When Walter M. Kimbrough became president of Philander Smith College, a historically black, private institution in Arkansas, he was dismayed by the graduation rates. “Just looking at all the data on our campus and the low rate of graduation for black men on the campus – it was in the teens – I asked people, 'What are we doing about this?' ” he says.
In 2006, Philander Smith’s six-year graduation rates were 11 percent for black men, 21 percent for black women, and 16 percent overall.
Despite the concern, such numbers are not unheard of among institutions that admit many students who haven't been well-prepared for college. “We deal with a lot of first-generation students, a lot of students who come from what I would consider to be horrible K-12 systems," Kimbrough says. Still, he continues, “If you admit students like that, you’ve got to do extra things for them. That’s the part that I didn’t see [happening]. We’ve admitted them, so what are we doing extra, to really boost them?”
Philander Smith in 2007 launched its Black Male Initiative , a low-budget but institution-wide, presidential-level program aimed at personally reaching the black men on campus. “The goal is to touch at least half of the men on campus each semester. Which is an aggressive goal,” Kimbrough says. Last year, over the course of 15 events, about 56.5 percent of the approximately 200 black men on campus participated (the total student population last fall was 587).
“It’s really based on the research on African-American men in higher education” – with non-cognitive variables, including attachment to the institution, levels of social adjustment, and supportive relationships with mentors playing significant roles in predicting student satisfaction and success. “Those are the things that you really have to address, that men really need to have these supportive and nurturing environments. It’s not just as simple as they need more tutoring. You could provide the tutoring, and the guys won’t come,” Kimbrough says.
Philander Smith's Program
Nationally, the six-year graduation rate  for black students enrolled at four-year institutions is 40.5 percent, compared to 56.1 percent overall (and 59.4 percent for white students). Furthermore, the rates for black men trail those of black women. At four-year public universities, the graduation rate for black men is 31.4 percent, compared to 43.1 percent for black women; at private non-profit colleges, the national rates are 38.6 percent for black men, and 49.3 percent for black women.
In response to these glaring discrepancies, an increasing number of colleges have started Black Male Initiatives or other targeted programs. They run the gamut from student-run programs or clubs to initiatives managed by university systems (specifically the City University of New York and the University System of Georgia ).
“People are becoming more and more aware of the need to make specific overtures toward African American men,” says Michael Cuyjet, an associate professor at the University of Louisville’s educational and counseling psychology department, and editor of the book African American Men in College (Jossey-Bass, 2006 ), which profiles a number of programs. “The core issue seems to be giving them some way to develop a sense of community on campus. The general research on student behavior indicates that students do better if they feel that they’re connected to the campus somehow, through academics, through extracurricular activities, through social networking -- somehow. And studies have also shown that African American men seem to have a difficult time doing that, for a number of reasons. Generally speaking, one is that a large number of African American men are socialized to not ask for help.
"It becomes necessary for campuses to provide programs like this, to take the initiative. We have to be active and not passive with this particular population," Cuyjet says.
Philander Smith’s Black Male Initiative is modest in scale, but it has the president’s bully pulpit behind it. Organizers hold a series of events throughout the year. Last year's included a “Swagger Like Us” fashion contest, judged by local celebrities, a session on how to tie a tie, a beginning golf lesson and outing (“Are You the Next Tiger?”), a number of lectures, and a bowling night. The goal, again, is to get as many black men involved as possible. “When they see our Black Male Initiative logo, we want them to say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s for me,’ ” says Michael Hutchinson, executive assistant to the president and chairman of the initiative. Hutchinson adds that they send a birthday card with the Black Male Initiative’s logo to every black male student at Philander Smith, as well.
“We first of all want to create a sense of community so that they can have a family-like atmosphere and feel that they belong,” says Hutchinson.
"When institutions have these kinds of programs for any group, the so-called usual suspects attend, the guys who are already involved, who are in leadership positions, who are doing well academically" says President Kimbrough. "What we're trying to do now is have events and then personally ask guys who never come to anything to come.
"We're a small campus so we pretty much know everyone or know something about them. We clearly know the people who no one knows anything about. We know who they are."
Retention rates have climbed at Philander Smith in recent years, although a number of variables are in play aside from the Black Male Initiative -- most notably, the university tightened admissions standards (the average high school GPA is up about 20 percent from when Kimbrough arrived in late 2004, he says), and has revamped its orientation. Whatever the reasons, or combination of reasons, first- to second- year retention rates have increased, from 50 percent in 2004-5 to a high of 75 percent in 2006-7 (in 2007-8, however, they dropped to 62 percent).
Philander Smith's six-year graduation rates have also increased, and the gender gap has narrowed. The overall rate is now 28 percent, and it's 30 percent for women, and 23 percent for men. (Ninety-seven percent of the students enrolled at Philander Smith are black.)
The budget for Philander Smith's Black Male Initiative is just $20,000 per year.
“What Philander Smith has confirmed for us, or at least for me, is it’s not about the money. It’s more about the strategic investment of institutional energies. And about being intentional in working with a particular population, to close the gaps between that group and students from other groups,” says Shaun R. Harper, an assistant professor of higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on black male college access and achievement. Harper, who spoke at Philander Smith for a Black Male Initiative event last year, recently received a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education to work with six different colleges to, he says, “essentially do what Philander Smith is doing, to create a culture of success for black students.”
"They actually have a strategy," Harper says of Philander Smith, "that isn't a one-time program, or a sort of isolated activity that resides in one part of the institution. Their initiative is institution-wide, it involves not only student affairs administrators but also faculty and staff, alumni of the institution and most impressively the president of the institution. It really is an all-hands-on-deck kind of initiative that is very strategic."
Amid Controversy, Continuing On
Black Male Initiative programs can be controversial, however, and a complaint levied against the City University of New York's in 2006 remains under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Michael Meyers, executive director and president of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, filed the complaint, which alleges that the program discriminates based on race and gender in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments. While his complaint was filed against CUNY's Black Male Initiative specifically, Meyers opposes such programs in general, and has watched with dismay as more have developed nationwide. “All the characteristics of these programs are the same. They're steeped in paternalism, steeped in stereotypes about black men, that because they’re back and because they’re male they are quote-unquote an endangered species.
“I think it’s racist and it’s sexist. I mean, it’s clearly racist and it’s clearly sexist, but our colleges and our universities don’t care about that,” he says.
“The officials of these colleges know better, too. But unless they’re caught, unless they’re snagged, unless they get a kind of slapping on the wrist, instead of just a slap on the back… unless they’re given slaps on the wrist or slaps across the face and told, ‘You’re violating the law, both the spirit and the letter and the law,’ they’re going to keep doing this, with pride.”
Elliott Dawes is university director of CUNY’s Black Male Initiative , which is currently sponsoring or funding 25 projects, across the various campuses, intended to increase the enrollment and retention of students from underrepresented groups, especially African American, Caribbean and Latino males. The programs, while focused on these groups, are available to students of any race and gender, Dawes stresses. For instance, 25 men and 10 women participated in the first two cohorts of a program to develop future teachers.
The initiative has been funded by a succession of four grants from the New York City Council, the latest, for the upcoming academic year, just approved at $2.5 million.
“Our primary concern is making sure that we support projects that provide access for students from various populations, particularly the most severely underrepresented populations in higher education,” Dawes says. “Who would be against that?”