Historically black colleges

The White Man's Trick Bag

Way back in 1973, during my second year as a faculty member at a historically black college, I was teaching a descriptive statistics course to a class of about 15 master's degree students in urban planning. One very bright student, whom I will only identify by his first name, was particularly resistant. One day after he had sounded off in class yet again, I asked him why he refused to learn this material. Here's the reply he gave me that was burned into my brain forever.

Roger: Don't you know that statistics is the white man's trick bag?

Me (stunned, slack-jawed): Why ... why do you say that, Roger?

Roger: Well, have you ever met any statistics that had anything good to say about black people?

Our class was hip deep into the infamous "Moynihan Report", various poverty reports, census reports, and other sources of the negative indicators of what used to be called "The Urban Crisis." Indeed, I had become a professor of urban planning at a black college so that I could teach black students how to change some of those bad numbers. Believing as I do today that you can't fix a problem if you don't admit you have the problem, Roger's blunt challenge left me speechless because it was my first confrontation with an admonition that would assume shifting forms over the following decades; and I was nowhere near as sure of my own position back then as I am today.

Sometimes the admonition sounded like: "We already know what's wrong, so we don't need any more studies." Other times it would appear as "If you say those things now that we have black superintendents, black mayors, black congressmen, etc, etc, etc, our adversaries will use your data to demean our black leaders." From time to time advocates of affirmative action would caution against discussing low graduation rates or achievement gaps because such talk might undermine their efforts. And sometimes the admonition would appear in its most seductive form as "We really need better presentations of our successes, not more documentations of our failures."

Almost 50 years after the civil rights revolution, black progress has been substantial, but nowhere near as substantial as we had hoped it would be and nowhere near as substantial as we needed it to be. By this time, as the Great Recession grinds more and more middle class black families into poverty, and as the black-white gaps in student achievement persist and sometimes widen at all educational levels, you would think that the problem deniers would admit that their strategy hasn't worked, that it has undermined our efforts to achieve the full promise of the victorious revolution led by Dr. King and his courageous peers.

You would think so, but you would be wrong. The problem deniers are still out there, still encouraging us to send our children buck naked into the world's jungles like so many black Harry Potters protected only by maternal fantasies that they can be anything they want to be. No, they can't. It still takes a hell of a lot more guts and talent and other resources for a black man or a black woman to achieve the same level of success as for a white man or a white woman.

I concede that substantial, albeit insufficient black progress had been made since the 60s and 70s. That's the good news. But this progress has not been equally achieved by all schools and colleges that educate black students, or by all black businesses, or by all black professionals. In other words, there has also been substantial variance in black achievements. From a statistical viewpoint, this is great news because statistical analysis thrives on variance. Case studies of success by themselves can be exceedingly counter-productive because they can lull their readers into believing that things are really OK, that it's just the "bias" in the media that makes us think that things aren't progressing as rapidly as we expected them to.

However, if 80 percent of a black population of students, businesses, or professionals fall below some specified levels of satisfactory performance, then well-constructed case studies of a few of the high achieving 20 percent could provide valuable clues to the factors that contributed to their success. In other words, given the fact that all other things are still unequal, we need to figure out how these high achievers attained their greater success. Then we have to devise policies that encourage the low performers to adopt (and adapt) the best practices of the high achievers. This strategy has worked in a variety of other contexts with an important caveat. Best practices must usually be adapted, i.e., modified to fit the local culture. Carbon copies are rarely effective.

With regards to the critical tasks of identifying the factors that contribute to black achievement, I say it's high time for the problem deniers to put away their magic wands, leave Hogwarts, and join the rest of us in the real world. There's nothing magical about black high achievers, but we can't assume that we already know the secrets of their success.

