AU’s Black Enrollment Dips, While Race Issues Rise In Nation

Greg Markley


While teaching undergrad history at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2014, I wanted to find out how many fort buildings the soldiers’ were familiar with — the history and the significance of the person it is named for. Although many students drove by or worked in a particular building, they didn’t care about finding out who was being honored.
That disappointed me, as an inquisitive type. Good news: Every tanker knew who Patton Hall honors: Gen. George S. Patton, “Old Blood and Guts”; the legendary armor officer. Today, at Auburn University, what is increasingly noticeable are not titles for buildings, but the small number of students at AU who are black. That is very disturbing as the university in Lee County has been doing better in attracting black students, for years.
In a recent essay for The New York Times, Auburn graduate and former student body chairman of diversity Drake Pooley recounted negative scenes where black AU students were disparaged. As recently as 2020, they were asked such insulting questions as “What sport do you play that got you into Auburn?” Pooley’s mission is to let people know that the university’s black enrollment is down and that this is a sad thing for an elite Southern university.
“Black enrollment at the university, never large, peaked 14 years ago at 8.7 percent of the student body,” wrote Pooley, now at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “The share of black students in last fall’s freshman class was only 3.2 percent. [This fall’s numbers have not yet been made public.] That’s compared to a statewide under-30 population that’s around 30 percent Black.”
Auburn’s weak performance in getting blacks enrolled is not an outlier. There is a similar trend among the 14 schools in the Southeastern Conference, nine of which declined in black students from 2010 to 2018. A wrinkle for AU in getting the numbers higher in black students is that there are two historically black institutions within an hour of Auburn. Some students there may have considered Auburn but they ended up attending Tuskegee or Alabama State.
“There is something wrong that I lived 80 years, benefited from wonderful institutions of higher education and in my 80th year, I learned about the Tulsa riots,” said George Will, conservative columnist for the Washington Post. “There is something wrong there. I should have known about that. That wasn’t just erasure; that was a pogrom.”
Will, in a Politico piece, highlighted that a lot of stories about terrible events affecting minorities seldom make the press. He found out about the Tulsa tragedy when the anniversary of the 1921 riots became a major news and feature story. He said that diversity efforts must be broader: “There’s a monochrome ideological culture on campus, often enforced through cultural signals in the name of diversity — diversity in everything but thought.”
“Research has shown that one of the strongest levels for colleges seeking more diversity is offering more need-based financial aid,” stated Pooley in his NYT piece.
He noted that Auburn, his alma mater, ranks last among the top 50 public universities in terms of meeting its undergraduates’ financial needs. But optimism is justified: The University increased its need-based aid to freshmen by $2.4 million to $3.5 million, along with expanding scholarship opportunities.
An instance where divergent views were heard was when the AU Board of Trustees unanimously approved the installation of a plaque noting George Corley Wallace’s segregationist past and his later apologies for racial remarks. Wallace, a four-term Alabama governor and a national figure in the 1960s and 1970s, has had his name on a building since 1984.
In light of Wallace’s complex public life, an explanatory plaque was chosen. This means adding the “contextualization” plaque as the building keeps Wallace’s name, at least for now. Almost 12,000 people had signed a petition to drop Wallace’s name. (That was as of mid-September.)
Such an approach has been adopted on controversial monikers nationwide. One was at the University of Arkansas, where a statue of segregationist turned race moderate U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright is to remain. Visitors to buildings, statues or monuments get a caveat to read when they see such paradoxical items.
The plaque points out that Wallace ventured from race-baiting to earning more than 90 percent of the black vote in 1982. But I have always felt it unconscionable for his name to be on buildings at schools and universities. Stopping people from going to school to advance themselves, to live the American Dream, is horrible.
As I did in those college classes at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2014, I suggest that readers get to know why the building you work in or attend school has the name it has. Maybe you will be upset and start a campaign to oust that historical figure. Or perhaps you may read his biography and be impressed with the rags-to-riches tale. A future Alabama governor at his or her inauguration might say: “Contextualism now, contextualism tomorrow, contextualism forever!”
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 12 years.


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