Yale School of Management

The Broad Center at Yale SOM

Excerpts: ‘The Role of Higher Education in Eliminating Social Injustice’

In a recent online conversation with John A. Byrne, founder and editor in chief of Poets & Quants, Dean Kerwin Charles discussed his academic research into income inequality and how higher education can do a better job at leveling the playing field.

July 7, 2020

Everything in my lived experience, everything that I heard from friends and family, and much that I observed around me...suggested that race is indeed a huge delimiter of life capacity. How could that be? Given what I was being taught & believed in this field (economics) and so it was natural in a way that I would think about race as an important part of my research. Because so much about racial outcomes, racial processes, racial differences in the US and elsewhere seemed at variance with my conception of how say, the labor market...ought to be operating. So the combination of those two things, made a focus on racial [as well as] gender, ethnic and other differences—an essential part of my work.

If one is interested in the characterization, the description, the evolution of socio-economic phenomena and one is a person of color in particular, it would be most odd indeed if there was not this substrain always in the back of one's mind about investigating these questions.

However measured, education is a tremendous leveler, I am convinced...I am convinced that education serves another function. This is of true of places [like Yale], universities serve... an aggregator, interaction function. The student at a university is brought into meaningful, close engagement with her colleague across the aisle who is fundamentally different. From a fundamentally different racial background, life circumstances incredibly different and taking the same chem or art history class...These are profoundly important things, I think, because they affect the view that both students might have had about the groups from which the other person comes.

 The ability to shorten the distance between scholarly output and policy and other impact, or the inability to do that, I think gnaws at most scholars. And I think it especially gnaws at scholars of color.

This is a moment to make change because of how we all feel...It suggests to me that we might be at a moment where people are inclined to do things, to think differently, to innovate, to try. So I do believe we are at a special moment. We may be at a special moment, too, because of progress which has occurred on racial grounds.

It’s a very good question about the role that education in general plays and the role that college and higher education plays. The interactor or aggregator function that schools play bringing different kinds, types of ideas together...For that function to work well, the place must be richly diverse. Period. The benefit of this aggregator/interactor function of [a university] is very seriously delimited by the representation of other kinds of faces in the room. It is an obligation of great universities it seems to me to find every way, every imaginable way to diversify higher ed. The benefits of diversity having been described by many before. There is also the fact that at levels like this, meaning not just college, but professional training, there is something peculiar in that kind of school in that we engage very closely with the world of employers..we have long-standing relationships with employers. To the extent that a major source of black and Latino disadvantage is what happens in the labor market, our special location in the person-job nexus, allows us to ask of our employers and even demand of our employers various things.