Black Colleges and Universities: Are they doomed or just low sick?

26 Jan

I am the product of an HBCU. I graduated with a BS in Education from Central State University in Wilberforce , Ohio in 1971. That was long ago enough that the professors who taught me were all true scholars. They did research, they published, the first year I taught high school I taught from a book co-authored by my professor and mentor Dr. Wilhemina Robinson. The landscape of HBCU scholarship in the forty-one years since I graduated has changed dramatically. In the 1960s and early 70s true integration of higher education was still in its infancy. Most black scholars, especially those who did not live in urban areas, had few choices of where to teach. My chemistry professor in undergrad, Dr. Shelbert Smith, had worked with Fermi and other internationally known scientists, but the color of his skin meant he was relegated to a black, less prestigious and less resourced institution. It was to our advantage as students that many of our professors simply could not find work at white institutions because those institutions did not hire black people, no matter what their accomplishment or resumes looked like.

But, by the time I graduated the tide was turning. White universities began for reasons we can only speculate to decide they would not mind having black students, and that meant having some black professors to prove it was a place not alien to black folks. We could engage in a month long discussion of whether this change of heart was because of changing cultural mores or because of economics, but we will surely never know for certain. For whatever reason the HBCUs began to experience a brain drain. The most accomplished black professors were siphoned off with promises of higher salaries, more resources to support their research, and in most cases, a system that provided tenure opportunities, something many HBCUs did not and do not offer.

The HBCUS have never recovered. There are 104 accredited HBCUs in America  almost equally split between public and private. Most of them are, not surprisingly, in the South. In the South where resistance to mingling with blacks was more entrenched ( ironic since white Southerners and blacks had been used to living in much closer physical  proximity to each other for most of their history than any white Northerners, but then you know the old saying, which still to some extent holds true: In the North they don’t care how big you get as long as you don’t get too close. In the South they don’t care how close you get as long as you don’t get too big) the white population was more than willing to pay for black colleges and universities to keep black students out of their white institutions. As a matter of fact it is hilarious that some of the white  people who history has lauded as a hero of black education because of their support of black schools and universities were actually some of the biggest racists who did not want the students to have an excuse to press for admission to white schools.

In 1950 the court case of Sweatt vs Painter brought by a black student in Texas who wanted to attend law school, but could not do so because there were no black law schools in Texas ws decided in favor of the student .  This set off alarm bells all over the segregated halls of higher education and HBCUs began to be gifted with professional schools,not out of interest in providing opportunities for blacks, but to keep them from having a legal remedy to being discriminated against by insisting on citing Sweatt V Painter and being admitted to white professional schools.

Fast forward to 2012. Only 27 of the 104  black universities offer professional degrees ( JDS, PHDS, Etc) or slightly over a quarter of the schools. Fifty-two of them or half have any graduate programs. If a black student wants to become a doctor or lawyer or college professor most of the time the black college is not going to be able to prepare him/her to do so. There are exceptions, of course. There are still jewels in the crown. Most people would recognize Howard , Spelman, Meharry, Moorehouse, Hampton and a few more as excellent schools, but I am comfortable in stating than fewer than 20% of the HBCUs have any substantial, sustainable claim to academic excellence. Why this is is too complex for me to try to tackle in less than a long book, which I am unwilling to write, so I will explore a few things only here.

First, they are anachronistic. We do not have many institutions that are devoted to a specific clientele anymore. Even historically women’s or men’s colleges have, in many cases been gender integrated. Second, many of them have lost their mission. Since black people can,at least in theory, go to any college or university, what does a black college offer that a white one cannot. My answer in the 1960s and 70s when I was in undergrad was that it offered a place where the scholarship was focused on black people. You did not have to concern yourself with the possibility that someone might be treating you badly or differently because you were black, which took a huge burden off your shoulders, you could concentrate on scholarship that was often Afro-centric in nature. The HBCUs of that day championed black people. black culture, the Pan-Africa movement, Black Power, black literature, black arts, etc. They took their dual responsibility to make the black student proud of the accomplishments of his race and to teach the rest of society about those accomplishments very seriously. They were hubs of black culture and knowledge and scholarship. I am afraid today that mission has been lost.

I have only taught at one HBCU which shall remain nameless. It is small school, fewer than 5,000 students. I was called upon to teach two classes in the School of Education because I knew the Dean and he needed someone to teach the classes. Since I was already full time at one university and part-time at another I demurred at first, but upon being begged and pleaded with and promised they would fit the classes into my schedule however I liked I reluctantly agreed.

I attended the first faculty meeting that fall and found out one of the problems of at least this HBCU. The faculty, almost to a man and woman,  had great disrespect for both the institution and their students. The faculty was made of older folks who could remember the glory days of the institution and had great disdain for what it had become and of younger people who were working there because they had been unable, at least for the moment , to get jobs at bigger or more prestigious institutions. They did not seem to understand that perhaps with their efforts the institution could be returned to its past glory. Being the newbie  many of them felt compelled to warn me that I would not like the students. They were lazy, would not come to class, disrespectful and generally no count, they said. I was counseled to save myself a lot of trouble and simply put in my time. The students, they declared, were beyond salvation, academic or otherwise.There were a few faculty members who did not caution me, neither did they disagree openly with the prevailing gloomy folks, but I got the impression they did not find the students as worthless as their peers did.

