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The importance of black women on university boards

Black woman on board (University of Rochester Press) is a new book by Donna J. Nicol. At a time when affirmative action and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are being rolled back across the country, it is essential reading for anyone who cares about equity in higher education.

Nicol’s book describes Claudia Hampton’s work as a black woman on the California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees. Hampton fought for twenty years to implement affirmative action and resisted forces that sought to abolish it. She was appointed to the Board of Trustees in 1974 as the first black woman.

Hampton was a teacher in the greater Los Angeles area for many years. Her commitment to equity and diversity was recognized early on, and in 1968 she was appointed director of the newly formed Schools and Community Relations Unit of the Office of Urban Affairs. The office was created after the Watts Uprising of 1965. During her tenure, Hampton earned a doctorate in education from the University of Southern California in 1970. Throughout her career, she became heavily involved with the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). These experiences shaped her educational involvement after she was appointed to the CSU board of directors.

In examining Hampton’s work, Nicol goes beyond simply considering her role as the first black trustee. Instead, she examines institutional policies and state mandates for affirmative action, as well as the black cultural politics of the time. Nicol showed how Hampton had to be pragmatic in her approach to the board; she had to be strategic and know when to compromise.

Nicol learned an incredible amount as a writer during the writing process – including that pragmatism is a way to achieve goals alongside radicalism. She learned to have more respect for pragmatic leaders like Mary Mcleod Bethune and Booker T. Washington, alongside more radical figures like WEB Du Bois. She emerged from her research with a new perspective – “one that embraced and valued multiple approaches and methods to social justice.”

Nicol’s exploration of Hampton offers the reader a great deal, including a deep understanding of the university administration and its efforts to “eliminate, limit, or delay the enforcement of affirmative action.” She examines many attempts to deny students of color access to higher education. Although much is known about the struggles against affirmative action in California (e.g. Baker), Nicol reports on the actions and voices of trustees that often go unheard but are extremely powerful.

The book tells the story of how Hampton and her supporters fought against efforts to dismantle racism-based initiatives in the CSU system. Nicol makes sure we understand the powerful influence that black women like Hampton had on the CSU system. They were instrumental both in the classroom and across campus, advocating for black students to have opportunities and support.

Nicol explores the concept of “underhanded civility,” which she sees as a leadership strategy to counter exclusion from the “seats of power” and decision-making. Nicol believes that black activism was ignored after 1970 and sees Hampton’s story as an important gap and an opportunity to explore a different kind of activism. She urges African Americans and others to get fully involved, having recognized herself that many forms of activism are essential to making big changes and that a seat in the boardroom carries enormous power. She writes, “But it would take people like Claudia Hampton working from within to create lasting structural change, thus ensuring that the gains made through student agitation and government policies promoting positive discrimination do not fall by the wayside.”

One of the book’s most profound statements is, “Hampton was a champion for black students, but her pro-black stance should not be confused with black radicalism. Unlike her black radical contemporaries such as Ericka Huggins and Elaine Brown, Hampton was an upper-middle-class black woman who worked in a highly visible and influential position in the Los Angeles Unified School District and as a CSU trustee.” She added that Hampton lived in one of Los Angeles’ wealthiest African-American neighborhoods and was regularly featured in the society pages of Los Angeles Sentinel for her work with her sorority – Alpha Kappa Alpha, Incorporated. She was part of the black elite and believed in racial advancement and her commitment to it.

In Black woman on board, In addition to reviving Claudia Hampton’s legacy, Nicol also inspires important reflection on the complexities of activism and leadership. Given the ongoing challenges to diversity and equity in higher education, Nicol invites readers to rethink the power dynamics in institutional change and recognize the lasting influence of Black women in shaping equitable educational landscapes. This story is a powerful testament to the idea that lasting structural change is achieved not only through visible agitation, but also through the often invisible efforts of those who work diligently within the system.

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