Racial Equity and the Legacy of the AAUP’s Committee L

Building on the Association's history with HBCUs.
By Marcus Alfred and Kelly Hand

A core assumption of the AAUP’s current racial equity initiative is that in fighting against systemic racism and inequity in higher education, we must approach all of the Association’s work through the lens of racial equity rather than focusing narrowly on specific committees or projects. This means that every AAUP committee—not just the Committee on Historically Black Institutions and Scholars of Color but also Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the Committee on College and University Governance, among others—should consider issues of racial equity a priority and that work happening across commit­tees or outside of them should support and reinforce this focus. Recent exemplars of this broader approach include the 2022 report Governance, Academic Freedom, and Institutional Racism in the University of North Carolina System and the 2023 report Political Interference and Academic Freedom in Florida’s Public Higher Education System. Both reports attracted significant media attention and offered evidence of the persistence of racism within and beyond colleges and universities and of the increasingly vocal resistance to instruction or educational content that reckons honestly with race and racism in US history and soci­ety. They set an important precedent for future work yet also serve as a sobering reminder of the powerful forces that faculty members are up against in striving toward racial justice in the academic profession.

As we reconsider in this issue of Academe the AAUP’s history on matters related to race, it is useful to look back at the period over fifty years ago when the AAUP established its Committee L on Predominantly Black Institutions, the predecessor of the current Committee on Historically Black Institu­tions and Scholars of Color. The committee, proposed at the Fifty-Ninth Annual Meeting in 1973, was an outgrowth of the AAUP’s Special Project for Devel­oping Institutions (SPDI), which began in 1969 and concluded its work in 1972 with the publication of a report. Funded by a three-year grant from the Ford Foundation and led in its final two years by Ezra A. Naughton, who was the Association’s first Black senior professional staff member before moving on to other positions in higher education and government, the SPDI assisted historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with adopting AAUP standards related to aca­demic freedom, tenure, and governance—areas in which “special problems,” and “lack of adequate financing, appeared to hamper the full development of these institutions.”1 Acknowledging that “the AAUP has not always seemed credible to many faculty members in black institutions” and that membership numbers remained low at the institutions with AAUP chapters, Naughton’s report asserts that “the Association’s com­mitment to black higher education [had] gained both visibility and credibility” through the SPDI project and makes a compelling case for extending support beyond the project’s funding period.2 Naughton points to the strong record of HBCUs in achieving excellent out­comes with meager resources, their ongoing relevance despite concerns about the “viability of traditionally black colleges in a society that appeared to be moving toward racial integration,” and the historic opportunity for the AAUP to provide further assistance: “It has the power to lead.”3

After its establishment in 1973, Committee L issued its first report in 1974. The committee’s first chair and the author of the report was Donald L. Pierce, a professor of mathematics at Lincoln University (Penn­sylvania), whose AAUP chapter had introduced the proposal for the committee’s formation. Pierce explains that the purpose of the committee was to “solidify the gains” of the SPDI, recaps key themes from the SPDI report, and describes a conference the new Committee L convened in late 1973 with faculty members from public and private Black institutions in Georgia “to seek from constituents themselves some sense of how the AAUP might continue to respond with specificity to the needs of the black institutions.”4 Participants expressed fears that court-ordered desegregation would result in diminished educational opportunities for Black students and unemployment for many Black professors, and they adopted a resolution calling for a multistate conference to focus on faculty governance, partly as a mechanism to protect faculty from the impact of any institutional mergers. They also discussed the poten­tial for collective bargaining as a means of improving faculty involvement in governance. Having noted that more Black colleges and universities had participated in the most recent salary survey (the predecessor of the current Faculty Compensation Survey) and that this was a sign of growing confidence in the AAUP among administrators, Pierce closed his report with a call for “the continued support of members to strengthen and expand the commitment of the Association to con­stituents in the predominantly black institutions” and for ongoing assistance and financial support from the national office to advance the committee’s work.5

The committee changed its name in 1977 to Com­mittee L on Historically Black Institutions and the Status of Minorities in the Profession, reflecting a broader scope beyond HBCUs for its work. Nonethe­less, a throughline for the committee over the decades has been uncertainty about the future of HBCUs, com­bined with certainty about their positive contributions. In 1994, Committee L announced that it would focus on the potential impact of the 1992 US Supreme Court decision in United States v. Fordice holding, in a case involving Mississippi colleges and universities, that “implementation of race-neutral policies alone did not satisfy the obligation of states to dismantle formerly segregated systems.”6 The committee subsequently issued a report in 1995 discussing the implications of Fordice and documenting the value of HBCUs. It high­lights impressive data related to student enrollment, satisfaction, retention, and graduation and examples of the contributions of HBCUs to the sciences and medicine, innovation in community program develop­ment, and international cooperation on agricultural and other cross-cultural projects. The report concludes that “America’s historically Black colleges and univer­sities serve functions so valuable in American higher education that their preservation is truly essential. They merit full support in their continuing missions.”7

In 2002, the committee adopted its current name, the Committee on Historically Black Institutions and Scholars of Color. Its next and most recent major report, approved in 2006 by the committee and published in 2007, discussed the legal fallout of the Fordice ruling—which resulted in a financial settlement for Mississippi’s public institutions that “put the onus of integration on the three black universities”—and demonstrated a potential new role for the committee in analyzing significant trends related to shared gover­nance and academic freedom, accreditation problems and solutions, and enrollment changes at Black institu­tions.8 Acknowledging the “disproportionate number of HBCUs that are on the AAUP’s list of censured adminis­trations” and hinting at the complexity of relationships among HBCU boards, administrations, and faculty members, it notes that “while concerns about autocratic leadership should not be downplayed, in accounting for it, one must understand the historical and current con­texts in which HBCUs operate,” including “the history of racism and state-sanctioned discrimination.”9 Like its predecessors, this committee report calls for “com­mitting time and resources to HBCUs,” concluding that “the Association should push—even against the tide of indifference to racial injustice—for diversity within predominantly white institutions, while simultaneously supporting quality, fair representation, and academic freedom within black colleges.”10

