Can Higher Ed Be Decolonized?
Annabelle Estera, Assistant Professor of Education at Endicott College, is increasingly conscious of the fact that the original model for a higher education institution was designed exclusively for white, Christian, land-owning men. “That was the profile of a person both shaping and enrolling in America’s first college,” she says.
As a Filipina person, an Asian American, and a woman of color, Estera would have been excluded from that original educational system twice over—as would the majority of present-day college graduates in the United States.
According to a report from the Pew Research Center, women made up more than 60% of college students enrolled in the 2021-22 school year. And of course, Endicott was founded in 1939 as an all-female college bent on giving women the know-how required to rise at work.
But despite these statistics, what if the way college is fundamentally structured and the academic canon itself excludes and penalizes rather than includes and honors diverse voices and lived experiences?
Believing this to be true, educators all over the world are examining the decolonization of higher education. Estera is one of them.
In 2020, as part of a team led by Riyad A. Shanjahan, an associate professor at Michigan State, Estera and her colleagues conducted a Google search of terms related to “decolonization.” More than six million results popped up instantly on their screens. They conducted an in-depth literature review of those related to higher education, culminating in a paper published in 2022 in the American Educational Research Association journal.
There, they wrote that, “Decolonization, plainly stated, is the undoing of colonialism.” Undoing it is a messy, complex, multi-layered process that will look different depending on historic, geographical, and political contexts.
For Estera, examining the decolonization of higher education systems felt like a natural tie-in to her other research on colonial history in the Philippines. “The first thing I always think about is how the American model of higher education came from Oxford University in England and that’s not a neutral model.”
It’s a model built on violence, whether by taking the land of indigenous tribes or the slave labor used to construct many of today’s most elite institutions including Harvard University and the University of Virginia.
Many schools—Endicott among them—have started to think deeply about these legacies and how they impact the present day.
“Endicott sits on the original homelands of the Naumkeag Tribe,” said Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Brandi Johnson. “Acknowledging that, and naming it at many of our events, is a simple way to work against the erasure of tribal culture in Massachusetts and it’s also an honest representation of our history.”
Last spring, Associate Professor of History Elizabeth Matelski was awarded an inaugural Tadler Center Fellowship for her research into Robin Mingo, an enslaved man who lived in Beverly from 1661 to 1748, and whose name is known to the Endicott community through the College’s own Mingo Beach.
Furthermore, the College is a founding member of the North Star Collective, a group of New England institutions dedicated to empowering BIPOC faculty and supporting initiatives in restorative justice.
Estera was one of two inaugural North Star Fellows in 2021. In 2022, she taught the Honors Seminar on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Higher Education,” a course she expects to offer again.
Estera believes, “All of those historical legacies impact us today and we need to acknowledge them. We need to actively think about how to make space for the marginalized voices that never had space to begin with.”
One major entry point to beginning that consciousness-raising process involves examining college syllabi and how the “classics” or “the academic canon” were chosen originally and continue to be chosen to teach as part of general requirements year after year.
With the support of Provost Sara Quay, Myrt Harper Rose ’56 Dean of Education Aubrey Threlkeld, and colleagues, Estera started that process when it comes to analyzing the courses she teaches or is developing for future semesters.
She observes, “When I think about the canon of my discipline, there are the main authors we’ve been told it’s important to study, and all of them are white people. Are we saying that within my discipline, only the thinking of white folks is what we should be learning about or is worth learning about?”
Allocating a certain percentage of required readings to authors of color might seem like an easy fix—but Estera believes that it’s more important to think through how the syllabus is taught and not just aim to hit a certain number in order to virtue signal or check a box. Instead, she suggests that faculty deep read through their syllabi with fresh eyes.
She asks, “How are folks of color being presented? Am I talking about them with the same status, enthusiasm, and expertise as I am of those of dominant identities—or all of the indigenous and folks of color squeezed into one class meeting in week 14?” For faculty and staff already pulling long hours, this is a big ask and adds hours of work—particularly in STEM where they might need to do significant research to identify and gain expertise on new sources.
But ultimately, Estera believes that it will result in connecting more deeply and meaningfully with students. “I want the classes to be relevant to the students,” she says with conviction. “I believe that this is part of my responsibility.”
She’s committed and just getting started and so is Endicott.
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