  • For example, even the most cursory examination of the six-year graduation rates among the nation's 105 historically black colleges is sufficient to blow away any notion that it's just a matter of budgets. The richest HBCU does not have highest graduation rate, nor does the poorest HBCU have the lowest; and this disparity grows much larger when one considers graduation rates vs. per student dollar expenditures. Some HBCUs are making far more productive use of their tuition dollars than others. We need good case studies coupled with statistical analysis to figure out what the more productive HBCUs are doing right; then we have to encourage the lower performing HBCUs to adopt (and adapt) these best practices.
  • Nor should we confine our analysis to HBCUs. At this point almost 90 percent of America's black students attend integrated, mainstream colleges and universities, not black colleges. And the gross statistics show that some of these colleges and universities have far more impressive retention rates and six year graduation rates for their black students than others. Indeed some colleges and universities have achieved comparable rates for their black and white students. So once again the question becomes: What are the high performers doing that enables them to perform substantially better than the rest? And how can we encourage the lower performers to adopt (and adapt) the high performers' best practices.
  • Similar statistical analyses and case studies could be conducted with regard to highly productive black students and highly productive black instructors at all educational levels.

The good news is that efforts to identify best practices with regard to black achievement are gaining more support; and, of course, the bad news is that they aren't gaining enough support. But the substantial progress that black Americans have made since the 60s and 70s assures us that there is far more variability in the circumstances of black Americans today than back then. This greater variability should facilitate a golden age of statistical policy analysis because it gives us better opportunities than in decades past to figure out what really works for black Americans and why. Instead of being the white man's trick bag, statistics can become the black man's leverage.

Roy L. Beasley
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'Imagine HBCUs Differently'

Smart Title: 

Almost quadrupling in just a few months the number of students who attend summer courses is uncommon at any university.

For M. Christopher Brown II, the new president of Alcorn State University, a historically black public land-grant university in Mississippi, it wasn't quite good enough. In the past, the university enrolled about 500 students in summer courses. Brown set the provost a goal of 2,000, with a bonus offered for achieving it. They ended up with about 1,900, and as happy as Brown is about the increase, the provost isn't getting his bonus.

The Benjamin Mays Model

The late Morehouse president provides an example of how to lead a college, with an emphasis on values and on students, writes Walter M. Kimbrough.

The Perpetuation of Privilege

On April 11, the president of Columbia University announced that it had received a $400 million pledge from alumnus John W. Kluge, who in 2006 was 52nd on the Forbes list of the wealthiest people, earning his fortune through the buying and selling of television and radio stations. This gift, payable upon the 92-year-old’s death, will be the fourth largest ever given to a single institution of higher education.

With such a massive transfer of wealth, the accolades poured in, justifying such a gift to an Ivy League university. Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, said: “The essence of America’s greatness lies, in no small measure, in our collective commitment to giving all people the opportunity to improve their lives… [Kluge] has chosen to direct his amazing generosity to ensuring that young people will have the chance to benefit from a Columbia education regardless of their wealth or family income.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg indicated that investing in education produces returns that can’t be matched. Rep. Charles Rangel said the gift would ensure greater numbers of students can afford a first-class education.

Oh please!

I am becoming less and less tolerant of people who pass wealth on to the privileged and masquerade it as philanthropy. Philanthropy is the voluntary act of donating money, goods or services to a charitable cause, intended to promote good or improve human well being. When a billionaire gives money that will benefit people who are more than likely already well off or who already have access to huge sums of money, attending the ninth richest university by endowment, this is not philanthropy. This simply extends the gross inequities that exist in our country -- inequities that one day will come home to roost.

Almost 40 percent of all college students nationally earned a Pell Grant, which in general represents students from families earning less than $35,000 a year. Yes, almost 40 percent of students in college today are from low income families. At Columbia, where tuition and fees alone tops $31,000, only 16 percent of students are Pell Grant eligible. In fact, over 60 percent of Columbia students don’t even bother to apply for federal financial aid. They can pay the bill -- no problem (see the Economic Diversity of Colleges Web site). Columbia is not alone. A recent New York Times article, which provided a great story on a recent Amherst College graduate, indicated that 75 percent of students attending elite colleges come from the top socioeconomic quartile, while only 10 percent come from the bottom half, and just 3 percent from the bottom quartile.

