Academic Impostors

What does Rachel Dolezal have to do with Woodrow Wilson? Her story has been poked and prodded from every angle, it seems, except one. In important ways, this is a story about higher education. Universities have always had non-academic categories that they have preferred. Students and faculty—like Dolezal and President Wilson—have always allowed schools to think they fill those categories, even if they don’t.

Dolezal then & now...

Dolezal then & now…

If you haven’t heard about Dolezal yet, congratulations. Her strange tale of a white woman passing herself off as an African American leader has attracted bajillions of comments from all over the punditocracy. In very brief form, here are the highlights: Dolezal has served as the successful chapter leader of the Spokane NAACP. She has either allowed people to think of her as African American, or has even checked that box herself. She may have performed some Facebook fakery to make her family look more African American. She attended graduate school with a full scholarship at the historically black Howard University. She teaches African American Studies classes at Eastern Washington University. Recently, her very white parents outed her as white. The family had split over Rachel’s accusations of abuse. Rachel had fought for custody of one of her younger brothers.

As journalists have noted, this story has raised tricky questions about race and racism in the United States. Conservative commentators have wondered why people can be transgender but not transracial. The NAACP has issued a statement affirming that its leaders can be from any racial background.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for a new book about the history of American higher education. To my tired eyes, one angle of this story jumps out and I haven’t heard any other nerds talking about it. As a student and as a teacher, Dolezal’s imposture has reaped significant rewards. If nothing else, her story can give us another example of the ways preferred categories have always affected higher education.

At Howard University, according to Dolezal’s father, Rachel allowed the school to assume she was African American. They gave her a full scholarship for her graduate program in art. She also teaches part-time at Eastern Washington University in the Africana Education Program. It is not certain that she lied to the people who hired her there, but the director of the program told the New York Times he thought she was black.

It seems evident that Dolezal would not have had the same opportunities at Howard or EWU if she had not been perceived as African American. Academic positions, especially in relevant areas such as Africana Studies, usually have explicit preferences for members of underrepresented groups.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against hiring preferences in higher education. I agree that personal background can be an important factor when it comes to teaching and scholarship and universities are correct to prefer some candidates based on non-academic qualifications. IMHO. Indeed, I only got my job because of my experience as a secondary-school teacher.

The interesting point, rather, is that these non-academic preferences can tell us a lot about the nature of higher education, the non-academic values of colleges. In the past, elite schools used to prefer Christian professors, for example. This is where Woodrow Wilson comes in. When Wilson, future POTUS, was elevated to the Chair of Political Economy and Jurisprudence at Princeton University in 1890, he received a forceful letter from Princeton President Francis Patton. To keep his chair, Patton warned, Professor Wilson would need to be far more explicit in his Christian testimony.

Patton worried in a letter to Wilson

That in your discussion of the origin of the State you minimize the supernatural, & make such unqualified application of the doctrine of naturalistic evolution & the genesis of the State as to leave the reader of your pages in a state of uncertainty as to your own position & the place you give to Divine Providence.

Princeton, Patton insisted, was determined to “keep this College on the old ground of loyalty to the Christian religion.”

Even at the time, as Patton’s language suggested, such Christian orthodoxy was becoming rarer and rarer in American higher education, at elite schools at least. Patton wanted to hire only Christian scholars. Wilson, for his part, allowed Patton to think he agreed, though Wilson’s later work never embodied the sort of loud-and-proud supernatural thinking Patton desired.

What does any of this have to do with Rachel Dolezal? Back in the 1890s, if one wanted a job at Princeton, one was wise to allow school leaders to think one supported orthodox Calvinism. These days, if one wants a job in a university, one is wise to allow school leaders to think one is a member of an historically underrepresented group.

Back then, conservative schools such as Princeton and Yale were clinging to an older tradition of explicitly Christian education. These days, schools are scrambling to include a wider diversity of racial backgrounds.

Wilson’s career was certainly not hurt by his willingness to let Patton believe his Presbyterianism was stronger than it really was. Dolezal—until this ugly scandal, of course—has not been hurt by people’s assumptions about her racial background.