Colleges and universities must throw open the curriculum, along with the admission door, to minorities if educational equity is to be achieved, said the president of Lincoln University of Pennsylvania.
Niara Sudarkasa, an anthropologist who delivered the keynote address Wednesday for the University of Utah's celebration honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., called it no longer excusable for a higher education institution to offer a curriculum that suggests all knowledge is derived from Western European male sources.It is also no longer acceptable for minorities to be missing from the faculty, said Sudarkasa, who is the first woman president of Lincoln, the nation's first black college.
Although she didn't ignore the importance of access - calling it the bedrock of equity - Sudarkasa told the U. audience that "the heart of the matter is what we teach."
First-rate institutions push students to explore and discover, so they must go beyond the traditional curriculum, including the works of minority scholars and eliminating the stereotypes or myths that have been passed on as facts in the academic mainstream, she said.
For example, some experts have stated that blacks aren't good swimmers because they possess a muscular build that doesn't produce buoyancy. "Fortunately, no one told the people of the Caribbean or those living along coastal Africa, who live in areas where they may need to swim to save their lives," she said.
The history curriculum - and historians - must also "quit making certain people absent from history," Sudarkasa said.
"When we talk about the Industrial Revolution, we never talk about Africa. We talk about Europe as if it existed in a cocoon," said Sudarkasa, who is internationally recognized for her pioneering research on Yoruba women traders of Nigeria.
Ghana and Mali mined and supplied the gold that was used in European currency for 1,000 years, and the contributions of African caravan and maritime traders are ignored, the anthropologist said.
The skilled black craftsmen - draftsmen, bricklayers, surveyors - who helped build the major cities of the old South and border states are never credited for their contributions. The credit goes to the European-trained craftsmen, she said.
Many students are surprised to discover that inventor and engineer Elijah McCoy, who invented the automatic lubricator cup ("the real McCoy"), was black. Few know that Thomas Edison had a black associate who developed the filaments of the electric light. Physician Charles Drew, who is known for research with blood plasma and setting up blood banks, is often overlooked, she said.
Ignore the contributions of blacks and other minorities "and your students will assume that they are inferior," she said.
If colleges and universities teach the truth about Africa, African Americans and other racial and ethnic groups by giving the complete picture, she said, then the majority students will view the minority segments of the population differently.
She said she recognizes that the University of Utah, like the state as a whole, has a small minority population. However, that means it - and other schools in America's heartland - must work the hardest to revise the curriculum. "It isn't the hearts and minds of black students who have to be changed."
The university president also said she realizes that it is difficult for all colleges and universities to hire minority faculty because of the small numbers available. For that reason, it is important for the majority scholars to be trained and understand the works of minority scholars and the contributions of the minorities, she said.