'African-American Men in College'

When educators discuss their greatest diversity challenges these days, many focus on the recruitment and retention of black male students. At many campuses, two-thirds of black students are female, and the lack of black men raises all sort of troubling questions.

April 21, 2006

When educators discuss their greatest diversity challenges these days, many focus on the recruitment and retention of black male students. At many campuses, two-thirds of black students are female, and the lack of black men raises all sort of troubling questions.

With university systems such as the City University of New York and individual colleges like the University of West Georgia all focused on the issue, a new book has arrived that may offer some ideas and cautions. African-American Men in College, just published by Jossey-Bass, is a collection of essays on a range of issues -- from admission through graduation.

Michael Cuyjet, acting associate provost for student life and associate professor of education at the University of Louisville, is both a contributor to and editor of the volume. In a recent interview, he discussed some of the issues raised by the book.

Q: Many colleges are experiencing gender gaps across racial and ethnic lines. What do you consider the factors that most hinder the enrollment of black men in higher education?

A: There are many factors, each contributing a bit more to the cumulative issues. However, the two most significant factors hindering enrollment in the first place (as different from the problem of attrition of those who do enroll) could be characterized as under-preparedness and cultural disincentives. Many African American boys are provided with less-than-adequate academic preparation due to poor school environments and discriminatory practices such as being tracked into behavior disorder classes in inordinately high proportion to their numbers in the school population. Compounding this broad lack of attention to their academic success, many African-American young men fail to consider academic achievement a worthwhile goal and, in fact, often consider college education (and even high school graduation) as not worth the effort or not “cool” among their peers.

Q: How much of an impact does the paucity of African-American men have on those who are enrolled, and on black women in higher education?

A: When the number of African-American men in a particular college fails to achieve “critical” mass -- a population of African-American men large enough to sustain their cultural identity and peer support for the group’s members -- the college community is usually seen as lacking, at best, or as hostile by African-American men who fail to find a level of cultural comfort in the campus community. The paucity also affects African-American women in at least three ways. First, the lack of African-American men usually contributes to the failure to reach this critical mass of African-American students to have a viable coeducational cultural presence. Second, a significant imbalance resulting from a disproportionately high ratio of women-to-men makes normal social interactions, particularly dating opportunities, difficult within the African-American college community. Third, the paucity of African-American men in college translates to a scarcity of college-educated African-American men, which has equally important negative ramifications for the post-collegiate social life of African-American female college graduates.

Q: Does the impact vary at historically black campuses?

A: Many of the factors discussed in the book affect African-American men similarly on both predominantly white institutions and historically black colleges and universities. However, the institutional racism identified by many African-American men as a serious detractor at PWIs is usually absent at HBCUs. On the other hand, some of the worst skewed male-to-female ratios occur at HBCUs, exacerbating the social problems mentioned in the previous question. Walter Kimbrough and Shaun Harper also point out another phenomenon -- that many African American men at HBCUs have expressed the perception that PWIs are generally superior institutions, contributing to their inferior perception of themselves as students at inferior institutions.

Q: Are there particular recruitment strategies that you think are most effective and that more colleges should consider?

A: This book does not particularly address pre-college conditions of African-American men and, thus, does not examine recruitment activities. However, it would seem that introducing African American men during the recruitment and orientation process to some of the more positive interventions addressed in the book would give these young men the perception that the institution is very interested in their success. Examples might include mentoring programs, special efforts to engage them in the co-curricular life of the campus, and academic enrichment programs targeted at African American male students.

Q: How do you view the role of black Greek organizations in terms of the impact -- positive and negative -- on black men who are enrolled?

A: This is a question with a very complex answer, since there is evidence of both positive and negative factors. Briefly, one positive aspect of black Greek organizations is that they afford many African-American men the opportunity for active extracurricular involvement and particularly for leadership roles that are either closed to them or which they are reluctant to pursue in the greater college community. Conversely, the persistence of hazing incidents and the empirical evidence of lower grades Shaun Harper identifies have contributed to what he refers to as the “diminished public perception” that hurts members of the black fraternities.

Q: On some campuses with small percentages of black male students, the most visible black men are athletes. What message does this send to a campus?

A: The high visibility of African-American male athletes and the usual corresponding invisibility of the African-American male non-athlete students contribute to the stereotype of African-American men as non-intellectual. This is patently unfair both to the athletes who do perform successfully as students and to the non-athletes who are rarely recognized for their academic prowess. The rigorous agendas of revenue sports athletes in their practices, team meetings, and game schedules typically keeps this group isolated from the rest of the African-American student community, further fragmenting a fragile population of African-American males on campus.

Q: Your book highlights some programs that are helping black men succeed in higher education. What are some that you think other colleges should emulate?

A: The nine programs highlighted are intended to offer a wide variety of ideas to emulate. I do not expect many schools to find the funding for another Meyerhoff Program, but their summer bridge program, for example, is something other schools might want to adopt.The Student African American Brotherhood has chapters on more than 100 campuses, so it offers a tested organizational structure and a national network of activities. Bowling Green ’s BMOC program exemplifies mentoring by African-American faculty and staff and a special “University 101” section for African-American males. The Black Men’s Collective at Rutgers brings together African-American faculty, staff and student into one organization. The Black Male Rap Session program at Louisville is loosely designed -- one does not join an organization; one simply shows up for the “rap” sessions in which he wants to participate.

On the other hand, Arizona State’s program is formally organized and is operated as a major initiative of the Multicultural Student Center. Black Man Think Tanks are one-day, thematic events. The program at Central State is a student-run, peer tutoring initiative with little assistance from the administration. The Collegiate 100 is an example of collaboration between African American males on the campus and in the surrounding community. So, I recommend that readers examine their more critical concerns about the African-American men on their own campus and select a program component that might address some specific needs and conditions.

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