For comparison, 83 percent of my students received the Pell Grant during that same year, and 84 percent applied for financial aid. Even with tuition and fees less than $9,000 a year, my students on average will leave college with MORE debt than Columbia students, in fact $11,000 more even though tuition and fees are $22,000 a year less!

I am hopeful that Columbia will do as it states it will, which is to expand the number of scholarship grants to needy students. President Bollinger has been a strong advocate for affirmative action, and I am very hopeful because he has shown great integrity. But even assuming that Columbia spends the money on aid, and that it couldn’t spend more of its existing money on poor students, not to mention admitting more of them, the university’s current campaign has a goal of $1 billion for facilities – that’s an astronomical sum of “philanthropy” to help a wealthy institution have better facilities. And Columbia isn’t alone -- as there are similarly ambitious spending plans by the other public and private universities currently seeking to raise billions of dollars.

And the situation in which the wealthy get wealthier -- while feeling good about their “philanthropic” traditions -- isn’t much better in elite public higher education. Last fall, The Education Trust released “Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities.” This report got little to no play nationally, and certainly nothing like the play the Columbia gift received, because the conclusions were a damning condemnation of higher education’s elite. In 2003, about 100 research extensive universities spent $257 million in financial aid for students from families earning over $100,000 a year, almost as much as that spent on students from families earning $20,000-40,000, and more than that spent on students from families earning less than $20,000. Again, much of these funds come from wealthy, image conscious alumni, praised for being philanthropists, who primarily want to ensure that their university has the best and brightest their money will buy.

The authors of the report indicate “these universities find it more important to use their own money to buy high-income students, who will almost inevitably attend an elite institution no matter what, than to expand the enrollment of… low-income students.” You see, paying to “educate” students who are the easiest to educate raises your rankings. In the process, you keep out poor kids, and incidentally, you will have fewer black and Latino students as well.

Yes, most of these enormous philanthropic gifts go to colleges with small numbers of African American, Latino and Native American students, America’s underrepresented people of color. In looking at a comparison of research extensive and top tier schools using the Economic Diversity of Colleges Web site, Columbia unfortunately has one of the higher percentages among the elite universities of black students at 9 percent, and of Latinos, at 10 percent. Most though are in single digits, and half are around 6-7 percent or less. The Education Trust’s study indicates that black, Latino and Native Americans are 24 percent of all college students, but only 12 percent at state flagships.

So the colleges with the greatest wealth and the best of everything that money can buy (from faculty to facilities), not only are underrepresented with poor students, but also restrict minority students from accessing these resources. If public universities can be called “gated communities of higher education,” private universities like Columbia are easily the country clubs.

America’s so-called philanthropists ignore these facts, and we continue to laud their generosity to the privileged. At the same time, people of color continue to fall further and further behind, and unless we begin to help those who actually need help, America’s economy will suffer.

In anther overlooked report from November 2005 entitled “As America Becomes More Diverse: The Impact of State Higher Education Inequality,” Patrick J. Kelly of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems begins by saying that social justice and equal opportunity should drive us toward seeking equality in higher education. But he asserts that there are also economic reasons.

The idea is simple. By 2020, there will be a 77 percent increase in the Hispanic population and a 32 percent increase in the black population, with less than a 1 percent increase for whites. In 1980, whites were 82 percent of the working age population. By 2020, they will be 63 percent of workers. From 1980 to 2000, the educational gap between whites and blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans has actually widened. Finally, those same people of color earn less than whites at all equivalent levels of education.

Kelly writes, “Substantial growth in the least-educated segments of our population combined with income disadvantages for the same populations will not lead us toward a brighter future…. If these problems are left unaddressed, the result is a less educated workforce and a decline in per capita personal income.”

And so I read with my general sense of despair as another billionaire gives millions to a university that serves a population that looks nothing like America presently or in the future, economically or racially. Politicians heap praises for these gifts from the wealthy to the wealthy while the vast majority of their constituents will never benefit from these acts. They’re too busy working three jobs and sending their kids to substandard elementary and high schools that will ensure they never go to places like Columbia.

