Redefining the university culture: Lemon Project-Omohundro postdoc fellow Vineeta Singh reimagines higher education

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Vineeta Singh earned her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies and is currently teaching students about the systemic racism, colonialism traits founds in higher education communities. COURTESY PHOTO / VINEETA SINGH

In 2009, Omohundro Institute and Lemon Project Postdoctoral Fellow Vineeta Singh was an undergraduate at the University of MarylandCollege Park studying Latin American literature. That year, Singh witnessed her alma mater engage in a public debate regarding the different values possessed by both the university’s student body and administration.

“When I was a student at that time, what that looked like on the ground for us was a lot of the programming that students had fought for was being taken away, Singh said.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the state of Maryland cut its financial support of College Park by 10 percent. In response, the school terminated several faculty positions and student programs. Among the choices the university made was the decision to fire Associate Provost for Equity and Diversity Cordell Black, and to combine several academic departments such as black studies, Latino studies, women’s studies and LGBTQ studies into one program. Student protestors took this decision to signify that the university did not prioritize racial and cultural diversity and organized in droves to protest that decision.

Your budget tells you what things you prioritize, right?” Singh said. Nobody makes a budget and then puts rent as the last thing. So really, what you’re actually saying is that your priorities do not align with what we expect, and we expect you to do better.

This experience was pivotal in Singh’s decision to pursue her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San DiegoIn addition to ethnic studies, Singh researches the emerging field of critical university studies, which explores the role of universities in society and examines how higher education can be restructured to become a more just and equitable forceSingh’s dissertation, which she worked on for seven years in San Diego, focused on the American higher education system’s contemporary “diversity problem” and its historical origins.

Whose university is it anyway?  

This fall, Singh is taking her passion for the question of the role of the university to James Blair Hall, where she is teaching a course entitled “A People’s History of U.S. Higher Education. This course — an interdisciplinary offering in the American studies, history and gender, sexuality and women’s studies departments — will explore how settler colonialism, racial capitalism and heteropatriarchare present in the functional operation of modern colleges and universities, and what models can be taken up to dismantle those unjust systems

“I do think of education as a public good, as a public trust and as a service that the government has committed to providing its citizens and residents, and I’m committed to that,” Singh said. “I think [the university] is an institution that is incredibly problematic, that’s built on all kinds of violence and death and that continues to rely on racialized and gendered violence, exclusion and death to create often profits. But I am committed to the institution itself. I think it is possible to create an institution that is otherwise.”

“I think [the university] is an institution that is incredibly problematic… But I am committed to the institution itself. I think it is possible to create an institution that is otherwise.” Singh said.

After Singh completed her degree, she began to look for gainful employment in her field. Coming to the College of William and Mary during this employment pursuit was not on Singh’s radar, but when a friend told her about the Omohundro-Lemon Project opportunity, she discovered the position was right in line with her interests.

The Omohundro Institute, which supports research focused on early American history, received a donation from the Ronald Hoffman Fund to fund this fellowship, which in turn was created to study the history of institutions and economies of oppression specifically in connection with the Lemon Project, the group founded by the College in 2009 to study the legacy of slavery.

“The second I read it, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is my dream job,’ Singh said. This initiative sounds like the university’s actually interested in putting its money where its mouth is.”

This year is the first time this postdoctoral fellowship has even existed. Because of the fellowship’s infancy enjoyed a substantial degree of freedom in making this position her own. 

With the Lemon Project, she has helped organize the group’s annual symposium and the upcoming Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talk with Teresa Younger, the president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, this Thursday March 28 at 5.30 p.m. in the history department library in James Blair Hall

Singh is adamant that the Lemon Project’s work should extend beyond campus. Singh’s goals aim primarily at building connections and establishing trust between the College and the Williamsburg community, especially with the Lemon Project’s established community ties.

Making academia a resource

Singh saw this fellowship at the College as an opportunity to bring the critical university studies conversation taking place on the West Coastwith its rich history of radical student activism, to a university on the East Coast currently processing through its own legacy of racist behavior. 

As a fellow, research is among Singh’s primary professional responsibilities. When she is not conducting research or teaching, Singh is working with community partners to create more meaningful bonds between the College and the community. 

Singh also stressed the importance of countering the norm of an extractive relationship between universities and communities. In an extractive relationship, the university will use the community as a research resource without giving too much backSingh wants to flip that model and offer the Lemon Project and the Omohundro Institute as resources that are available to the community.

Singh is not yet sure what she will do once her two-year fellowship comes to an end, but she is considering revising her dissertation into a book manuscript. In the past, she has mostly sought classes on black feminist thought, and in the fall she will be teaching a course largely related to her dissertation. In the future, she said she would love to teach a class on cultural depictions of black women in college, starting from the the first black female graduates at Oberlin College and going up to shows with seminal depictions of black women in college like “A Different World” and “Living Single.”

But for now, she is still intently focused on building community ties. One community cause she iparticularly passionate about is the Village Initiative, a local organization that works for equity in Williamsburg-James City County schools. One of their goals is recruiting and retaining more teachers of color, who are largely underrepresented in WJCC classrooms.

“At all levels, we know that having teachers of color in the classroom increases the likelihood of students of color being identified as gifted and talented,” Singh said. “It reduces their rates of disciplinary violations and suspensions and expulsions. It increases graduation rates. The presence of teachers of color in the classroom is empirically tied to all kinds of great results for students of color, who, currently at WJCC schools, are vastly overrepresented in suspensions and expulsions and massively underrepresented in AP programs and gifted and talented initiatives.”

“The presence of teachers of color in the classroom is empirically tied to all kinds of great results for students of color, who are vastly overrepresented in suspensions and expulsions and massively underrepresented in AP programs and gifted and talented initiatives.” Singh said.

To try to combat this issue, the Village Initiative is establishing a project devoted to the collection of oral histories from the local community about the 50th anniversary of desegregation at WJCC schools, and will then use those oral histories to present their case for more inclusive hiring practices to the state school board and local legislators. For Singh, this is a prime example of how the university, with its resources and trained historians, can make a positive impact on the local community by advocating for more equitable education practices. 

“We’re going to use that to appeal to decision makers in the fall,” Singh said. “… We’re doing the work and we’re showing the community that we’re here we’re committed to creating a better community, or a better relationship to the campus community.”

Singh is involved in other ways too. She makes an effort to show up to local NAACP events, volunteers at local after-school programs and attends faculty-led brown bag lunches at the College across a variety of disciplines.

Even though so much of Singh’s research focuses on where universities have failed, she remains committed to the idea that a better path for the American university is possible and worth pursuing. In the field of critical university studies, Singh said that the question of whether the institution is even worth recuperation and reclaiming at all  as opposed to just abolishing it and starting over  is a contentious one.

“The question of whether the institution is something that can be salvaged or if it’s so deeply shot through with this history that we need to start over — that’s a big conversation,” Singh said.

While Singh admitted that she strives to keep an open mind on this issue, and deeply respects scholars who advocate for and against salvaging the university, her research on the issue has influenced her position. 

“I think for me, that’s an easier decision,” Singh said. “Because I study the history of student activism and community activism for access to higher education, and there’s such a rich history of black communities coming together and organizing for access to these institutions, that it would break my heart that the moment that the university becomes accessible, we tear it down.”

“Because there’s such a rich history of black communities coming together and organizing for access to these institutions, it would break my heart that the moment that the university becomes accessible, we tear it down.” Singh said.