Allen is the Allan Murray Cartter Professor of Higher Education and a Distinguished Professor of Education, Sociology and African American Studies at UCLA.
Professor Walter Allen jokes that his Scholars of Color Distinguished Career Contribution Award from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) provides recognition for the aged in academia.
“When you start getting career awards, you know you’ve been at it for a while,” says the Allan Murray Cartter Professor of Higher Education at UCLA. “It was a great tribute, particularly to be honored by my colleagues.”
Despite the fact that the award recognizes scholars who earned their doctorates 20 years or more hence, the factors that shaped Allen’s career as a sociologist and educational researcher would resonate with many younger people today. Having grown up in Kansas City, Mo. during the age of racial segregation, he recalls the exceptional teachers at Manual High and Vocational School who opened the doors to a higher education for him and his peers.
“They were teaching these lower-income, inner city kids who had been written off by a society that didn’t expect anything of us,” says Allen, who teaches in the division of Higher Education and Organizational Change (HEOC). “We had classes like ‘Shoe Repair’ and ‘Environmental Sciences’ – aka ‘Janitorial Service.’ There was the notion that a good number of us would be dead or in jail or drugged out or burnt out on the street before we hit 25. And at that time also, a good number of us were being shipped off to Vietnam. You would barely graduate from high school before they shipped you off because of the draft.
“But I had these teachers who were remarkable. They would discuss ideas and ask us what we were going to do about our futures. [They] refused to accept that we weren’t capable of achieving whatever goals and dreams we set, and they refused to allow us to settle for lower standards. They took us canoeing, exposed us to theatre, and for me, planted dreams of college.”
Trained as a sociologist – he earned both his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago – Allen landed his first position in academia at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an institution with an infamous history of segregation among both the student body and the faculty, until the early 1970s.
“We were literally the first generation of Black professors in sizeable number to move into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which had settled a court case charging them with continuing discrimination,” Allen recalls. “One of their arguments was that they would have liked to hire qualified Black faculty, but they couldn’t find anyone. But once the university was under a court order and the settlement was in place, they found Black psychiatrists, lawyers, people in sociology, mathematics, English – everything. Not only did they find us, but they brought us from the top tier of schools.
“It was challenging because you moved into a space where people were not necessarily accepting or understanding of you,” he says. “We had encounters with janitors, police officers… students walking into a class, seeing who was teaching it and leaving because it was a Black professor.”
These experiences influenced Professor Allen’s research, which includes issues of inequality, access, diversity, and equity in higher education. This year at the annual meeting of AERA, he participated in a Presidential Session titled, “#BlackLivesMatter – Even in Education” as well as several other presentations including “Multiculturalism in All Levels of Higher Education,” “Public Scholarship and “#BlackLivesMatter: New Direction for Research and Policy, K Through College,”“Public Scholarship to Foster Positive Intercultural Relations,” “The Prison-to-School Pipeline: Nondeficit Approaches to Examining the Educational Trajectories of Marginalized Latino Males,” and “Brokering Future Learning Opportunities: Theoretical and Practical Considerations for Linking Youth to Out-of-School Time Opportunities.”
“Scholarly discourse and popular events show that “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” notes Allen. “A half century after the Civil Rights Movement we have the Black Lives Matter” movement and students demonstrating for greater campus diversity. Race- ethnic stereotypes and discrimination are deeply embedded in our society and do great harm to students of color. I am encouraged that many young scholars in the field are determined to confront, research and solve these inequities.”
Allen directs the Summer Training for Excellence in Educational Research (STEER) Program at UCLA in collaboration with Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Howard University. This program is funded by the UC President’s Office for undergraduates from HBCUs to work with UCLA Education faculty and gain research experience. These faculty also mentor the students through the graduate school admissions process and help them develop their application essays, prepare for the GRE, and explore financial aid options. Three of the students presented their work at AERA this year. Also STEER alums now attend leading graduate programs at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard University.
Allen, who serves on the board of trustees at Spelman College, recalls the lessons of his mentor, Edgar G. Epps, who was the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education at the University of Chicago when Allen was a student there.