This is not a sour grapes soliloquy. This is a cry for justice. I spend many nights trying to figure out how do colleges like mine, which have the students with the most need, both educationally and financially, catch the attention of those who have the power to transform the lives of the masses. Just think what $400 million would do at my college, which has an endowment of $12 million.

But this is a dream for colleges like mine. In fact, the record gift by individuals to any historically black college is a mere $20 million, given 20 years ago by Bill and Camille Cosby. We are left to maximize the Pell Grant which covers a fraction of what it did 30 years ago, as well as beg for corporate crumbs to assist our students. Occasionally in this quest to help even when the college can’t afford to do so, some colleges have improperly provided federal financial aid, which then creates an impression of incompetence. I know -- I inherited such a situation. While I don’t agree with what happened, I can tell you that the driving force was a desire to help someone graduate from college despite the limited resources. This Robin Hood approach only works in the movies though.

Our political leaders must begin to challenge the wealthy to practice real philanthropy. They should be encouraged to give gifts that will benefit a greater number of people with real need (most of their constituents), versus a wealthy minority. If that fails, everyone must know that our economy is on the verge of collapse as greater numbers of poorly educated, lower wage earning people of color become the majority of our workforce.

It is time for us to restore the integrity of philanthropy, and call gifts to the wealthy what they really are -- the perpetuation of privilege.

Walter M. Kimbrough
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Walter M. Kimbrough is the president of Philander Smith College.

Obama's Agenda for Black Colleges

President Obama recently chose John Silvanus Wilson Jr. to be the new director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, replacing George W. Bush's appointee, Leonard Haynes. Although Wilson is a Morehouse College graduate, he has an Ivy League pedigree much like the president. His professional background is at majority institutions, including George Washington and MIT. Wilson also has a proven record as a fundraiser and he believes wholeheartedly in demonstrating outcomes and adding value through the educational process. With his choice of Wilson, the country’s first black president made his perspective on HBCUs clear.

Wilson’s leadership comes at a difficult time for many black colleges. Much like other under-resourced colleges and universities, HBCUs have suffered disproportionately during the present economic crisis. The situation is due in large part to black colleges' commitment to serving disadvantaged students – while they are themselves disadvantaged by a history of underfunding and discrimination. Due to tightening budgets and lower enrollments, some HBCU leaders have had to take drastic steps in order to keep their institutions alive, including laying off tenured faculty. In recent months, for example, Paul Quinn College, Barber-Scotia College and Clark Atlanta University have faced accreditation challenges and/or financial crises that have left them in a delicate balance. Other HBCUs have consolidated programs and are putting contingency plans in place for next year’s continual economic crunch in order to remain healthy.

For those watching and listening to President Obama, it is apparent that, although he acknowledges societal and systemic racism, he also promotes individual responsibility – hewing a middle path between left and right. When Obama’s ideas are applied to the HBCU context, you get a leader like Wilson, who recently noted that the age-old HBCU mantra of “doing more with less” or “surviving against great odds” is no longer viable in an Obama-era. In Wilson’s words, “we need to shift from how to survive to how to thrive.”

Interestingly, I gave a talk to a group of HBCU leaders last month and explained the Obama perspective as I see it. Our new president is focused on outcomes, success, and accomplishments – he wants to see measurable results. He is not interested in hearing the reasons why we can’t succeed, but how we can succeed.

President Obama is not a product of the Civil Rights movement in a traditional sense and as such, he is not as focused on supporting and sustaining institutions such as HBCUs merely because it is the right or moral thing to do. Although I believe that our president is wholeheartedly committed to social justice, I also think he is a pragmatist who consistently puts policy and action above politics. Obama knows that the only way for HBCUs to thrive and excel in the current economic and social environment is if they put their shoulder to the wheel and focus on increasing degree attainment and other student outcomes. HBCUs need to show, in measurable ways, that they are adding considerable value to the lives and livelihood of their students.

