Ronald Crutcher & Lorelle Espinosa

Deferred Dreams of Brown and Grutter

Air Date: July 22, 2019

University of Richmond president Ronald Crutcher and American Council on Education vice president Lorelle Espinosa discuss race, law, and higher education.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today we embellish on our recent exchange with Professor Tony Jack, author of “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students” with two dedicated practitioners and advocates of American higher education. Dr. Ronald Crutcher currently serves as the 10th president of the University of Richmond. Before that he served as president of Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He’s a national leader in higher Ed and helps oversee the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Dr Lorelle Espinosa is the vice president for research at the American Council on Education; a scholar of equity and higher Ed, Espinosa is the lead author of ACE’s landmark report: Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Status Update. I want to quote today from a sweeping conclusion of that report: “There are myriad factors that inform educational access and success such as income, wealth, geography and age. Yet it remains the case that race is a prevailing factor in many educational outcomes…”

“These data provide a foundation from which the higher Ed community and its many stakeholders can draw insights and raise new questions and make the case for why race still matters in American higher education.” To expound are the authors and inspiration of this report. Thank you both for joining me today.

ESPINOSA: Thank you for having us.

CRUTCHER: Pleased to be here.

HEFFNER: When Tony Jack was here, the last few minutes of the program were dedicated to the current case pending before the Supreme Court on race and admissions at Harvard. I say pending because it will likely get to the Supreme Court, although it’s not there yet. It is in this context that we consider race today. The prevalence of that being a factor in determining admission and in Tony Jack’s mind whether or not you will succeed in the environment you are immersed. What today is most defining that latter question of whether or not you will succeed in the higher Ed setting?

CRUTCHER: There are a number of factors, but at least in my experience, in my observation, and I’ll speak from a perspective of a practitioner whose on the underground, so to speak here, the preparation has something to do with it, what kind of high school you went to, for instance, Tony talks about the privileged poor, those students who came from poor underprivileged backgrounds who were, if you will, hoisted into a more privileged position as a result of going to a charter school or private school, et Cetera. That, it’s helpful not only in terms of the quality of the preparation, but quite frankly also the extent to which transitioning into particularly a predominantly white institution is or is not problematic for the students. Obviously, you know, income is a major factor there as well.

I think part of the issue is that if you don’t pay attention to disparities with respect to race, that is if you pretend or everyone is the same, you know, with only economic factors being different than you miss the nuances that occur when, when you know, you, you suddenly take a student and in there in an institution which feels very foreign to them and they become, you know, alienated. And unless they have they’re very strong people themselves they can often fail even if they’re, you know, very well prepared to do the work.

HEFFNER: Based on your findings, what would you say was the principal objective in attempting to better understand where we are? Were there active measures that universities ought to take, inspired by the report.

ESPINOSA: Yeah, so we did the report essentially to do just what you described, to really put a foundation of data out there for use by a myriad of different individuals, policy makers, practitioners, institutional leaders, families and students themselves to really allow this community that is attempting to close racial equity gaps with foundational data to make the case as to why race absolutely matters and we believe it matters in higher education. It matters in society and we can about how it plays out in those places. But how institutions can use this report is to really think about their student body, their community that they reside in, in light of the data that we show, and we’re seeing institutions do just that and using it as a benchmark for how they are either really growing their student body of color, their faculty body of color, or perhaps how they’re not, where they have succeeded, where they still need to do some work.

HEFFNER: How much is affirmative action, or at least the mainstream understanding of affirmative action as a public policy matter, still relevant to this conversation? Is it, as it had been, a laser focus in diversifying the student body and faculty? Or is that now somehow on the back burner or is it still essential to this conversation?

ESPINOSA: It’s absolutely essential. Yeah, and the, the data that we show when you, when you look at the differences that exist by race in a host of outcomes, both who goes to college, where they go, what they study, how they pay the loan debt that they leave with, you can attribute some of that to income certainly, but for certain groups like African Americans, when you look at each income quartile, you see that some of these outcomes still put them at a disproportionate disadvantage. And so that that’s something that we’re working to paint a picture towards. Like I said, race matters.

