Behind ivory towers and stone walls: Racial climate and Black students at a highly selective liberal arts college

Edward L Pittman, University of Pennsylvania


The experiences of Black students at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) of higher education have been the focus of study and policymaking for several decades. Much of the research addresses dimensions of campus racial climate and its impact on the academic and campus life experiences of Black students at large universities. The experiences of Black students at smaller and highly selective liberal arts colleges, however, deserve a deeper and closer examination because these campuses may be uniquely situated and present data-rich opportunities for exploration. The purpose of this study was to explore two central questions: how do past histories of campus racial climate affect the current experiences of Black students? What are the experiences of Black students with respect to racial climate at highly selective liberal arts colleges? The study employed qualitative methods within a case study approach for an in-depth exploration of a highly selective liberal arts college. The research site was selected through purposeful sampling and considered variables of institutional size, percent of Black students, coeducational status, and occurrences of racial incidents within the last ten years. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 29 participants, consisting of Black students, Black faculty, Black alumni, and administrators. Written histories and documents, institutional reports, and campus newspapers supplemented the qualitative data. The conceptual framework of Critical Race Theory was employed throughout the study design and data analysis process. The key findings included reports of positive academic experiences for Black students, yet less than affirming experiences with campus racial climate. Socioeconomic and class differences also exacerbated an adverse campus racial climate due to factors on campus and in neighboring communities. Additionally, persistent patterns of racial incidents over three decades contributed to negative lived experiences for Black students. Implications include directions for further research and proactive responses to adverse racial climates and sustained engagement of students across racial groups that can be taken by institutional leaders.

Subject Area

African American Studies|Black studies|Higher Education Administration|Educational leadership

Recommended Citation

Pittman, Edward L, "Behind ivory towers and stone walls: Racial climate and Black students at a highly selective liberal arts college" (2012). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3530084.