Many of the nation’s HBCUs have been operating from an outcomes-based perspective, increasing their graduation rates and sending students to graduate school at a pace that is significantly higher than their historically white counterparts. However, other HBCUs have not been focused on outcomes and need to redeploy their efforts. Graduation rates in the teens, regardless of an institutional mission dedicated to serving low-income students who are often underprepared by their primary and secondary schools, are not acceptable. Under an Obama administration, it will no longer be enough to boast of the family-like, nurturing environment at HBCUs. Instead, those black colleges with low graduation rates and questionable student outcomes will need to demonstrate measurable results.

Not only will this outcomes-based type of approach help HBCUs in the eyes of the federal government, but it will lead to increased success in the areas of corporate and foundation fundraising. Using an argument of “need,” may have worked in the past, but fundraising messages have changed (one need only look at CARE’s I Am Powerful campaign); donors are much more likely to respond to accomplishments and messages of success. In addition, donors are increasingly asking for data and evidence of degree attainment prior to committing to an institutional gift.

HBCUs are particularly vulnerable in the area of fundraising. Of the nation’s 103 black colleges, only three have endowments in the top 300: Howard University, Spelman College and Hampton University. Low endowments mean fewer dollars available for operating costs and institutional financial aid. HBCU endowments are low for a variety of reasons. These institutions suffer from a history of unequal state and federal funding. In addition, foundation and corporate support has not been given at the same rate to black and white institutions; historically white institutions have received significantly more money, even when size is taken into account.

Another disadvantage comes from the fact that alumni giving, which is critical to building endowments has been and continues to be lower on average than at historically white institutions. These lower rates are due in part to African Americans’ historic lack of access to wealth as a result of systemic forms of racism. With that said, HBCUs need to take more responsibility in the area of fundraising. For decades, HBCUs neglected to ask their alumni to support their institutions, making the assumption that alumni had little to give and doubting the return on investment of money and precious time spent cultivating alumni contributions. More recently, HBCU's have reached out to alumni and giving percentages are growing.

In John Wilson’s words, it’s time for “a new approach to talking about HBCUs.” With an increased focus on success and attainment, these venerable institutions of higher learning will be poised for the future.

Marybeth Gasman
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Marybeth Gasman is associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. A historian of higher education, her books include Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press). She is also the co-editor of Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Triumphs, Troubles, and Taboos (Palgrave).

More Than Appearances

This past week, Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male college, instituted a dress code, which details what students should wear to various college functions and activities and what they should not. The items that are not allowed include: caps, do-rags, and hoods in the classrooms, cafeteria and indoors; sun glasses and grillz; clothing with lewd comments; sagging pants and pajamas in public; and women’s clothing and accessories.

Morehouse students have had mixed reactions to the new policies. Some students feel that these rules hinder their freedom of speech and expression – as adults, they should be able to wear what they want when they want. Other students think the policy is long overdue. When you are admitted to Morehouse, they feel, you become a Morehouse man and follow in a long tradition of great African American men such as civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Julian Bond or national health leaders Louis W. Sullivan and David Satcher. This kind of legacy requires dressing and carrying oneself in a professional way.

Last year, my colleague Shaun Harper and I wrote an article published in the Journal of Negro Education entitled “The Consequences of Conservatism at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Ironically, much of the article focused on campus dress codes at black colleges. As part of our research, we reviewed the dress codes at all of the black colleges in the United States. We found similar dress codes to the one instituted at Morehouse and we called these codes into question as scholars typically do. We wondered what kind of impact conservative dress codes would have on the individual autonomy of students and argued that these often puritanical codes are part of a long history of black colleges compensating for negative views by white society of black people.

However, as I think about the new Morehouse dress code, I am reminded that much of America (read: white America) does not see African Americans as individuals. If a young white male dresses in pajamas or saggy pants, and a lewd t-shirt on a predominantly white campus, he is seen neither as a representative of his race nor his campus. And let’s be honest, anyone who visits campuses these days, including some of the most prestigious in the country, will see many white male students displaying more of their underwear than most of us want to see, wearing caps inside, and displaying crude T-shirts. But when a young black male wears saggy pants, pajamas, or a do-rag, many Americans see him as a representative of all black America (and in this case, Morehouse College). The stakes are higher for black men because of American racism. The stakes are higher for Morehouse College as well.