Although the committee’s name change over two decades ago signaled that its work now explicitly encompasses all scholars of color—not only those who identify as Black or teach at HBCUs—that work remains rooted in Committee L’s historical focus on HBCUs. As a corollary to this focus, it is noteworthy that the AAUP’s work on discrimination has concentrated heavily on discrimination related to gender rather than to race. For example, On Processing Complaints of Discrimination—originally released in 1977 with the title On Processing Complaints of Discrimination on the Basis of Sex, revised in 1991, and included in the most recent edition of the AAUP’s Redbook—begins by citing a more expan­sive definition of discrimination from the prior statement On Discrimination, in which the AAUP “resolved to work toward correcting inequities” that include race among other bases for discrimination, yet only directs its policy guidance toward sex-discrimination claims.11 The report took this direction in spite of the approval of an AAUP resolution at the Fifty-Seventh Annual Meet­ing in 1971 that “reaffirm[ed] its commitment to the elimination of racial discrimination at our colleges and universities” and the subsequent creation of a Commit­tee on Discrimination, which issued a 1972 report that included race as a basis for discrimination.12 After the report On Processing Complaints of Discrimination on the Basis of Sex, adopted by Council in 1977, was presented for endorsement to the Sixty-Fourth Annual Meeting in 1978, Donald Pierce moved “that the Annual Meeting instruct Committee A to prepare a policy docu­ment on the processing of complaints of discrimination based on race.”13 Although the motion was adopted, Committee A did not follow through on the resolu­tion. We can only imagine that Pierce, as Committee L’s founding chair, must have deemed the AAUP’s inaction disappointing.

This year the AAUP issued a new statement, On Eliminating Discrimination and Achieving Equality in Higher Education, developed by a Joint Subcommittee on Discrimination that included members of the Com­mittee on Historically Black Institutions and Scholars of Color, Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, and the Committee on Gender and Sexuality in the Academic Profession. The statement will replace On Processing Complaints of Discrimination in the forth­coming twelfth edition of the Redbook (see, elsewhere in this issue of Academe, Risa L. Lieberwitz’s article discussing the statement’s development). It declares, “Today we must acknowledge the complex nature of systemic inequality and the need for institutional change and affirmative measures designed to eliminate discrimination and advance both formal and substan­tive equality.”14 This collaboration points to a way forward for the AAUP’s efforts to build on the founda­tion of its racial equity initiative with a more systemic approach to pursuing racial justice in higher education.

Other examples of recent work by the Committee on Historically Black Institutions and Scholars of Color include a letter of support for the AAUP-AFT collective bargaining chapter at Edward Waters University, a pri­vate Christian historically Black institution in Florida, sent in response to the administration’s withdrawal of voluntary recognition of the union, and the planning of a 2023 Summer Institute roundtable discussion for scholars of color and HBCU faculty members, which addressed, among other topics, the hostile political climate resulting from state legislation targeting higher education. Committee members who contributed to this issue of Academe include its chair (coauthor of this article), Andrew J. Douglas, and Emily Houh. Now in its second half-century, the committee and its legacy can help to ground the AAUP’s racial equity initiative in a clearer understanding of both past accomplishments and missed opportunities in the Association’s history of addressing matters related to race. Whatever work the committee undertakes in the future should be part of a commitment by the entire Association to seek mean­ingful and measurable gains for faculty members and students of color to benefit academic communities and the common good.

Marcus Alfred is associate professor of physics at Howard Univer­sity and chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Historically Black Institu­tions and Scholars of Color. Kelly Hand is writer/editor in the AAUP’s Department of External Relations and an associate editor for Academe.


1. Obituary of Ezra Audain Naughton, Cunningham Turch Funeral Home website, November 22, 2016, https://www.cunninghamfuneralhome.net/obituaries/ezra-audain-naughton/; “Report of the Special Project for Developing Institutions,” AAUP Bulletin 58 (June 1972): 166.

2. “Report of the Special Project for Developing Institutions,” 166.

3. Ibid., 167.

4. “Report of Committee L, 1973–74,” AAUP Bulletin 60 (June 1974): 244, 245.

5. Ibid., 246.

6. Leland Ware, “Will There Be a ‘Different World’ after Fordice?,” Academe, May–June 1994, 9. See also the sidebar on the same page announcing the committee’s focus on Fordice.

7. “The Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Future in the Balance,” Academe, January–February 1995, 57.

8. “Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Recent Trends,” Academe, January–February 2007, 70.

9. Ibid., 71.

10. Ibid., 77.

11. AAUP, Policy Documents and Reports, 11th ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 355.

12. “The Fifty-Seventh Annual Meeting,” AAUP Bulletin 57 (June 1971): 179; “Report of the Council Committee on Discrimination,” AAUP Bulletin 58 (June 1972): 160–63.

13. “The Sixty-Fourth Annual Meeting,” AAUP Bulletin 64 (September 1978): 157.

14. On Eliminating Discrimination and Achieving Equality in Higher Education, January 2024, https://www.aaup.org/report/eliminating-discrimination-and-achieving-equality-higher-education.