Like many academic conference-goers these days, a lot of the presidents, other college administrators and government officials attending a meeting on historically black colleges in Washington this week had a not-insignificant distraction for their hearts and minds.
That doesn't meant that they didn't dive headlong into the issues and topics they were here to address in the formal sessions of the National HBCU Week Conference, which was put on by the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities: barriers to college access for African Americans and other minority students, black colleges' relationship with the federal government, and institutional governance, to name a few.
But as has been true for much of American society in recent weeks, an undercurrent of concern and activity linked to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina was evident just about everywhere one turned -- most obviously, but not only, for those officials from colleges in the Gulf Coast region.
At the end of a session Tuesday morning, for instance, the moderator, Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard University, apologized for having to hurry off after the event without the usual congratulatory hugs and handshakes because she had to get on one of the multiple daily conference calls by which she and other administrators have been running the New Orleans institution since Katrina put it under several feet of water. On Monday, she gave a gripping presentation to the assembled officials about what life has been like since the storm hit.
While the sessions carried on, top black college officials were working to craft a letter that the President's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities is expected to approve sending to President Bush, with ideas for steps the federal government might take to help Dillard, Xavier, Southern University at New Orleans and other historically black colleges in the Gulf Coast region that were damaged by Katrina.
More generally, though, Katrina dominated chatter in the hallways outside the formal meeting rooms of the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill, both because members of the tight-knit black college community traded what they knew about their sister and brother institutions in the affected regions and because of the great uncertainty that college officials around the country have about the students they are taking in from the shuttered Gulf Coast colleges.
"There are implications for everybody," said William A. (Buddy) Blakey, a black college lobbyist, "because everybody's taking in students and isn't sure how to handle" tuition and financial aid and other matters related to those students.
The Meeting's Core
This week's conference marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the first presidential executive order for historically black colleges, and the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which is an arm of the U.S. Education Department, sponsored the conference to assess the state of the institutions and their relationship with the federal government.
The general view to emerge from the sessions is that the country's 105 historically black colleges have many needs and challenges as they seek to carry out their mission of educating African American students, many of whom hail from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.
At Tuesday's session on access, the panelists -- Bill Harvey, vice president of the American Council on Education, Obie Clayton, chairman of the sociology department at Morehouse College, Orlando Taylor, dean of Howard University's graduate school, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of the women's center at Spelman College -- came at the topic from a range of perspectives that emphasized both difficulties and opportunities for the colleges.
Taylor, not surprisingly, focused on the underrepresentation of African Americans in graduate education and the role historically black institutions must play in changing that situation. Harvey emphasized the need for better cooperation and articulation between community colleges and historically black universities, since such a large proportion of minority students get their start in two-year institutions.
Clayton stressed the dearth of black men in higher education, citing a number of factors: a lack of role models, the perception among young black men that the return on their education is not as great as it might once have seemed, and federal policies that block young people convicted of drug offenses from receiving financial aid. The fact that "black men have just dropped out" of higher education has implications that extend beyond the colleges themselves, Clayton said: "If 70-plus percent of college-educated African Americans are female, who are they marrying? What are the implications of that for the family as we know it?"
He urged the federal government to abandon the policy on drug offenses -- which Congress is moving to do at least partially in its current review of the Higher Education Act -- and called on colleges, state governments and other parties to work to together to get more black male teachers into elementary and secondary school classrooms, to help provide better role models for today's (and tomorrow's) youngsters.
Guy-Sheftall argued that historically black colleges and universities tend to be so busy worrying about "survival issues" -- including their financial health and low enrollments at some institutions -- that they don't pay enough attention to some less obvious but crucially important concerns. She included in that list what she called issues like how black colleges deal with their increasing student diversity, particularly in terms of class, religion and sexual orientation, and the colleges' difficulty in retaining "competitive and mobile" junior faculty members who are often much in demand from majority white institutions.
Among the reasons Guy-Sheftall said historically black institutions are challenged to hold on to talented young professors are the heavy teaching loads and the colleges' tendency to have governance systems that do not give faculty members much authority or say. "Junior faculty are not wanting to be at places where they are required to be silent," she said.
Before she dashed off for her conference call to help run Dillard from afar, Hughes told the audience that Guy-Sheftall had struck a chord. She noted that in her speech introducing herself to the faculty when she started work as Dillard's president in July, nothing she said received bigger applause than when she said: "I want a faculty voice. Don't you understand that shared governance makes a university better?"