There are those who argue that when one gains admission to a college, one signs up for the rules of that college – to be a Morehouse man in this case. There are others who claim that more learning takes place when we take decisions about clothing and fashion out of students’ hands. For me, the most convincing argument is made by those who want to change the nation’s perceptions of young black men and it seems that Morehouse College is making this argument. The institution’s president wants the students to dress like professional men because he wants them to become professional men.

When I first saw the dress code, I immediately forwarded it to a good friend who graduated from Morehouse about 20 years ago. He was happy to see the code and responded that with regard to Morehouse, “Many are called but few are chosen” – reminding me that Morehouse was a standard setter, not a trend follower.

Yet, it does seem like there could be a middle ground. Perhaps when attending school functions and classes, these young men could be expected to dress professionally but in their personal time, they could be free to express their individuality – seems like that is what most adults do once they are in the “real world.” But then again, the stakes are higher for the young, black men at Morehouse, aren’t they?

One of the most controversial aspects of the dress code is the banning of women’s clothing and garb. Even though the Morehouse administration consulted the college’s gay students group and the majority of these students voted in favor of the rules, including the ban on women’s garb, this rule may give some pause. I am not an expert on this topic, but I do wonder what will happen if a Morehouse man wants to become a Morehouse woman? What happens to the transgender Morehouse man? Does he go to another college or stay at Morehouse? I don’t have the answer, but I think the Morehouse dress code raises some important questions about race, sexuality, and masculinity that we in higher education should tackle head on and hesitate to avoid. As my friend said, Morehouse College is a standard setter and has the opportunity to be out in front on discussing these issues.

By raising issues about cross-dressing and dress and appearance generally, Morehouse is forcing discussions and more thought about the way society views black men. And Morehouse is making sure that its black men – who already defy stereotypes with their ambition and intelligence – will do so with their attire as well.

Marybeth Gasman
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Marybeth Gasman is associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. A historian of higher education, her books include Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund(Johns Hopkins University Press). She is also the co-editor of Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Triumphs, Troubles, and Taboos (Palgrave).

From HBCUs to BCUs

I came to Howard University in 1972 because of two people who had substantial impact on my career aspirations. My grandmother lived outside a small town in Alabama -- quite a distance from New York City, where I grew up, so I only saw her a few times when I was a child. But somehow she instilled a profound notion in my small brain: to become "a credit to my race" -- an ambition that was commonly encouraged back then. My mother's oldest brother, the patriarch of our extended family, was my "Uncle Doc"; but in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he was "Doc Cromwell," a highly-respected member of the black community. He was a successful dentist/entrepreneur who had graduated from Howard University's School of Dentistry. His success convinced me that I could also succeed.

By the time I was 17, I knew that I wanted to become a college professor; and by the time I completed my doctoral courses at Harvard University, I knew that I wanted to teach black students. Back then, it seemed to me that historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, provided the best opportunities to pursue this goal. My uncle's influence focused my attention on Howard.

Like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, the first black president of Howard University (from 1926 till 1960), had a dream. He dreamed that Howard could recruit talented black students from the smallest backwater towns in the Deep South or from the most dismal inner-city neighborhoods of the Northeast -- students who might have significant academic shortcomings. Through the brilliance of our teaching we would provide these diamonds in the rough with an excellent education that would enable them to graduate in four years and enjoy successful careers thereafter. Arriving at Howard in 1972, I was not indoctrinated by President Johnson himself, but by successors who subscribed to a more pragmatic version of his dream. If students lacked academic prerequisites and/or had financial problems, they might need five years to graduate while working part-time jobs; but certainly the vast majority of our serious students would complete their studies in six years. Graduate students might also need one or two more years than was normally required to complete their programs.

