Pedagogical Tools and Evidence for Discussing Disparities in Education in Louisiana

The majority of the 101 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States are in the South. HBCUs increased in popularity for students of color whose families experienced integration as challenging, although their existence stems from segregation. Southern University (SUNO), the largest public HBCU, has a history of division between administration and faculty; a 1972 call for access to education from students and professors resulted in deaths. This tension repeated recently when four professors died in 2014. What is teaching like under these conditions? How can faculty experiences illuminate these divisions and inequalities? Nina K. Müller-Schwarze and Robert Perry share reflections on their time and experience as faculty at Southern University in New Orleans.

Anthropology News (AN): Displaced from Southern University in New Orleans by Katrina, what was it like to teach anthropology in a city like Seattle, that prides itself on being a progressive Pacific Northwest stronghold?

The physical infrastructure, or lack thereof, at this HBCU in post-Katrina New Orleans was challenging.

Nina K. Müller-Schwarze (NMS): Only three out of my 120 students in an autumn 2019 University of Washington class, in a show of hands, knew what an HBCU is. I explained to my northern students that we in New Orleans still lived in conditions like 2006 a decade later; the professors died a decade after Hurricane Katrina. Talking about Black experience in the US white world can be taboo, and these taboos are where race is constructed. I shared a PowerPoint slide with links to the news media reports about the deaths of four professors.  Presenting photographs of my colleagues who passed aligns with New Orleanian memorialization practices. We read these articles in class and discussed media narratives. The PowerPoint engaged Black students, reversing the colonial order of the classroom: the majority white classroom listened. This integrated Black voice and experience and not just Black bodies at an historically white institution. Students noticed silences in the media narratives; the reports included less detail further geographically away from New Orleans. A Chronicle of Higher Education article only interviewed the chancellor, Viktor Ukpolo. We discussed how white media silences Black experiences, how investigative journalists do not serve all Americans, and students pontificated on why and the repercussions for Black people who are charged with solving problems where structures have failed. I experienced silencing when I submitted an earlier version to this publication in 2015, but was told that it was “unsubstantiated” that also lauded gossip as anthropological data.

AN: How does this compare with your experience teaching anthropology at Southern University?

NMS: In contrast, I found, while assistant professor at Southern University at New Orleans, the standard curriculum in anthropology irrelevant: my students read racism throughout texts, and concepts like culture and race from mainstream anthropology in their superficiality were not relevant. We utilized ideas like categories and structures to articulate social location in discussions and projects; I call this “supporting students in articulating their own social location and historical experiences.” Anthropology can be used to coproduce student voices.    

We discussed historical experiences that continue. The anthropological discussion around categories helped us discuss how the bifurcation of experience into Black and white arrived with the Louisiana Purchase and US colonialism over a previous French colonialism that organized people in colorism and creole categories. Social structures continuous in sugar plantation regions (the Gulf Coast and Florida panhandle), and what is termed in Latin American studies the indigenous overseer, are especially deep-rooted as sugar plantations endured into recent history. The era of legal segregation created HBCUs. However, racism in wider society meant that this school, termed “North-South University” in Weissinger, was often the only option in the historical continuities of segregation. Integration in the US South historically placed the burden of Black children entering white schools; whites did not enter Black institutions, so the project of integration itself admits inequality.

AN: Can you speak more about anthropology, race, and lived experiences?

Talking about Black experience in the US white world can be taboo, and these taboos are where race is constructed.

NMS: Anthropological “cultural construction of race” can overlook specific embodiments of our particular constructions of race; where the real barriers and walls are. The physical infrastructure, or lack thereof, at this HBCU in post-Katrina New Orleans was challenging. Buildings that had stood in floodwaters had not been repaired and dangerous mold made instructors and students sick. I was grateful that my class met in a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer with a small window that I could open to the sound of passing freight trains. Many librarians, who could not open windows, became sick. The realities of FEMA trailers still in use too many years after Katrina, which the national government had repurposed from disposal, were high in levels of formaldehyde and mold from standing unassembled in the rain. Articulating social location in class resulted in discussions about structures, categories, and the experiences of where the specifically North American constructs of race are.