HEFFNER: And of course the ability of institutions of higher learning to implement affirmative action policies, whether there’s a quota or just a liberal idea of facilitating a community of multicultural learning is dependent upon the legality of affirmative action going forward. Hence, why I refer to our conversation with Tony Jack because Justice Sandra Day O’Connor made some assumptions in believing in, in the Gratz and Bollinger decision, Grutter and Gratz and Bollinger that in 25 years and we’re coming up on that 25-year threshold. Affirmative action would not be necessary, from a practitioner’s perspective. Could she have been, were wrong?

CRUTCHER: No, I mean, I see part, part of the problem from my perspective and I’m, you know, I’m, I graduated from college 50 years ago and I really thought when I graduated in 1969 that by the year 2000, we as a country would have resolved the race issue that is, have come to terms with these issues. And obviously we have not. And part of the reason is that, you know, we basically still live in a segregated society. 75 percent of whites have only other whites as their primary network, outside. And, I think you know, I think that Justice O’Connor in her heart, you know, she had good intentions as I did when I graduated in 1969. But things have not evolved in the way that we, that I would have hoped or that she had.

HEFFNER: And she wasn’t saying this based on public policy that was addressing then or fast-forward from 2003, 2004 more than 10 years later, systemically unjust education system and based on that, I’ve drawn this conclusion scientifically that in 25 years things will be more equitable. And so that was maybe a fatal flaw in, in that, given that that’s where the law is right now and it’s hanging by a thread how are institutions of higher education considering more creative measures that will be legal according to our high law, the Supreme Court.

ESPINOSA: Well, I’ll just say too, going back to her statement about the 25 years, really quickly, you know, I think she was being hopeful that as a country we might have moved past where we are, but I think in some ways we’ve actually gone backwards. And so what institutions are doing you know, they have been creative for a very long time around this issue and it’s good to know that just a fraction of higher education uses race in the admissions decision. But an important fraction, some of the most selective prestigious universities consider race as one factor, just one factor in a holistic admissions process. And they do that because they value the educational benefit that comes with a diverse student body. So you know, there’s institutions of course in a number of states that cannot consider race any longer given, you know, statewide bans and they often turn to income. But what we see when you turn to income is still a dramatic decline in racial diversity of an incoming class. We’ve seen that in California and a number of other states.

HEFFNER: Isn’t the most obvious argument legally after Citizens United, the First Amendment for these institutions that they – at least the nongovernmental institutions, as is the case in Harvard, that they reserve the right, they have the right to admit a class based on their assessment of students as long as it is not discrimination. The folks who want to undermine existing practices that would consider race are saying it is reverse racism so they’re trying to argue that, but the First Amendment has given power to, you know, virtually everyone under the Robert’s court, in private business, judging based on their contraceptive views based on, so can’t these universities ultimately the private universities stand by the First Amendment and make the argument that way?

CRUTCHER: That’s what, that’s what I would hope. And basically, I mean, for us as a private university what we try to do because we value diversity as an educational asset for all of our students and therefore we try to craft a class that is geographically diverse, economically diverse, racially, ethically, internationally, internationally diverse and so, you know, for us that is what we’re all about as an institution, particularly an institution in the south that for many years was considered to be an elite white institution that has become much more diverse in the past, in the past 10 years. We feel that the educational benefits, I mean, going back to Grutter are far outweigh any other other issues and we should be allowed to continue crafting the classes in that manner.

HEFFNER: And part of her decision espoused a merit to a multicultural experience. But then she says it may not be relevant or it shouldn’t be relevant in over two decades. Right. I mean, I think O’Connor does highlight the merit, the value of a diverse community. How is the college experience, this might be a question for you, President. How is the college experience important once you get there with the class that’s been admitted in promoting values of understanding, especially amidst what has been the resurgence of bigotry in a lot of places: hate crime, authoritarianism around the world?

