#SpeakingUp on Affirmative Action and the Hidden Hand of University Governance

Guest Post by Donna Nicol, author of the forthcoming book Black Woman On Board published by University of Rochester Press.

Two consequential propositions (denying services to undocumented immigrants and banning affirmative action) affecting students of color appeared on California ballot in the 1990’s while I was an undergraduate student at California State University, Fullerton. During my tenure at CSU Fullerton, I was a student leader involved with the Association for Intercultural Awareness, the Black Student Union, and co-editor of The Onyxx, an alternative Black student newspaper. Worried about the potentially disastrous consequences of these two bills, I joined with student leaders across the state to organize campus protest rallies and voter education forums. Unfortunately, our efforts were not enough to combat the strong anti-immigrant and anti-affirmative action sentiment fueled by a state recession and whipped up by then-governor Pete Wilson and University of California Regent and anti-affirmative action activist, Ward Connerly. 

While engaged in this student activism work, I became increasingly aware of the “hidden hand” of university governance that influenced what was happening on our campuses. State lawmakers, donors, and university trustees like Wilson and Connerly were invisible to most students, faculty, and staff. There was never any discussion in my undergraduate studies about the Board of Trustees or Regents and certainly no conversation about the legislative authority given to governors to appoint their donor friends to decision-making posts, endowing them with the power to decide which types of students had access to the university.   

Fueled by a desire to understand exactly what students were up against, I focused on exposing the “hidden hand” of external forces. For nearly thirty years, I have conducted research on the history of race in California public higher education.  

Dr. Claudia Hampton was the first Black woman trustee appointed to the California State University Board of Trustees in 1974 by Ronald Reagan and she became the first woman to chair the board in 1979. A few months into my research on Hampton, I presented a conference paper entitled “Claudia Hampton, Critical Biography and the Ethical Dilemmas in Chronicling Black Firsts” where I interrogated what it meant to write a biography about someone whose accomplishment of being the first Black _____ (fill in the blank) often overshadows their actual work. Yes, Claudia Hampton was the first Black woman CSU trustee, but she was so much more than that. 

The more I delved into the Trustee archives, I realized that I needed to also tell the story of how the CSU system dealt with federal and state mandates on affirmative action. For example, the opposition to the implementation of affirmative action policy within the CSU system came from people of all political stripes, even those who professed support for affirmative action in theory like California governor Jerry Brown who repeatedly vetoed CSU requests for affirmative action funding.  

The first thread of Black Woman on Board is about the story of Claudia Hampton and her strategies and actions in supporting affirmative action in the CSU system. The book details how Hampton used “sly civility” as a resistance strategy to combat the growing backlash against affirmative action in the 1980s and 1990s.  The second thread has to do with a number of key figures—Hampton, but also other women— and how their pivotal relationships in critical moments, along with the strategic actions of Hampton herself, made things move along when they might have been bogged down by obstacles. The final thread traces the arc of affirmative action itself, as well as the political and cultural changes that allowed for it to appear in the first place in 1965, and then later led to its loss in 1996. Thus, while Hampton is the focus of the book, it extends beyond her story to tell a multi-faceted cultural/political history of public higher education. 

I hope readers gain an understanding of how CSU Trustee Claudia Hampton used strategy and skill to intervene on behalf of internal forces (e.g. students and faculty) pushing for the implementation of affirmative action against combative external forces (e.g. state lawmakers, trustees, and segments of the general public) that sought to eliminate, curtail, or otherwise limit the scope of affirmative action policy implementation, and to recognize that those reverberations are still being felt.   

Just in the last few years, we have seen record numbers of proposals to ban books dealing with issues of race, gender, and sexuality. Lawmakers across the country have passed bills requiring the dismantling of public university DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) offices and have taken steps to stop the teaching of critical race theory in schools and universities. All these current debates about race, gender, and identity in public higher education might seem to be something new or novel, but Black Woman on Board upends that very notion and instead shows us how potent and volatile identity politics have been in and out of our classrooms since the 1960s. We have much to learn from this history about the power of the “hidden hand” to shape policy and influence the discourse on race, gender, and access within the nation’s hallowed halls of academe. 

– Donna J. Nicol 

DONNA J. NICOL is a Professor and Department Chair of Africana Studies at California State University Dominguez Hills, CA.  

Nicol’s book, Black Woman On Board from University of Rochester Press, is published in May 2024. 

Established in 1978, University Press Week recognizes the impact of American university presses on culture and scholarship in the US and abroad. 

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