AN: How do these experiences and conversations differ or align with popular conceptions of race and social categories?

NMS: The idea that everyone in a category shares alliances and allegiances overlooks the structures categories contain and the continuations of historical experiences. The administration at the university was a foreign one, as one colleague stated, “with little allegiance to the local American Black population.” Faculty were generally multiethnic and often deeply committed to teaching; my social location as the daughter of refugees from an ethnic cleansing aligned with the historical experiences of other faculty who felt compassion. It is anthropology that imagines communities.

We were located in the hierarchies of structures and in hierarchies of epistemologies. I assigned Lisbeth Schorr, who shows how funding and research aimed at categories result in structural loopholes allowing for predators, to my students. Schorr describes the layers of political structures administering programs aimed at Others. My students articulated their social locations in structures of bureaucracy; as Schorr describes, reporting procedures enable corruption. Vincanne Adams misses the New Orleanian meaning of the term “corruption” in a quote from an interviewee; her book reads as a master narrative written about anywhere and is not well-researched. My graduate students enjoyed reading Dambisa Moyo.  It was not important whether neoliberalism or bureaucratic state structures functioned as explanations; reality demanded more empowering knowledge. The unsung hero attorney Willie Zanders champions equity in education in Louisiana; his work is available.

I taught and advised dedicated MA students as assistant professor in the Museum Studies program at Southern University. My students curated their own exhibits in area museums, and I taught six courses per semester. I guided some students through the MA process of writing an outline, creating a timeline for activities, repeatedly reading drafts, and I signed one successful thesis. However, students that I inherited had not received clarity as to what a master’s thesis entails. The administration pressured some to graduate. One student conceived the topic and wrote her MA thesis over spring break. I required standards of excellence, yet received pressure in emails from administrators, like Sara Hollis, to “sign off” on subpar theses. I realized this happened because U.S. News and World Report publicized the less than five percent graduation rate. Viktor Ukpolo called a meeting of faculty to explain that he had travelled to speak with the journalist and to pressure faculty to increase graduation rates. I spoke at that meeting, and I was rapidly and illegally terminated despite achieving tenure from faculty. I noticed that U.S. News and World Report added a footnote excusing the low graduation rate for racial reasons. I subsequently hoped to boost my career by taking out my retirement account to write a theory book, but that’s another story!

AN: Can you share with us what it’s like having these conversations about race and your experiences?

NMS: Talking about Black experience in the US white world can be taboo, and these taboos are where race is constructed. We discussed in the FEMA trailer how the process of integration that burdens with solving problems those suffering ignores other aspects of personhood beyond biological race. A wall of silence erects when I mention in conversations at American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings that four of my colleagues died. I probably hold a record for job applications. Employers at northern white universities don’t even understand these incommensurable experiences; I lost them at the term “HBCU.” Experts on culture and race are often the least likely to reflect upon their own social location.  

AN: In the opening paragraph, you touched briefly on the division between the administration and faculty Southern University. Can you share with us something about your time as faculty there?

Robert Perry (RP): My philosophy embraces the fact that if one chooses a career in the teaching profession the reward is in the realization of the significance of the services rendered, not in immediate monetary benefits or accolades one may receive. I briefly describe some of the blatant disregard of professional respect I endured as I attempted to provide a high quality technical education for students.

Years of court battles determined that SUNO’s unfair furlough was indeed illegal and these former faculty members were on paper found to be in the right for their long struggles.

During my tenure as department chair the enrollment number of physics and mathematics majors was steadily increasing. We had field trips to NASA Stennis, witnessed stargazing events through telescopes, and the National Association of Black Mathematicians met twice on SUNO’s campus. I could not help but notice how poorly our students were performing on the Educational Testing Service (ETS) tests, such as the LSAT, GRE, MCAT, and PRAXIS. ETS has a Summer Scholars Program for university professors designed to train them in developing test-taking skills and learning the ins and outs of creating test items. Although each summer only 25 scholars are selected to participate, I was one of two accepted to return to participate for two summers. For a while I was writing general physics test items for the GRE when I was at Southern University New Orleans (SUNO). I used these skills to help physics and mathematics students to improve their score on these tests. In spite of great opposition and no support from Andrea Jefferson, Vice Chancellor and wife of former Congressman William Jefferson, it worked. Mathematics and physical science test scores improved and a mathematics major graduated suma cum laude.

