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Wayne Glasker: “Much of what looks like separation is actually people being bicultural.

Examining Separatism vs. Integration

“They say that for students a generation is four years,” Wayne Glasker offers by way of explanation for the near total lack of awareness on campus by the mid-1970s of the turbulent years 1968-1972, when black presence on Penn’s campus tripled.

Glasker, an associate professor of history and director of the African American Studies Program at Rutgers University, Camden, is author of Black Students in the Ivory Tower: African American Student Activism at the University of Pennsylvania, 1967-1990. The heart of the book deals with those critical four years, which besides the jump in admissions also saw the controversial birth of DuBois College House and the initiation of the Afro-American Studies Program at Penn.

Glasker’s reason for writing the book was “an interest in black nationalism and an attempt to understand the paradox between black nationalism and ideas about integration.” He focused on Penn because “I thought this is something I knew well and could write about in an authoritative way.”

He begins his history with the McGill Report, a 1967 document aimed at increasing diversity at Penn that called for “10 percent of the incoming class [to] be what was called special admissions, with goals for number of people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, and athletes, and also the children of alumni and faculty and staff.”

At the time, there were about 40 black students at Penn, “and we go from [that] to 80 to more than 150 in the span of about three years,” Glasker says. “The goal was to have excellence with diversity, but it proved by traditional standards to be difficult to do. On average, the SAT scores of minority students were about 200 points lower than the average for white students, and some people perceived that as a dilution of quality—underqualified minority students were being admitted at the expense of better qualified white students.”

This “poisonous perception” had a negative impact on the minority students, who felt themselves to be “under this cloud of illegitimacy,” he adds. This in turn generated “an equal and opposite reaction, which is that the minority students feel alienated, and if people feel alienated and unwelcome then they will voluntarily withdraw.”

To some extent, this “withdrawal” was similar to other “affinity” groups, says Glasker—though it was often misinterpreted. “People are going to gravitate together on the basis of something they share in common, whether it’s ethnicity or gender or whether they like the same music or the same literature. That does not mean it’s the only thing they do. People can both have time for their affinity groups and participate in the larger campus life. But the perception was that people were simply withdrawing, and that’s all they were doing.”

On another level, though, the situation of black students was special and their alienation more profound—particularly when tensions mounted between Penn and West Philadelphia residents as several city blocks were razed to construct the high-rises and, further north, the University City Science Center. The displacement of the mostly black residents and reports of military research being conducted at the Center prompted a sit-in in 1969.

In the aftermath of the sit-in, Glasker says, the University further stepped up black admissions and also began to draw more students from Philadelphia’s inner-city public high schools. “There had always been some African American students at the University,” he explains, “but they had usually come from middle-class or even elite backgrounds.” Some students from the new pool of admissions “were not as well prepared” academically. Many had also never been in a mostly white environment before. “So for black students from inner-city public high schools it was a double shock,” he says.

Students’ comparative radicalism was also affected by forces in the larger society, he adds. “I think what you get on the Penn campus is a very muted echo of what was happening” everywhere, he says. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, which “had an impact on black students on the campus, on everyone on campus.” In Philadelphia, these were the years of Frank Rizzo, a racially polarizing figure both as chief of police and later mayor. There was a Black Panther movement in the city, which was raided in 1970 “in a sensational event to the wider community.”

The May 1970 issue of the Gazette represents a kind of high-water mark for black student dissatisfaction. The issue in the cover story, “STRIKE!” was the invasion of Cambodia, but other stories focus on campus battles: a report on the resignation of an African American associate dean over the funding for and content of a special advising program for black freshmen, which the University viewed as promoting separatism; a story detailing a series of destructive incidents, including smashed windows at the bookstore, bomb threats, and arson fires in Houston and College Halls (for which the same associate dean was arrested and later released); and an article on a proposed two-year school of black studies recommended by an ad hoc Committee on Black Studies of the University Council.

The call for a black-studies program grew out of students’ unhappiness “with what they saw as the omission of any content in the curriculum about the contributions and experience of African Americans,” Glasker says. “That sense of an absence” led first to demands for courses in black history, black literature, and then “eventually, not only a course in black history but a course which is taught by someone who actually is black,” and finally into what form a larger curriculum in the field would take. “Will it be a school, a department, a program?” This battle was fought out over three years and through several committees—“It gets very tangled and confusing,” says Glasker—before it was set up as an interdisciplinary program reporting to the provost. (Renamed the Center for Africana Studies, the program now is part of the School of Arts and Sciences [“Gazetteer,” this issue].)

The debate over DuBois College House occurred along similar lines—and resulted in some surprising generational rifts in the black community. Glasker notes that the local branch of the NAACP threatened to sue the University “for permitting an all-black residence,” which was the initial demand of black student activists. The older generation saw this as a rejection of the integration for which they had fought so long, “but the parent generation never had to actually live with or in the midst of a mostly white community on a fulltime basis,” Glasker says. “Now their children do have that experience and discover that they are not entirely comfortable with that.” For them, rather than equal opportunity, the issue became assimilation, he says. “Some decided that they didn’t like assimilation all that much. They liked their own culture and did not want to give it up and were comfortable living with others like themselves.”

Technically, DuBois was not established as a black residence, but a residential program for “any student of any race who wishes to learn more about African American culture.” Glasker knew one of the handful of white students who have lived in DuBois, Marian Dorn W’79, and interviewed another, Robert Zagerman W’83, for his book.

After 1972, “many of the issues have been addressed in some form, so there isn’t the same need for the tensions and the polarization,” says Glasker, and they quickly faded from campus memory—along with in loco parentis, single-sex dorms, and curfews for women students.

Glasker also writes about the sit-in of 1978, in which the Black Student League occupied the Franklin Building, in part to gain “some independent bargaining power and leverage” for its issues, following the College Hall sit-in, for which the original spark was budgets cuts in athletics and performing arts. Out of this protest came the United Minorities Council (UMC), in which Glasker sees the beginning of a new era of common cause among minorities on campus and a perception of African Americans as “one ethnicity among many.”

“Much of what looks like separation is actually people being bi-cultural, engaging in their own ethnic culture but also participating in the life of the larger campus and the larger society,” Glasker says. In that light, he points to the 1990 election of Miriam Harris C’91 as chair of the Undergraduate Assembly, the first African American to hold the post, as an important milestone.

Of his time at Penn, Glasker says, “I think it was a superb education, and certainly has helped me in the process of upward mobility. I think I owe the job I have now to the fact that I’m a Penn grad, so it certainly has opened the doors of opportunity—which is what it was supposed to do.”

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