Teach-in panel defines ‘the university’ amid challenges facing academics of color 


When Leigh Patel ponders what really counts as “the university” in a discussion about academic freedom, she finds “power” to be the operative word. 

“Where does power lie within and beyond the University?” she asked. “And I think some of the obvious responses to that question are: the administration, the people in charge of the budget, the ... lawyers who are protecting the university’s reputation.”

In some areas, however, “university power” is not limited to such leaders and higher-ups, she says. “Every time that universities have been made to alter their patterns of exclusion, it has been through student movements and sometimes faculty joining in those student movements.”

Patel, a professor in Pitt’s School of Education focused on educational foundations, organizations and policy, took part in an Oct. 26 teach-in panel on “What Counts as the University? Academic Freedom, Free Speech, and Misogynoir.”

Sponsored by the University’s Center for Urban Education, the panel was moderated by Ph.D. student Ogechi Irondi and rounded out by Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher, School of Education professor; and Uju Anya, associate professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Modern Languages.

The teach-in featured academic women of color delving into questions about what “counts” as “the university,” what lessons can be learned from institutions revoking academic freedom, and how misogynoir shows up in higher education.

Patel noted the unique nature of the Pittsburgh area’s wealth of higher education institutions and their sometimes-all-encompassing roles.

“As most of us are located in Pittsburgh, which is absolutely an ‘eds and meds’ city … what counts as university when the university is landlord, employer, health insurance agency, health care provider? Where does it stop, or what counts as the university?”

Calling Patel’s observations “thought-provoking” and “extremely important,” Anya said she thinks of the university as “primarily students, because ultimately, that is the reason why, at least, I’m there. And the work that we do, we are told and encouraged always that our work is in the service of students, and the students comprise the largest number (of the University’s) physical members.”

“I also think of university as colleagues, collaborators, those that you come to work in service of these students will work alongside them, and the students and the faculty and staff,” Anya added.

Zamani-Gallaher brought up the familiar adage of universities existing as exclusive “ivory towers” with a hierarchy or “pecking order” that tends to benefit some at the expense of others.

“As you think about today’s conversation, particularly about Black women in the academy, in this whole notion of the ivory tower, so that in many regards, while learning is ubiquitous, and the university can act locally but definitely have more global impact, that there’s a way that, perpetually, some of us within the academy are insiders yet (still feel) relegated to the outsider status.”

Regarding the ongoing problem of — and class- and race-based barriers created by — rising tuition costs and the resulting mountains of student debt, Anya says the solutions for “forgiving” the debt can be as punishing as the price of education itself.

“People who have exploited you in serious ways are now claiming that they’re going to ‘forgive’ you for the money that you owe or forgive the debt,” she said. “Forgiveness is a concept that many of us are familiar with, as it relates to … Christian benevolence or the Christian moral imperative, in many people’s eyes, to forgive a sinner or someone who has wronged in some way.

“And the way that we have framed those that should have been protected and those whose education should have been afforded, free and open,” she added, “have now been linguistically and culturally and ideologically framed as wrongdoers and sinners, who needs to be forgiven.”

The linguistic-based bias carries over to research of sexism and misogyny in academia, Anya observed, which is often labeled “activist” research. “There’s the premise that the so-called ‘normal’ research doesn’t have an agenda or doesn’t have goals. … So this is all to say that the misogyny noir is baked right into our very existence, and our very participation in the academy (because) Black women are not conferred the same legitimacy and belonging and place as others.”

Zamani-Gallaher said the journey for academic women of color, particularly “centering and situating Black women faculty within a tenure stream is one that can leave you with a bunch of bruises and bumps in some regards.”

Other colleagues, she said, may not have as much of a sense or critical awareness about racism or “the fact that race doesn’t mitigate but exacerbate sexism, and that sexism for Black women isn’t the ultimate ‘ism,’ necessarily, in terms of also grappling with (other) forms of oppression.”

Nonetheless, Zamani-Gallaher said she finds strength in helping others, including her colleagues, rise above the complex challenges and barriers placed before them.

“I say, ‘You won’t break my soul,” she said of her philosophy. “We have to find ways to be joyful and to lift each other as we climb and to understand that as any one of us crosses that hurdle, that there’s a collective of us doing it together.

“Because if each one can persist, it provides a message for who’s next (as to) how to resist and how to persist.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at shannonw@pitt.edu.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.