“As a teacher and mentor I stress the importance of intellectual curiosity, social commitment, hard work and excellence,” says Allen. “I have been blessed with brilliant students from across the color spectrum. We shared rich intellectual journeys, each teaching and learning from the other. Many of my former students are attending top- ranked graduate schools or are now distinguished professors, civil rights attorneys, K- 12 school teachers, and physicians who serve the poor.”
Allen, whose research includes studies of the family, credits his own upbringing with instilling the drive in him to succeed.
“I grew up in a military family,” he says. “If you didn’t go to school, your route for upward mobility was the military. There were very few options available [for people of color] to become officers, but I had a couple of members of my family who were the highest ranking, non-commissioned officers in the military, in the most prestigious branches of the military – the Rangers, the Marines, Special Forces. That’s how I was raised – that sort of striving and questing after excellence.”
Allen’s first role model was a bit closer to home.
“I grew up in a single parent family; my mother raised us,” he says. “She hadn’t even been educated through high school but had a thirst for learning. Racism in Mississippi denied her an education, but later in life, she earned a GED and took classes at a community college. To support eight children, my mother worked in a hospital, delivering food to patients’ rooms. At some point, she figured out what dietitians were doing, as they sat in their offices, decided menus and supervised staff.
“She said, ‘I can do that. I know not to give this patient salt.’ She got certified and she became a dietitian and a union steward for the labor force at the hospital. That was the kind of spirit she had – teaching us pride in ourselves, excellence, and purpose.”
Professor Allen says that underserved students today face more challenges in some ways than he did growing up and that striving for a higher education is the way to overcome those challenges.
“For one thing, there is the sheer volume of weaponry on the street and the outflow of economic opportunity,” he says. “If nothing else, when I was growing up you could go into a factory and make a viable living, raise a family, buy a home, secure a future, and send kids to college. Life for poor families is more difficult. We grew up in the projects, but at least 50 percent of the families had two parents in the home. Those kinds of things are so different now.
“Educational researchers and practitioners must continue to lead the struggle to improve educational access, quality and achievement for all groups, but especially for those communities most disadvantaged in our ‘knowledge economy,’” says Allen. “Today, more than ever before, higher education is the Holy Grail. College graduates earn more, therefore they also have a better quality of life. Education continues to offer a more certain pathway to a better future. Sadly, forces have converged to limit educational opportunities for the poor, the disenfranchised, and for many students of color.”
Professor Allen is the Distinguished Professor of Education, Sociology and African American Studies at UCLA. He directs The Choices Project, a longitudinal study of college access and equity for African Americans and Latinos in California. More broadly, The Choices Project examines how social inequality limits “Life Choices and Life Chances” in education, family, work, health, and the environment. Allen is also co-investigator for “Educational Diversity in U.S. Law Schools,” a national, longitudinal study of race, ethnicity, teaching and learning at 70 law schools among 8,000 law students. He collaborates on two international studies, “Preserving Biodiversity in Central Africa,” a study of tropical forest conservation schemes, public education and community support; and “Social Inclusion and the Quality of Higher Education in Post- Conflict Colombia,” a study of access, equity and quality in Colombia’s higher education system.
A prolific author, editor, and writer, Allen’s 150-plus publications include “As the World Turns: Implications of Global Shifts in Higher Education for Theory, Research and Practice” (2012); “Towards a Brighter Tomorrow: College Barriers, Hopes and Plans of Black, Latino/a and Asian American Students in California” (2009); and the article, “Everyday Discrimination in a National Sample of Incoming Law Students,” which was written for the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education in 2008.
Professor Allen served as an expert witness in affirmative action and higher education discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger (for Student Intervenors); and U.S. v. Fordice (MS). He has also testified on race, education, and inequality before the United Nations in Geneva and the U. S. House of Representatives.
Professor Allen is a sought-after commentator in the media and has been interviewed by numerous outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Show, The MacNeil-Lehrer Report, 60 Minutes, the BBC, NBC Evening News with Tom Brokaw, GLOBO- Brazilian Television Network, Jet Magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, The Chicago Tribune, Black Enterprise, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, U.S. News and World Report. Recently, Professor Allen served as an advisor and will appear in the upcoming Firelight Films documentary, “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”
Photo by Howard Korn