By Eve Dunbar
It’s a cold snowy afternoon in mid-March and I really need to leave the warmth of my office at Vassar College. There’s a stack of student papers at home and research on Zora Neale Hurston waiting for me in the Special Collections and Rare Books section of the library. Like a lot of young people, I’m easily distracted by Facebook, and freezing March days make that distraction more palpable. Today, a ProPublica piece has gone viral among my “friends,” many of whom are faculty of color. The piece totally debunks the idea that Abigail Fisher—the white plaintiff in the case threatening to kill off what’s left of affirmative action in higher education—actually had the grades or standardized test scores to compete with the students of color who got into the University of Texas at Austin when she applied in 2008.
I’ve been watching Fisher vs. The University of Texas, which bears the 23-year-old’s name, partially because I’m a black, female tenured professor who earned my doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in 2004. But mostly I’ve been watching because the case has the potential to dismantle the “academic pipeline” that we count on to deliver a steady flow of excellent candidates of color into the academic job pool.
The case reminds me that if I had come of age a decade later, my body and body of knowledge might have faded from the academy, because the higher education odds were never stacked in my favor. As a black woman from a working-class family, raised for the first 10 years of my life by a young single mother in Hartford, Conn., and later by my grandparents in the rural, small Pennsylvania town of Greencastle, my race, gender, class and even geography would have all but guaranteed my exclusion from the ranks of college graduates, English PhDs, and the tenured professorate. These historic odds would have had very little to do with me, my academic talent or my work ethic; I was born nerdy and come from a family of workers.