Last fall, Marshall University, a public institution in West Virginia, offered first-year orientation courses
with several sections reserved for “African American Students Only.” FIRE protested
the racially segregated course sections, citing that they were both unlawful and morally misguided. As today’s press release
explains, FIRE’s objections resulted in Marshall abolishing the racial restrictions. This fall, the course description for University Studies 101
(UNI 101) says the course will focus on “African American Student Issues.”
FIRE won a similar case last year at Arizona State University
, where a professor limited enrollment in his English class to Native Americans students only. Why does FIRE find these cases so important? It is unquestionable that racial restrictions on class enrollment are unlawful. Both the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education
and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibit classroom segregation at schools receiving federal funds—and with good reason. These were positive steps in the history of American education, and few would want them reversed. As we stated in our first letter to Marshall last November,
[S]tate institutions may not impose race-based restrictions on how students can associate with each other. The history of the American educational system is wrought with shameful practices employing racial categorizations. By offering segregated introductions to the university community, Marshall revisits the errors of the past by reducing students to the sum of their blood and ancestry. While the goal of these classes may be to ease students’ transition into college life, the result is that the university endorses the division and categorization of students based upon the color of their skin.
Having different classes for students of different races is also questionable on other moral grounds. Is Marshall’s goal of creating “an environment conducive to learning how to get along with peers and how to handle differences such as race, ethnicity, and gender” really best met by keeping black and white students separate from one another? And how would the university identify African American students? Is it possible that students of mixed races would be turned away from enrolling in one of the sections for not being African American enough? Would Marshall similarly offer separate orientation courses for Hispanic students and Asian students? What about Italian or Russian students?
However positive the intentions of Marshall’s administrators may have been in creating “African American Students Only” sections of UNI 101, racial requirements for class enrollment are a dangerous precedent to set. Higher education is better off without them.