In their debate last night, Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence disagreed on just about everything, clashing over covid-19 policy, their respective records and even the history of Supreme Court nominations. One way to help understand the sharp divisions between the two campaigns comes from a surprising source: the history of higher education in the United States.
In her speech at the Democratic Convention, Harris made sure that the audience knew she had attended Howard University, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) and was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., which was founded at Howard in 1908. Harris has talked extensively about the school’s impact on her life: who she is as a person, a Black and Asian woman and leader. It was her alma mater that shaped many of her political views.
Pence, on the other side, attended Hanover College. Publicly, however, his closest link during his vice presidency has been to Liberty University. Pence has done everything he can to highlight that connection. He delivered a commencement speech at Liberty in 2019, asking the audience to consider him more than just a politician courting their support; he urged them to think of him as a “brother in Christ” and a champion of their values. The vice president also took pains to showcase his close, friendly relationship with former Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr., posing for smiling photos together.
Why have Harris and Pence made such public moves to associate themselves with Howard and Liberty? Especially since the GI Bill following World War II, there has not been one system of higher education in the United States, but many. Like the rest of American society, higher education has splintered and divided, as colleges and universities promote themselves as embodying different visions of what higher education should be, with unique experiences and cultures.
Ties to Howard and Liberty then – a HBCU and a conservative, religious institution – send clear messages to voters about what values each campaign represents and to whom the candidates are appealing.
Howard University, founded in 1867, is an example of possibility and opportunity. Since its beginnings, the institution has been instrumental in building the Black middle class, educating future Black doctors, lawyers, professors, judges, politicians and scientists. Moreover, Howard graduates have been essential figures in ensuring equity for all in the courts, led and participated in the civil rights movement, contributed greatly to the arts and fostered the advancement of intellectual thought. For example, Howard shaped the thinking of Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison and influenced her steadfast fight against various forms of institutional racism. And, it was Howard-trained lawyer (and later Supreme Court justice) Thurgood Marshall, with the guidance of his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, who, in 1954, argued against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education.
Harris graduated from Howard in 1986, one year before the television show “A Different World” introduced HBCUs to the nation, showcasing their commitment to African American student success as well as their role in fostering activism and a commitment to justice. The mid-1980s were a reawakening for HBCUs, with “A Different World” leading to increased enrollment and a renewed appreciation for the culture of HBCUs among African Americans and beyond.
In the show, the culture, activism and complexities of Blackness were on full-display through the lens of a fictional HBCU. And only two years after Harris graduated from Howard, director Spike Lee released “School Daze,” which, much like “A Different World,” embraced the unique HBCU culture. The film highlighted the entire breadth of HBCU traditions, from classrooms to fraternities and sororities, from step shows to activism to politics.
A crucial element of HBCU culture, both on film and on campuses, was the emphasis on being aware of and contributing to society outside of the university. Much like the students in “A Different World,” Harris became an activist upon enrolling at Howard. She spent her weekends on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. protesting apartheid in South Africa and our nation’s role in supporting it. She was also a staunch defender of free speech, advocating for the role of media to uncover the truth.
These experiences, and the spirit of Howard, helped nurture and shape Harris’s vision of equality, opportunity and justice for all Americans. Her consistent emphasis on pushing Americans to live up to our potential, to unify and to take care of each other comes directly from the way Howard encourages this sensibility among students.
As president Wayne A.I. Frederick reminded in light of the covid-19 pandemic and racial unrest, “Howard has consistently taught that the highest use of knowledge gained . . . is demonstrated in service above self; focused on addressing systematic injustices and entrenched interests antagonistic to our enjoyment of life and liberty.”
Liberty University embodies a very different vision of American greatness and a distinctly different approach to higher education. Liberty is relatively new – founded as Lynchburg Baptist College in 1971 – but it joined a family of evangelical Christian universities with roots going back to the 1920s.
The United States has always had evangelical colleges – originally including elite schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton. But the network that sprang up in the 1920s was something different. These were defiantly evangelical institutions, imposing pointedly non-mainstream strictures on modern American higher education.
Faculty members, for example, were usually required annually to sign a statement of faith. Students were tightly controlled. Instead of embracing the idea of free intellectual inquiry, the new type of evangelical college promised a unified vision of Christian truth and morality.
Widespread campus turmoil in the late 1960s and early 1970s only sharpened the divisions between evangelical higher education and the mainstream. While evangelical campuses witnessed their own disagreements about the Vietnam War and changing cultural mores, a majority of students at conservative evangelical universities supported the war and maintained their clean-cut, traditional image.
When Jerry Falwell Sr. opened his new college in 1971, he embraced the conservative evangelical vision of proper higher education. It was never only about theology, but always about an aggressive sort of culture-war politics. Long before President Donald Trump promised to “make America great again,” Liberty’s leaders were insisting that their school represented a combative vision of nostalgic conservatism. When candidate Ronald Reagan spoke at Liberty in October 1980, the university’s president made this mission clear.
“In a day when belief in . . . America . . . is not fashionable at many American colleges,” Liberty President A.P. Guillermin wrote, “Liberty Baptist College is one campus where patriotism and love of country are still commonplace among students and faculty. We believe . . . in the principles which made America great.”
These comments reflected how conservative evangelical colleges like Liberty insisted that they were a special type of school that safeguarded a distinct vision of proper learning, one that inculcated and safeguarded American values under assault from secular forces.
Before being felled by a series of scandals, ex-president Jerry Falwell Jr. actively sought out opportunities to inflame culture-war tensions and promote his school as a conservative bastion. For example, in 2013 when a North Carolina high-schooler was arrested for bringing guns to school, Falwell Jr. offered the student a full scholarship to Liberty. Like his predecessors, Falwell Jr. wanted Liberty to be known as a culture-war citadel, a haven for conservatives, a place where mainstream values – including even gun laws – would not dictate right and wrong.
Even with Falwell Jr. out, Liberty seems likely to maintain its role as a symbol of trenchant conservatism. Its new interim president, Jerry Prevo, gained a national reputation in the 1980s for condemning homosexuality as a “sexual perversion” and labeling anti-apartheid activists “communist agitators” and even “devils.” More recently, Prevo has signaled his endorsement of the Trump administration, appearing maskless at the now infamous ceremony to announce Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
It is no accident, therefore, that the Trump/Pence campaign has embraced Liberty. Picking up the Reagan-era slogan of Making America Great Again, Trump and Pence hope that voters will see them as allies of institutions like Liberty in the fight for uncompromising cultural conservatism. Nothing better signals their embrace of this agenda than courting the symbolic power of Liberty.
Likewise, by touting Harris’s tie to Howard, the Biden/Harris ticket attaches itself to the aspirational elements of Howard’s credo and its commitment to dismantle systems that perpetuate injustice – a signal to all Americans that their ticket is going to advocate for justice in the tradition of Howard and other HBCUs.
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Gasman is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor endowed chair in education & distinguished professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. She is also the author of “Educating a Diverse Nation” (Harvard University Press, 2015) and “Envisioning Black Colleges” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007). Laats is professor of education at Binghamton University (SUNY) and author of “Fundamentalist U.” and “The Other School Reformers.”