Skip To Content

Why the Ouster of Dr. Claudine Gay recalls the profound connections between Universities and Slavery

I can hear it now, the pitter-patter of scurrying feet, eagerly lining up to jump on the anti-academia, anti-inclusion, anti-black (woman) bandwagons which are in part responsible for the successful ouster Dr. Claudine Gay from her short-lived presidency at Harvard University. While some had legitimate concerns about the climate and direction of America’s higher education, most did not. Indeed, many are openly antagonistic to identity politics, that is, unless and until it serves their own ends and white identities.

Let’s be frank, any claims that universities have only recently become places where identity politics and big money interests dictate decision-making are patently false. The truth is that Eurocentric identity politics and rich white people wielding disproportionate power have always been a part of North American universities (yes, that means you too Canada). Dr. Gay’s recent mischaracterization as an incompetent administrator and potentially fraudulent academic obviously has much to do with her identity as a black woman. That she became, in July 2023, the first person of colour, and only the second woman, to sit at the helm of America’s most revered university should be a sign of frighteningly deep-seated biases to any thinking human. In case it’s not clear, I’ll break it down for you. This means that since the appointment of Henry Dunster in 1640, Harvard supposedly could not find a single highly qualified, esteemed, and credible human, other than white men, to run the university until Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, its first white female president, was appointed in 2007. Really? Only a fool would believe that all of the twenty-odd white male presidents functioned flawlessly or even competently in their roles. Indeed, after Larry Summers’ presidency during which Harvard’s endowment was depleted to the tune of $1.8 billion, he was appointed by then-president Obama to serve on the National Economic Council. This, my friends, is the type of golden parachute that black people almost never receive.

But before we pile on Harvard, the systemic problem of acute racism on university campuses spans generations, regions, and nations and has largely been addressed only cosmetically in the USA and Canada. By cosmetic, I refer to strategically small changes, usually overseen by un(der)qualified and underfunded staff; changes designed to leave the status quo of white (male) dominance intact. These changes have deliberately not addressed obvious problems like the strategic under-employment of black professors and the racial biases we confront when it comes time for promotions, raises or consideration for higher administrative roles. What this looked like for me after seventeen years at McGill University (across which I had published seven books, garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars of grant funding, won several prestigious international fellowships, and given hundreds of media interviews and lectures), is being blocked from key leadership roles within my department that prevented me from serious consideration for larger administrative roles in academia. Indeed, despite stellar research contributions which outpaced most of my white colleagues, I was never considered for prestigious internal or external research chairs. That taught me that even when I played by the rules and outperformed my peers, the promised rewards of academic excellence were simply not for me. When I resigned from McGill in 2020, I was one of only ten black tenured or tenure-track professors of a whopping 1,726. Do the math! That’s 0.6%. To achieve statistics this appalling, an institution has to work at it, especially one like McGill which has the capacity and name recognition to recruit globally, which it routinely does.

To understand the roots of this centuries-long problem we must remember how North American universities began. For this we need only consult Craig Steven Wilder’s brilliant book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (2013). In it Wilder meticulously traced how the money used to found early North American universities often came from white men who made their fortunes through Transatlantic Slavery. Two obvious cases are Brown University (Providence, USA) and McGill University (Montreal, Canada). In the first case, Brown benefitted from the wealth and patronage of Nicholas Brown and Company, a partnership engaged in the African slave trade. In the latter, the Scottish James McGill, a West Indian merchant who trafficked in slave-produced rum from the Caribbean and who enslaved black and indigenous people in Montreal, bequeathed £10,000 to found a university which was to bear his name. McGill’s ignominious wealth acquisition is something that the university has largely tried to avoid, that is until my students and I published Slavery and McGill University: Bicentenary Recommendations (2020).

Whether during their lifetimes or after their deaths, white men like the Browns and McGill wielded extraordinary power over these fledgling institutions, power which they used to shape the physical, political, intellectual, and (im)moral dimensions of these universities. What’s more, forged through the stolen labour of enslaved Africans, these universities initially welcomed exclusively white male professors who taught wealthy white male students, many of whom as Wilder notes, were the sons of Caribbean planters who arrived on campuses with their enslaved people in tow. Put bluntly, people like me, Dr. Gay, and countless other black academics were never imagined as the constituents of such institutions; unless, of course, the role was to wait upon the white men who ran or attended them.

Many white people today still refuse to see whiteness as a racial identity and even more refuse to acknowledge their cumulative racial privilege. Like their ancestors, they continue to exploit this privilege while denouncing others who assert their rights to be recognized and included as opposed to marginalized and denigrated. Dr. Gay’s unfortunate ouster speak volumes about the unequal and racially biased terrain of North American academia where black constituents, regardless of our contributions, are still largely outsiders almost four hundred years on.