn’t the University of Louisville claim that it aspired to be the nation’s premier antiracist university back in 2020?” Yeah, that’s over. The president who made that proclamation is long gone. Word is that UofL’s current leadership is loath to even use the phrase “antiracist university” for fear of retribution by conservative Kentucky legislators and community pushback.
Apparently, the behind-the-scenes party line is they’ll “do the work” without the “antiracist university” language. Even though both white people and strategically placed Black people at the school will take umbrage, the so-called “work” they are currently doing where Black folk are concerned is questionable. Like many white dominated spaces, it can be argued that U of L has joined in on the “DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) lie.” They talk about diversity when challenged (rarely about Black folk specifically, mind you) but do very little of consequence when the curtain is pulled back.
The commitment to silence where anti-Blackness is concerned is becoming a pattern for U of L. When the state’s Republican-dominated legislature pushed anti-Black laws attacking the substantive teaching of race (in the guise of anti-critical race theory), Louisville’s leadership said little to nothing. Black faculty who cared felt hung out to dry. That silence was (and is) deafening. No wonder so many Black staff members are leaving.
Dr. Brandon McCormack, the director of the University of Louisville’s Anne Braden Institute and associate professor of Pan-African Studies, opined in 2020, “Listen. The University of Kentucky apparently gets it. You can’t say Black Lives Matter unless you’re willing to demonstrate, with resources, that Black Lives Matter. Period.” That’s quite an admission from McCormack, who is a Louisville graduate and no fan of that Big Blue school up the road.
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Of course, U of L’s terminal decision-makers will explain it all away. There will even be a few low-expectation-having, institutionalized, anaesthetized Black people who will join them and say, “It’s not all that bad, we’re doing more than you know” and call criticisms such as this one “extreme” or “unfair.” They will say to those who care about fighting anti-Blackness that it’s very difficult or impossible for the school to dedicate resources to this issue because it has no money. According to them, Louisville is all but broke.
Maybe that’s true. Maybe U of L simply isn’t a financially viable institution anymore (outside of paying athletics coaches, of course). Or maybe the school is just fine financially. Maybe the university’s current decision makers just don’t care deeply about Black issues. Or maybe they do. Who knows at this point? What we do know is UK has come a long way since I became only the second African American to receive a PHD in political science there 26 years ago. Meanwhile, U of L has regressed. Nobody can say with a straight face that U of L is the “Black school” when compared to UK anymore.
It would be a stretch to argue the University of Kentucky has evolved into an institution that’s great for Black folk. In the grand scheme of things, it may not even be good just yet. But it’s trying and is damn sure better that the University of Louisville right now. And that’s pretty doggone sad.
Dr. Ricky L. Jones is professor and chair of the Pan-African Studies department at the University of Louisville. His column appears bi-weekly in the Courier-Journal. Visit him at rickyljones.com.
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