ESPINOSA: Yeah. I mean, if there’s anywhere to learn across difference, it’s in higher education. This is an opportunity that we otherwise don’t necessarily have access to. K- 12 education is highly segregated by race. Many of the students that arrive on college campuses around the country come from an environment where they don’t have as much diversity. This is true in neighborhoods as well. We see a distinction by race and class in terms of neighborhoods and communities that students live in. So the college campus is the destination for diversity and it is an educational setting. So this is the place where you are going to learn across difference, learn with people that have different backgrounds, learn about history and contemporary issues through the lens of, of certainly the faculty, but also through the lens of your peers through robust discussion and living and learning alongside one another. So if there is a place to do it, it is there. And that way, higher education has a unique responsibility.

HEFFNER: Basically President, how can those skills and practices function in a way where O’Connor’s assessment could actually be realistic, right?

CRUTCHER: Well, I think that especially on a primarily residential campus, it’s our obligation to ensure that not only we put together and craft a class that’s diverse, but then that we ensure that those diverse entities interact with each other, engage with each other, both, you know, and because it, as Lorelle said, I mean, they’re coming from primarily segregated backgrounds, so they don’t really have the capacity to know how to interact with each, with each other. So we have to help them. We have to help them learn how to sit down with people who are, who have differing political and ideological ideas from their own and have a civil conversation with them to engage with them or around those matters.

HEFFNER: In an environment in which Grutter is absent, how are you going to be able to accomplish, in generating a climate of understanding diversity, you know, because the campus may be the only ground and not the admissions office, but the campus itself where you can achieve that. Cognizant of the fact, and we are all cognizant of the fact that in our minds, the legal reality that Brown was seeking and the Brown v Board of Education, the legal reality that the cases, the Bollinger cases were, you know, the, the reality in which those measures would be taken has not come to fruition, you’re talking about segregated high school classrooms as commonplace, as virtually everywhere. So I mean, we had these two Supreme Court decisions and yet the reality we live in is almost entirely different, as if they had been ruled in the opposite way. And I just wonder how you deal with that great paradox.

CRUTCHER: It would it be a problem if we could not have the freedom to craft, the kind of class we want, because essentially we’re preparing students to lead lives of purpose wherever they find their purpose in the world. And the world is a very diverse world,


CRUTCHER: And so there’s no better crucible, if you will, to learn how to interact with folks, but then living, playing, learning with them in close contact. So it would hamper us,


CRUTCHER: Basically we could not be able to achieve our mission.

HEFFNER: But are the data at all instructive in understanding why or how the aspiration of Brown v Board, you know, Marshall’s decision and the aspiration of O’Connor’s decision have not; those aspirations have not been realized.

ESPINOSA: Well, the data, just to be clear, our descriptive in nature, they’re showing us the current reality and it is the purpose of the data to ask these questions, to lead, to ask the questions you’re asking right now, to lead, ask what is the solution? So we put these data out for people to use and run with and try to get to some of those answers.

HEFFNER: Are you hearing any serious public policy discussions about solutions from within these campuses or from leading politicians who are looking at a segregated, in effect, a de facto segregation of our school system that is perpetuating systemic inequality? Are you getting anywhere with the feedback from your report?

ESPINOSA: Yeah, no, certainly. And people are in some ways not wholly surprised, given their everyday lived realities. And in other ways very surprised when they see some of these data. For example, when they see the disproportionate levels of student loan debt carried by African Americans who also have an incredible wealth gap between African American communities and white communities. You know, there’s, this is what I mean about sort of going backwards and so what, what I would like to see more of maybe what I hear, not often enough is how we tackle this holistically. You know when we talk about these data or, you know, look at discrete points in relation to access our success in college, we often ignore or perhaps don’t talk enough about all of the societal factors that are going into how we came to these outcomes in the first place, whether it be K-12 or community investment, the segregation aspect that we talked about, access to healthcare, access to a whole host of things.

HEFFNER: From the inside, President, what is the holistic approach that you would like to hear people within your university talking about, but also public policy makers outside of your university talking about?

