Critiquing 'The Quad'

Some black college presidents don't like the new BET television show about a fictional HBCU, but that doesn't mean students aren't enjoying the somewhat scandalous portrayal.

February 23, 2017

A new television series about a fictional historically black university portrays a scandalous campus culture, including a college president's affair, binge drinking and a corrupt band director. Some black college presidents are not fans.

“The Quad,” which premiered on BET earlier this month, follows the lives of several students and the president of Georgia A&M University. The show was created by people who themselves graduated from historically black colleges and universities, but their references to partying and promiscuity on campus have drawn mixed reviews.

The longtime president of Hampton University, William Harvey, recently penned an open letter to Debra Lee, the president of BET, calling the show a “bogus representation” of life at an HBCU and comparing its portrayal to fake news.

“Devoid of any reference to academics, ‘The Quad’ is about a president who is promiscuous, trustees who are unwilling to deal with a rogue band director, and a band director who condones criminal activity on the part of his drum major,” Harvey wrote in the letter. “''The Quad' will lead many to believe that HBCUs exist because of their marching bands; that our presidents are unethical; that our boards are dysfunctional and have misplaced priorities; that our faculty, students and administrators are driven by sex, alcohol, marijuana, low self-esteem, parties and a preoccupation with music; that it is acceptable to disrespect women; that university policy can be set by a band director; and that there are no standards of conduct or penalties for bad behavior. This depiction seems more analogous to a disgruntled, adolescent and unrealistic point of view that some may have. It also feeds a false narrative about the irrelevance of HBCUs.”

Of course, some of the show may well be inspired by real events. In 2011, a member of the marching band at Florida A&M University, a historically black university, died during hazing from other band members, and university officials were accused of ignoring a hazing problem that had been talked about for years.

Jarrett Carter Sr., founder and editor of The HBCU Digest, which published Harvey’s letter, wrote on the Hampton website: "Only one thing can save ‘The Quad’ as a potential vehicle of support for black colleges; all of its creative directors and producers need to disclose just how bad this show is going to be for the remainder of the season, apologize publicly and commit to a stronger, more representative second season with thorough and unchallenged review of consultants who can do what test audiences obviously didn’t; warn BET about the hell they were walking into during Black History Month. And finally; fire every creative director responsible for greenlighting 'The Quad' in its current form."

Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, said he has watched the first few episodes of the show and understands where Harvey is coming from.

The entertainment industry doesn’t provide many uplifting stories of black colleges and student life, Kimbrough said. People are nostalgic for the 1980s television show “A Different World” and for the even-handed portrayals seen in movies like “Stomp the Yard” and “Drumline.”

“I guess the lesson for me is that if we want positive images of HBCUs, we should be in talks with people to produce those kinds of show,” Kimbrough said. “… I'm not disturbed by the show, and I simply accept it as entertainment like many other shows.”

Lee, the BET president, said in an interview with Ebony that she had spoken privately with Harvey and emphasized that "The Quad" is not based in fact, nor is it based on any one college. 

"Fictional TV has drama, you have good guys and bad guys," Lee said. "We had a good conversation and I hope students, administrators and parents will take the issues that we’re dealing with on The Quad seriously and discuss them during and after the show, because we are dealing with serious issues that happen on all campuses, not just HBCUs.”

The show's website also links to and references many articles and information that appear supportive of HBCUs.

Allyson Carpenter, a senior and the president of the Student Government Association at Howard University, said of "The Quad" that it's important to remember that it’s just a television show.

Carpenter said she watches “The Quad” and likes it so far -- only the first few episodes of the first season have aired -- as do her friends at Howard and the student body presidents at other HBCUs with whom she talks.

“I can recognize the difference between reality and TV drama,” she said. “It’s a show based on a fictional HBCU. That gives all of us an opportunity to look at things from the show and compare it to what actually goes on.”

She said that some parts of “The Quad” do remind her of HBCUs, like the pride those colleges take in their marching bands, but she wishes the show would better highlight the academic rigor of HBCUs -- a detail Harvey noted in his letter, as the first three episodes only included one classroom scene.

Carpenter said she sees why Harvey and other college presidents are disappointed in the television show, but she thinks they are wasting their energy fighting with BET when there are much more worthy causes to pursue.

“The fact is, BET is not a part of the community that wishes to discredit HBCUs. They don’t question the relevance of HBCUs, and it’s not fair to brand them with that,” Carpenter said. “I can’t think of any organization that’s been more supportive of HBCUs that BET.”

Some of the negative aspects of the fictional HBCU are also present on real HBCUs, Carpenter said, and it’s important for college administrators to recognize that and address it, even if it makes them uncomfortable.

“It’s important to celebrate your institutions, your HBCUs,” she said. “It’s important to protect them, but acknowledge that it does have its flaws. Being part of an HBCU doesn’t mean you have to ignore some things shown on the show that is seen on our campuses.”


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