AN: Outside of teaching, what were some of your experiences at Southern University?

RP: For a while I served on the SUNO Faculty Senate. It was brought to my attention and others on a committee that several professors had not verified their degrees with official transcripts on file. In good faith we requested that faculty members should be willing to provide copies of transcripts that should have already been included in university files. This simple request was met with extreme opposition and some administrators did not approve of this request. I have been informed that there are several SUNO faculty members who have not provided any official transcript to indicate that they have indeed earned the degrees they claim. Official transcripts should be required prior to any offer of employment at a university and remain a part of the human resources files.

After about three years into my service to SUNO as chair of the Department of Mathematics & Physics we had a vacancy created by the retirement of physics professor Roy Williams whose service to the department was exemplary. From the best ten or “short list” of viable candidates as we called it, we presented the best three applicants to Andrea Jefferson, who was to make the final selection. I was shocked in my disbelief that Jefferson chose Joe Omojola, whose resume had been rejected. Similarly, Mostafa Elaasar was hired to teach without going through the normal vetting process. I received many complaints from students who would have majored in physics or mathematics but were discouraged to pursue that field of study because of professors Omojola and Elaasar. Because of this, SUNO no longer offers a degree in physics.

After serving as department chair for seven years, certain administrators decided to remove me from that position and make Elaasar the chair of the Department of Mathematics & Physics and Omojola the dean of Natural Sciences. Their knowledge of these fields was often demonstrated as questionable.

And then came Hurricane Katrina which caused the shutdown of all universities located in New Orleans.

AN: What kind of impact did that have your life and teaching career?

RP: My family and I evacuated to Houston, Texas, where we stayed for nine months. During that seemingly endless period of time I made several attempts to orchestrate my return to teaching at SUNO. I drove from Houston to the Southern University at Baton Rouge’s campus (SUBR) to meet with chancellor Robert Gex who encouraged and supported my return to teaching duties at SUNO. Gex advised me to meet with Moustaffa Elaasar, the appointed chair of the SUNO Mathematics & Physics Department. Several times I drove to SUBR for meetings with Elaasar we had scheduled. He did not show up for any of these. After using my savings to survive in Houston for almost a year I had to withdraw from my retirement account. I was forced into early retirement because I did not receive my job back and FEMA assistance was two years too late to save my retirement funds. I was later informed that I had been furloughed and my services were no longer needed at SUNO, despite the fact that I was a tenured associate professor and several untenured SUNO faculty members were retained to resume their teaching responsibilities.

Years of court battles determined that SUNO’s unfair furlough was indeed illegal and these former faculty members were on paper found to be in the right for their long struggles. It is unfortunate SUNO administrators continue to make short-sighted decisions of policy that compromise the essential process of education and the retention of academically dedicated faculty.

Nina K. Müller-Schwarze, PhD wrote a book, The Blood of Victoriano Lorenzo: An Ethnography of the Cholos of northern Coclé Province, Panama. Working as assistant professor at Southern University expanded her abilities to teach diverse students, speak about disparities in education, and create multimedia museum exhibits.

Robert Perry, an Aerospace Corporation and Hughes Aircraft Corporation Electro-Optical Systems Group physicist, adjunct professor at California State University, University of California at Fullerton, Tulane University, and Nunez Community College, and Physics Department chair at Talladega College, served as chair of the Department of Physics and Mathematics at SUNO.

Cite as: Müller-Schwarze, Nina K. and Robert Perry. 2020. “Pedagogical Tools and Evidence for Discussing Disparities in Education in Louisiana.” Anthropology News website, November 16, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1534

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