What is the way forward?

Brian Peterson
4 min readFeb 20, 2024
Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. Or more like the past decade or so. Not to be super political (I promise, I’m going to focus mostly on higher education in this quick piece), but the election of Barack Obama seems like a lifetime ago. While I never viewed it as the cure-all to centuries of systemic oppression and exclusion that some claimed it to be, nor a radical shift in the ways that U.S. policies would function, it was certainly something that I didn’t actually think was possible until it happened.

So maybe this current moment is more on brand than I’d like to think. But when I tap into that thing called “hope” (remember that?), it certainly feels like we could be better than this, but we’ve grown content with expecting less.

In what may be a futile exercise, I’ve been trying to take in more public debate on the key issues of our time. Today’s offering is a recent PBS News clip featuring USC’s Shaun Harper, formerly my advisor at Penn. Take a look if have you a few minutes.

After watching this, I’m reminded that the University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1740, did not enroll its first Black students until 1879. We are fortunate to have a brief autobiographical document of one these students, Nathan Mossell, the first Black graduate of Penn’s Medical School. In it, he describes attending his first Penn lecture, in October 1879, when what seemed to him like the entire class of 140 others stomped their feet and chanted “put the [n-word] out.”

Mossell goes on to share the following:

“For the first year I had plenty of space around me wherever I sat … I was not perturbed, in the least, by any of these manifestations or disapproval. I was better prepared than most of the students. In those days one needed only a high school diploma to study medicine. Out of a class of 140-odd, about 30 of us had Bachelor of Arts degrees … The dissatisfaction stirred me to work harder and better. I attended lectures regularly, making sure to hear every word, and see all of the operations and demonstrations. I read the texts in advance so that I would not have to take notes in class. In this way I retained the information much better. To accomplish this, I rose at four every morning and retired at ten in the evenings.”

As we celebrate Mossell and the other firsts at Penn, I’m also thinking about what prompted Penn to admit them. Mossell notes that his admission was partially driven by the Quaker views of the Dean at that time, and the fact that Harvard and Yale had allowed “colored men” to study in their medical classrooms. But Mossell’s narrative underscores an often neglected truth: it was far from easy, for reasons well beyond academic rigor.

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives were developed to help institutions remedy their naturally occurring exclusionary practices — firmly rooted in eras of “whites only” — and foster deeper understanding and collaboration. It can easily be argued, and supported with data, as Harper shares in his PBS remarks, that this work is far from done. But as we can see, the opposing “debate” is not so much a conversation as it is an erasure of realities deemed dismissible.

When a nation pre-determines place through policy and practice, it does not matter that a Nathan Mossell is more prepared than the majority of his peers, and will go on to earn honors and found the second Black hospital in the United States. Without Penn’s reluctant commitment to an early semblance of DEI, and his own resolve, Mossell’s story would not be told, at least not in this version. How many stories are lost today when students face more nuanced but equally destructive barriers and opposition? How can universities actively promote missions of preparing students for a more diverse world but shut down critical dialogue and opportunities to learn from our past? When we allow diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging to become proxies for other age-old exclusionary tactics, everyone loses.

Again, I steadily hope that we will be smart enough to understand this, sooner than later. But sadly, I fear that “unity in diversity” may be too complex for the self-proclaimed “see no color” crowd (who, as Beyoncé can tell you, always sees color).



Brian Peterson

I am a husband, father, writer, educator, and generator of ideas. Working on my follow through. Latest book, Higher Learning, out now at learnhigher.com.