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Two visions of higher education illuminate the chasm between Harris and Pence

In her speech at the Democratic Convention, Harris made sure that the audience knew she had attended Howard University, a historically Black college and university (HBCU) and was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., which was founded at Howard in 1908. Harris has talked extensively about the school’s impact on her life: who she is as a person, a Black and Asian woman and leader. It was her alma mater that shaped many of her political views.

Pence, on the other side, attended Hanover College. Publicly, however, his closest link during his vice presidency has been to Liberty University. Pence has done everything he can to highlight that connection. He delivered a commencement speech at Liberty in 2019, asking the audience to consider him more than just a politician courting their support; he urged them to think of him as a “brother in Christ” and a champion of their values. The vice president also took pains to showcase his close, friendly relationship with former Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr., posing for smiling photos together.

Why have Harris and Pence made such public moves to associate themselves with Howard and Liberty? Especially since the GI Bill following World War II, there has not been one system of higher education in the United States, but many. Like the rest of American society, higher education has splintered and divided, as colleges and universities promote themselves as embodying different visions of what higher education should be, with unique experiences and cultures.

Ties to Howard and Liberty then — a HBCU and a conservative, religious institution — send clear messages to voters about what values each campaign represents and to whom the candidates are appealing.

Howard University, founded in 1867, is an example of possibility and opportunity. Since its beginnings, the institution has been instrumental in building the Black middle class, educating future Black doctors, lawyers, professors, judges, politicians and scientists. Moreover, Howard graduates have been essential figures in ensuring equity for all in the courts, led and participated in the civil rights movement, contributed greatly to the arts and fostered the advancement of intellectual thought. For example, Howard shaped the thinking of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and influenced her steadfast fight against various forms of institutional racism. And, it was Howard-trained lawyer (and later Supreme Court justice) Thurgood Marshall, with the guidance of his mentor Charles Hamilton Houston, who, in 1954, argued against segregation in Brown v. Board of Education.

Harris graduated from Howard in 1986, one year before the television show “A Different World” introduced HBCUs to the nation, showcasing their commitment to African American student success as well as their role in fostering activism and a commitment to justice. The mid-1980s were a reawakening for HBCUs, with “A Different World” leading to increased enrollment and a renewed appreciation for the culture of HBCUs among African Americans and beyond.

In the show, the culture, activism and complexities of Blackness were on full-display through the lens of a fictional HBCU.