Ernest Q. Campbell, former Vanderbilt University dean and co-author of an influential report on desegregation in education, died Sunday in Nashville at the age of 86.
Campbell, born in 1926, grew up in rural Georgia and began a life in academia, earning his bachelor’s degree from Furman University, his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his doctorate from Vanderbilt, where he became the chair of the university’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology in 1963.
In 1964, he co-authored Equality of Educational Opportunity — often called the Coleman Report — alongside head researcher James S. Coleman and others, commissioned by the U.S. Office of Education as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Published in 1966, it advocated for desegregated schools, showing that the quality of a student’s school did not have the most direct impact on academic achievement.
Rather, a student’s socioeconomic background, home life and the demographic makeup of the school were said to play more important roles.
Journalist and socio-cultural writer John Egerton called Campbell a “very diligent, hardworking, committed public servant.”
“I was in great admiration of the work that he produced in the Coleman Report,” Egerton said. “He was bound to be criticized for it — the very subject itself guaranteed opposite views, and his job was to see what the facts suggested and to offer some alternative that might be viable as social policy.”
The report found that disadvantaged students performed better in integrated schools and is often cited as a catalyst for the busing movement that brought black students into predominately white schools.
“He will always stand as a beacon to the important, necessary, essential change that society needs to make; needed to make then, needs to make now,” Egerton said.
Coleman and other critics would later call desegregation busing a failure, because as black students moved in, white students moved out — often called “white flight” — rendering schools as segregated as they began.
Campbell also spent a year in Kenya on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation developing a Department of Sociology at the University of East Africa.
In 1974 he became dean of Vanderbilt’s Graduate School and taught for 10 years, retiring in 1993.
Campbell, who lived in Germantown and was known as a strong advocate for the mixed-use district and Nashville's other urban enclaves, is survived by his wife Berdelle, their four children and seven grandchildren.