I was issued a nice, large office, bringing home to me the fact that the enrollment had dropped and so had the faculty, or such a nice space would not have been given to an adjunct. I brought in my supplies and decorations from home and attacked the design of my syllabus and first few lesson plans. As I was working in my office one day before classes started the Dean strolled in with some bad news. There had been some fiscal mismanagement at the book store the year before and as a result the book supplier would not be sending any books until the bill from last year was settled. This meant that the bill would not be settled until mid-October at the earliest, or about halfway through the semester. The University had to wait for tuition to be paid before they could settle the bill, and since virtually all of the students were on financial aid that meant waiting for monies to be transferred to the University coffers by various financial aid entities. I smiled and assured the Dean that I could teach from handouts for six weeks or so, no problem. He thanked me for being a trooper and left my office.

Now I was going to have to select book chapter excerpts and journal articles I could copy. I had 43 students in each class, huge classes for the institution because the classes had not been taught for three years and the students had piled up. But, I could make copies. I knew enough about black institutions to understand most of them of that size would not have clerical help for professors who would make their copies. So I searched out my materials over the next week and presented myself on a Saturday to make my copies. There was no paper. On Monday i went to the office to ask what happened and was told the supply of paper that had been bought had all been ” claimed.” This was a theme that was to continue in my tenure there for all supplies from paper clips to staples. The supplies came in and the veterans, anticipating a shortage, hoarded them. It did not seem to occur to them that if they did not hoard them there might not be a shortage. This is one of the problems at many HBCUs, this culture of poverty, real or imagined. Even thought the people themselves are rarely poor many of them  have the attitudes of people who are sure there is not enough to go around so I had better get mine now while it is here. Some of this is engrained behavior from a childhood of poverty (I used to have a boss, a black man at a white institution, who made six figures but always asked for a to-go box so he could take food home from receptions, luncheons and dinners) , but some of it is learned behavior. When you see people grabbing reams of paper and go to the supply closet the next week to get some and it is all gone, if you want to make copies you may become a hoarder as well.Betty Smith in her wonderful novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” said that poor people love having lots of anything. Evidently even people who are not poor but are afraid things are going to run out do too.

Okay, no paper, well paper is relatively cheap. I had been promised there would be a new supply in a month, so I could spot the institution a couple of reams. i bought my paper. I went over to make copies. The copier was broken. The money to fix it would not be available for another two to three weeks. Okay. I surrendered. I went to my VP and friend at my full-time white institution job and explained my dilemma. She kindly decided that since both schools were state institutions I could use the copy shop at her institution for my copies for the month. I was relieved and guilt ridden. I was making more work for our copy shop people and sparing myself considerable difficulty and using one college’s resources to support another. I assuaged my guilt with the presumption that the HBCU should be getting more resources and this was somehow a kind of social justice. I sent my articles to the copy shop, where they were copied, stapled and delivered to my campus mailbox at the majority serving institution. Yet another contrast. Not only did we have a full supply closet at all times at the white school, I had clerical help if I needed it and several other perks to make my job easier.

When school finally started and I got to begin teaching with my lovely handouts I discovered that my  students were not lazy, they did come to class, some of them had mechanical issues with grammar and sentence structure but they had good critical thinking skills, creativity and work ethics. I gave them respect and did my best and they returned the favor. The problem, at least with that HBCU, was not the students, but the financial management and the attitudes of the employees from cooks to custodians to professors to secretaries.

The problems of HBCUs in general  are: 1) Attitude about what is possible. In the olden days of my college years my professors would not shortchange me because they made less money than the people at Ohio State. They considered it their duty to provide me with a superior education to what I would have gotten if I had attended Ohio State by making me understand not only the material but what sacrifices had been made by my people to get me to a college and what my responsibilities were to be excellent to pay back, at least partially, those sacrifices 2) The professorate at many of  the schools is broken. No tenure, no money for research, no guidance or help to publish, no money to travel, no professional development of any kind.  Standards have to be elevated and maintained. This will cost both money and time. 3) Drift from mission. What sets black institutions apart should be their ability to empower and educate their students without the distractions of racism and provide them with resources and opportunities to not only achieve, but excel 4) Fiscal issues–either the schools are under-resourced or they are the victims of mismanagement or a combination of both. This must be fixed 5) Cronyism. This happens at white schools too, believe me, I have been the victim of it at least twice myself, but there is a difference in hiring someone less competent when you have 3,500 employees and hiring someone less competent because they are your friend when you have 200 employees. I have seen the dance of the lemons at HBCUs, where people fired for incompetence at one institution know someone at another and get hired at large salaries despite their backgrounds. 6) Turnover. It costs to replace people. HBCUs have to find ways to keep competent people, this is even more of an imperative than at white institutions because learning the variables that might erect barriers to the success of students at the black institutions takes time and patience and some degree of cultural competence.

HBCUs have a responsibility if they are to survive to fill a need. That need is not to produce a spectacular band half-time show. No, everyone can not be a Spelman or Howard, or Hampton, or Meharry, but you can be excellent, ethical  and accountable.  Change my friends, change or perish.

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Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Education, Race, Social Justice, Uncategorized


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