CRUTCHER: Well, I mean I think, to begin with, I mean at a base level, we in the United States of America have never really dealt with the aftermath of slavery, segregation. And so we have only dealt with it kind of at a superficial level. And so until you understand the realities of why we are where we are today, other than the political issues, you can’t really, we can’t really begin to solve the problem. We’re just adding, you know, putting band-aids on the…

HEFFNER: I hear you President, I would just say that, you know, I think that those fans of Justice Marshall and fans of President Obama, you know, even looking at your data would say this is as much was, you know, realistically feasible, or executable. And I think it’s a problem. It’s a lack of imagination for where we need to be. And it’s also a little bit of revisionist history. I mean from my point of view to cite any kind of marked progress in, you know, the restoration of real equity. So I wonder if you all have have thoughts on that. As you know, what are the policy means to achieve what Justice Marshall, you know, and President Obama couldn’t possibly do, you know, one, a member of nine justices bench, one, President of the United States. But they certainly both talked legally and politically about achieving some of those goals.

CRUTCHER: The funding of our public schools is a real issue in this country. Because you know, today, when I grew up in the 1950s in Cincinnati, lived in the inner city and got a great education. In Cincinnati now you would not get the same quality of education simply because of underfunding, yet if you go to a suburb, you have a very different quality of education. And what is the racial makeup of most of those suburbs? I think we know the answer to that question. So that’s, that’s one, one answer. And I think also really more of a commitment to early childhood education because that’s really, that’s, I mean k through 12 is very, very important, but equally important is that pre-school education as well as nutrition for particularly inner city, inner city students and kids.

Because once you get behind the eight ball, it’s hard to catch up and to really take the courses needed to qualify to go to college, because we know what a difference, a qualitative and quantitative difference a college education provides for folks.

HEFFNER: That issue of nutrition doesn’t go away as Tony Jack talks about in his book.

ESPINOSA: That’s right. Yeah.

HEFFNER: You know? And I just wonder how your counsel can be instructive in making sure that Americans understand that that is the reality, which is the nutrition concern for a first grader in a Cincinnati or, you know, inner city public school continues to be an issue for a freshmen, at you know, Xavier or at the University of Richmond or wherever. And I don’t think Americans are on that page.

ESPINOSA: I don’t think so. I think that they think you’re in college, you must have money. You must, you found your way there. You know, why can’t you eat a meal every day, three times a day? That’s not the case. There’s been a lot of activity and research on the lack of access to high quality food for college students. And we see now campuses having food banks and the like, something else that we talk about a lot at ACE is around need-based financial aid. I mean, talk about a public policy lever that can make a huge difference for these students if you have dollars to go to school and to live. So, you know, going to go to school and paying tuition is one thing, but you have the expense of living and not working while you’re going to school.

You might work part time, but you, you’re certainly not working full time, although some students do that to make it through. One other area I’ll say about disinvestment, we see it in K-12. We also see it in higher education. We see it happening at the state level and the very schools where students of color and low-income students are going in mass, so these would be our community colleges. Our two-year schools our four-year regional comprehensive and open access institutions. These are some of the most under resourced institutions and yet they’re enrolling the students that actually need the most resources. And so you have a real disconnect there that we could do a lot better at solving if we funneled the dollars in the right way.

HEFFNER: The final question: That disconnect at its origin may have to do with the fact that politics is unavoidable in this conversation. The stereotype is that it’s been under a multicultural liberal Democratic tutelage and governance in which you failed. You’ve failed your metropolitan communities and you’ve espoused and acted on progressive ideas whether it is New York City, there are a handful of major cities you could say have been under dominant control.

CRUTCHER: These are systemic problems. I’ll give you one example right now in the city of Richmond, our mayor is trying to raise the tax rate, going to return it to what it was 20 years ago because the, this’ll help you know, fund the schools and the, you know, the citizens are coming out. You know, you can, be in, he can be the mayor, but if the, if the powers that be in this city don’t want you to enact certain changes, they can, they can impede that in, prevent and prevent that.

And that’s exactly what’s happening right now in Richmond, Virginia and all over the country.

HEFFNER: Right? So to our viewers, it’s not necessarily whether it’s a D or an R in control.


HEFFNER: Whether or not you’re having well funded schools and meals on the dinner table. Thank you both so much for being here. Dr Espinosa, President Crutcher. Appreciate your time.

ESPINOSA: Thank you.

CRUTCHER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.