Race & Purpose in Higher Education: a Conversation with Tressie McMillan Cottom

“The pragmatic hope of the enslaved… is the idea that you will not always see
the good ends of your good deeds, but you do them anyway. You do them anyway.”

-Tressie McMillan Cottom, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

This past Tuesday, Suzanne Shanahan, Nannerl O. Keohane Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics interviewed author and UNC professor Tressie McMillan Cottom on “Race and Purpose in Higher Education” as part of the Virtues & Vocations Reimagining Education series that began in July. The series has considered issues of character, purpose, and education in light of COVID and the social upheaval of 2020.

“This is the moment for higher education – not institutions; higher education as a field – to figure out what it is we do, how we’re going to do it, and to revisit our sort of moral, ethical responsibility to the faith that people have placed in us,” Cottom said. “This is the beginning of a renegotiation of us earning and deserving the public’s faith in us.”

Cottom’s first book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, examines the value proposition offered by higher education and the loss in public faith in “the gospel of education.” Shanahan and Cottom discussed the ways in which the pandemic and social struggles of this year have exposed a longstanding crisis of purpose and systemic inequities in higher education.

For Cottom, those issues intersect with her personal narrative as a Black woman, a connection she makes in her second book, Thick: And Other Essays. Thick combines sociological analysis and story to examine race and inequality across a number of issues. “The challenge for me creatively and intellectually is: can I interpret data driven analysis in a way that taps into the power of narrative without compromising the empirical truth,” she said.

Working through the tension between professionalization in the academy, passion for storytelling, and her personal social location has lead Cottom to a particular sense of purpose that is part of a rich tradition among Black scholars.

“My journey to purpose is deeply aligned with the Black sociological tradition especially,” Cottom said. “In his first autobiography, [Dubois] talks about wanting to be this really traditional – they wouldn’t have used ‘social scientist’ at the time – but a traditional social scientist. But he said, ‘how can I affect that kind of posture towards knowledge when Black people are dying in the streets?’ How prescient and urgent and present that feels. That remains to me the Black sociological tension. We cannot affect a sort of posture of being separate from the social world because the experience of being Black in that world is so urgent. And I think that gives us a call to purpose in our work in an earlier and perhaps in a very particular way.”

The full conversation with Cottom along with recordings of all previous Virtues & Vocations conversations and information about future events is available at virtuesvocations.org.

Erin Collazo Miller works on Virtues & Vocations, an initiative to consider how to cultivate character in professional education. She earned a BA in English at Duke University and studied theology at Regent College.

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