Lifting As They Climb

The following piece written by Jamal Watson ran in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education February 25, 2024. To read it on Diverse: Issues in Higher Education website, click here. Reprinted by permission of author. 

Lifting As They Rise
By Jamal Watson

Like so many other scholarly associations founded in the United States, African Americans and other minorities remained invisible within the leadership ranks for years.

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) was no exception.

Dr. Linda Darling- Hammond

The leadership of the national research society that strives to advance knowledge about education and currently boasts a membership of about 25,000 scholars — remained exclusively white until the 1990s.

Founded in 1916, it took 79 years before the association elected its first Black president, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, to the post in 1995-1996.

At the time, Darling-Hammond was an endowed professor at Columbia University, Teachers College. Today, she is the president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute and the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University, where she founded the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

Two years later, after that historic election, the AERA membership elected Dr. James A. Banks to serve as president. He became the first Black man to helm the association in 1997-1998. 

“It was an incredible breakthrough,” says Banks, who is the Kerry and Linda Killinger Endowed Chair in Diversity Studies Emeritus. He also was the founding director of the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington, which is now the Banks Center for Educational Justice. “I worked hard to transform the organization because it was pretty lily white,” he says. “Most of the officers were primarily white males, which was typical at the time.”

Banks chronicled the history of Black AERA leadership in a March 2016 article, titled “Expanding the Epistemological Terrain: Increasing Equity and Diversity Within the American Educational Research Association,” that appeared in the journal Educational Researcher.

Dr. James Banks

In 2005-2006, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, who is currently professor emerita and the former Kellner Family Distinguished Professor in Urban Education with the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, served as the association’s third Black president and was succeeded two years later in 2007-2008 by Dr. William F. Tate IV, the current president of Louisiana State University. At the time, Tate was the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in Arts and Sciences and Chair of the Department of Education at Washington University in St. Louis.

Dr. Carol D. Lee, who is professor emerita (the former Edwina S. Tarry Professor) of Education in the School of Education and Social Policy and in African American Studies at Northwestern University, was elected as the association’s fourth Black president in 2010-2011, jumpstarting a trend that would see eight Black AERA presidents over the next 14 years, including the association’s current president — Dr. Tyrone Howard, who holds the Pritzker Family Endowed Chair of Education at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

Howard’s successor will be Dr. Janelle Scott, a professor in the School of Education and African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Scott also holds the Robert J. and Mary Catherine Birgeneau Distinguished Chair in Educational Disparities, and is the chair of the Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster of the Othering and Belonging Institute. She will lead the organization in 2024-2025.

“This has been a historic, last few years, and it’s not just AERA,” says Lee, adding that other associations, including the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) and the American Psychological Association have elected Black leaders to preside over their associations. “I am encouraged both by the shift in AERA, but the shift with other associations and organizations as well. If you think about the American Psychological Association, which was founded by a eugenicist, it now has two Black presidents in a row.”

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings

Dr. Arnetha F. Ball, the Charles E. Ducommun Endowed Professor (Emerita) in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, was president in 2011-2012. Dr. Joyce E. King, the Benjamin E. Mays Endowed Chair and Professor of Educational Policy Studies, led the association from 2014-2015. King was followed in 2016-2017 by Dr. Vivian L. Gadsden, the William T. Carter Professor of Child Development and Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Vanessa Siddle Walker, the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of African American Educational Studies Emerita at Emory University, served as president in 2019-2020 and was followed by Dr. Shaun R. Harper, University Professor, Provost Professor of Education and Business, Clifford and Betty Allen Chair in Urban Leadership and USC Race and Equity Center Founder and Executive Director at the University of Southern California.

Dr. Na’ilah Suad Nasir, president of the Spencer Foundation, took the reigns in 2021-2022, followed by Dr. H. Richard Milner IV, the Cornelius Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of Education in 2022-2023.

“What has become a beautiful, inspiring lineage would’ve been impossible without the trailblazing leadership of Linda Darling-Hammond, Jim Banks, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Bill Tate,” says Harper. “Each of us who followed their lead did so with a tremendous feeling of collective responsibility to uphold Black excellence in the presidency.”

In 2021, AERA’s leadership named Dr. Edmund W. Gordon an AERA honorary president, making him the first person in AERA’s history to receive the recognition.

Dr. William Tate IV

Gordon, who is 102, served is the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at Yale University; the Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University; and founding and emeritus director of the college’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education. He was the first African American to run for the AERA presidency but was unsuccessful in getting elected. Losing the race, he would later share, was one of his biggest professional disappointments. Two months shy of his 100th birthday, he participated in a virtual ceremony to express his appreciation with having been recognized as an honorary president.

“I get credit for a large number of young people, predominantly of color, that I have helped along the way,” he said at the time. “But as I reflect on this past 80 years, I have learned so much from people coming after me who are simply discharged with what my father told me. That was that if you get inside the door, your job is to hold it open for somebody else.”

Throughout the association’s existence, Black AERA presidents have steadily pushed for more inclusivity and to urge panel sessions that focused on racial inequities and racism within the field. This year’s meeting in Philadelphia from April 11-14 — under Howard’s leadership — will focus on how researchers should be working to dismantle racial injustice.

Scott says that, like Howard, she’s deeply committed to addressing the structural barriers that stand in the way of helping students achieve. Her presidency, she says, will include a “heightened focus on policies,” that can aid in reinforcing change over the long haul.

Dr. Na'ilah Suad Nasir

Although the AERA presidency is just for a year, it’s an influential position that helps to set the agenda for the annual meeting that draws anywhere between 15,000 to 20,000 attendees each year. Additionally, the AERA president names individuals to committees and makes the final decision, among other things, on selecting the editor for the association’s journal.

“When these opportunities arise, we have a responsibility to take them up,” says Lee, who encouraged Howard to run. “You have the ability to move the field forward because AERA is the largest research organization in the world.”

Banks, who taught and mentored Howard while he was a graduate student at the University of Washington was tickled when he realized that Milner, Howard’s predecessor as AERA president, was taught and mentored by Howard when he was a doctoral student at The Ohio State University.

“It’s kind of like the grandfather, the father, and the son,” says Banks. “The three of us are connected as presidents.”

It is possible that the recent trend of electing Black AERA presidents will continue. Dr. Maisha T. Winn, professor, Chancellor's Leadership Professor, and Co-Director of Transformative Justice in Education Center (TJE) is running to succeed Scott in 2025-2026.

As the association continues to expand, Harper says, he hopes other racial groups will be represented within the leadership ranks.

“AERA needs and deserves more Asian American, Indigenous, and Latinx presidents,” Harper insists. “It’s my hope that the Black presidential lineage inspires and expands further diversification at the association’s highest leadership level.”