A Rural College in Kansas Is Testing the Federal Government’s Power to Ban Racism

A community college accused of discriminating against Black students says it will change its ways. The current president said she's retiring, but the board that hired her will stay the same.
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Michael Koretzky has been a professional journalist for four decades, contributing to media outlets as diverse as The New York Times and the National Enquirer. He is currently editor of Debt.com and has advised the student newspaper at Florida Atlant...
Published on September 5, 2023
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  • On Monday, Highland Community College signed an agreement with the Department of Justice to stop discriminatory treatment of Black students.
  • A separate lawsuit accuses college officials of saying they want to make Highland white again.
  • Highland's president was recorded praising Adolph Hitler. She'll remain president until the board of trustees can hire a new one.

Since the turn of the decade, tiny Highland Community College (HCC) has faced more lawsuits and investigations (three) than it has dining halls (two).

Located 80 miles north of Kansas City, Missouri, HCC has just under 2,440 students. Its leaders have been accused of trying to shrink that number by harassing and expelling Black students. A lawsuit the ACLU of Kansas filed in early 2020 made some startling accusations, including that HCC unfairly disciplined Black students and singled out prospective Black student-athletes for background checks, among others.

The lawsuit convinced the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate, and HCC agreed to reforms on Monday. The previous Friday, HCC President Deborah Fox announced her retirement. But it's not immediate. The same board of trustees who hired Fox — composed entirely of white men — will choose the next president.

A retirement date has not been determined, she said in a statement, which added, Fox indicated she will continue in her position until the board identifies the next HCC president and the new president is able to begin their duties.

The question swirling around HCC's situation is: Can such an embedded culture of discrimination really be changed by the same leaders who created it or at least inherited it?

ACLU's Lawsuit Against HCC

Here are some of the allegations in the lawsuit the ACLU filed against HCC in 2020:

  • HCC officials demeaned Black students for their wild hair and disciplined them for supposed infractions that were forgiven or ignored when committed by white students.
  • HCC's Athletic Director Bryan Dorrel conducted background checks on prospective Black athletes not imposed on white recruits and ordered coaches to recruit more white prospective student-athletes over Black prospects.
  • HCC police were documented driving slowly in their squad car behind Black student-athletes walking on and off campus.
  • HCC administrators removed or expelled Black student-athletes for conduct such as insubordination and cursing that its own policies prescribe only low to medium sanctions.

One Lawsuit Is Settled, Another Is Filed

While HCC settled the lawsuit in 2020 — paying four students between $12,000 and $15,000 — another was filed in 2022. This time, three former HCC basketball coaches alleged further discrimination against Black student-athletes and claimed HCC officials were trying to make Highland white again.

The lawsuit also unearthed an audio recording of HCC President Deborah Fox speaking with a former assistant football coach about HCC's racial issues. In it, she says, Even if we don't like it, Hitler was a great leader.

At first, Fox didn't apologize, telling the Kansas City Star, I am sickened and horrified that a discussion that included diversity and leadership was taken out of context. Only later did she tell Newsweek, In trying to describe negative leadership in a lengthy conversation lasting over an hour, I used a horrible description ... I am deeply sorry.

The only HCC official who was implicated in the discrimination and has resigned is Athletic Director Bryan Dorrel. The coaches' lawsuit says Fox was friends with Dorrel and circumvented the standard search committee process to hire him. The suit also says board of trustees member Russell Karn was instrumental in hiring Fox.

The lawsuit names Karn as a co-defendant because he led the board's vision of a racially homogenous campus with fewer African American athletes. He also allegedly accused the women's basketball coach of giving a car to one of her players that she bought from a stolen car syndicate.

Karn is one of six members of HCC's board of trustees, which oversees school policy. Like Karn, the other five are white men. Will they be willing and able to change HCC's culture? HCC would not make Karn, the board of trustees, or Fox available for an interview with BestColleges. The ACLU did not respond to BestColleges' request for comment.

This second lawsuit claimed HCC's Black enrollment is less than 6%. According to the latest HCC data available, which covers 2015-2020, Black enrollment peaked at 8.5% in 2019.

HCC Settles With DOJ

That lawsuit is still ongoing, but the Department of Justice concluded its investigation this week with an agreement signed by HCC leaders. While the agreement requires HCC to strengthen policies, procedures, and training, it also comes with some deadline-oriented specifics:

  • HCC will designate and maintain an outside consultant ... to review and assess all school policies.
  • HCC has 14 days to give the DOJ the name and credentials of this consultant — who the Justice Department will approve.
  • The consultant will also train HCC Employees who hold leadership or administrator positions and will advise and assist HCC in revising the policies and procedures.
  • In addition to the consultant, HCC will designate one administrator to manage HCC's response to Allegations of Discrimination. This administrator reports directly to HCC's president.

One potential issue is that HCC's president is still Deborah Fox, who insisted her comments about Hitler were taken out of context.

Consultants vs. Culture

Regional media outlets have called for Fox's immediate resignation and for changes in the board of trustees.

On the same day the Department of Justice announced its settlement agreement, HCC released its own statement. Titled, “Highland Community College Enters Beneficial Settlement Agreement,” it admitted no wrongdoing.

Instead, it described the agreement as continuing efforts to provide the best environment possible for the HCC student body. The closest thing to an admission was Fox's quote, We recognize there is always room for improvement.

As it stands right now, Fox will hire the consultant and appoint the administrator to monitor the settlement agreement, and her eventual replacement will be hired by the same people who hired her.

As the Kansas City Star's editorial board wrote, Federal officials said all the right things. But did they let Highland officials off the hook?

Time will tell.