From 1972 until 1988, while I was a full-time classroom instructor, I was firmly committed to this amended vision and I was proud of the fact that most of the students in my department did, in fact, graduate more or less on time and enjoyed considerable success after graduation. And in my capacity as editor of the Gateway to HBCUs website since 1995, I have come to understand that most, if not all HBCUs embraced some version of Dr. Johnson's dream. As HBCUs, it was our raison d'etre, our most impressive claim to fame.

I did not come to Howard nor did I stay at Howard all of these years because it was one of the nation's premier research universities. Indeed, I am deeply offended by suggestions that Howard's lack of the stellar research record of a Stanford or a Harvard invalidates the powerful vision that generated so many extraordinary contributions to our nation and to the world in years past. I came to Howard and I have remained at Howard because of my abiding commitment to the education of black students. This was my personal "ministry" and I have gained immense personal satisfaction from its pursuit.

But in recent years I have been troubled by the realization that, were I a much younger version of myself today and had a newly minted Ph.D. from Harvard, Stanford, or some other comparably-esteemed university, I might not choose to teach at Howard or at any other HBCU. Why? Because the historic tenet that HBCUs provided the best opportunities for teaching black students has become a debatable proposition, not just because of the desegregation of non-HBCUs, but because most HBCUs have not adapted their historic missions to the changing circumstances of today's academic environment. In other words, I have become concerned that Mordecai's dream is in serious jeopardy.

If the nation's non-HBCUs were doing a satisfactory job in educating African American students, there would be no need for HBCUs. Unfortunately, the graduation rates for African Americans at all but the most selective non-HBCUs remain substantially lower than the graduation rates for white and Asian American students. In other words, almost 60 years after African Americans entered the mainstream of U.S. higher education, the results have been far less satisfactory than we hoped. Closing the gaps between the academic achievements of African American students and their white and Asian American peers is taking much longer than we expected. Why?

Accordingly, in the desegregated New Millennium, all of the nation's colleges and universities are challenged to become more effective educators of the nation's black students; hence all must embrace some version of Mordecai's dream. The following paragraphs present a version of the dream that I developed over the course of the last six months while providing technical support for a comprehensive academic renewal process at Howard.

It's time to leave the "historical" HBCUs to history. Whereas back in the early 1970s, over 80 percent of African American college students still attended HBCUs, not even 20 percent do so today; and the long-term trend is further downward. In other words, the days in which HBCUs were the largest suppliers of postsecondary educational opportunities for African Americans are over. Given the magnitude of the new challenges, the nation would be well advised to stimulate the development of a number of innovative institutions which, for now, I will call "BCUs.” Their core mission would have two components, the first of which would be to develop, demonstrate, and disseminate more effective methods for educating the nation's African American students. Please note that the following paragraphs propose specifications for BCUs that are already met in whole or in part by many existing HBCUs, but their core missions are different.

  • Development and transfer of more effective teaching methods (core mission). BCUs would provide leadership for other colleges and universities by conducting research that identified more effective methods for teaching black students; by their success in using their findings; and by their subsequent efforts to disseminate their innovations throughout the U.S. system of higher education via publications, conferences, training programs, etc.
  • Racially diverse student body. While black enrollments at BCUs might be higher than at non-BCUs, the effectiveness of BCUs as leaders of non-BCUs would be undermined if BCUs had black enrollments that were substantially higher than 50 percent. Methods that only worked in predominantly black environments (if such methods exist) could not be adopted by non-BCUs.
  • Racially diverse faculty. Most of the faculty at non-BCUs are not black, so innovations that only enhanced the performance of black students if they were carried out by black instructors could not be adopted by non-BCUs. This can't be a "black thing." Furthermore, in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- this ideal becomes an inescapable reality. The persistence of the Digital Divide guarantees that BCUs would be hard pressed to hire all-black faculty in STEM even if they wanted to. Fortunately, non-black academics who are devoted to providing better educational opportunities for black students have always been available. Since my arrival at Howard in 1972, I have had the pleasure of working with many dedicated, non-black professors who shared my "ministry." And one more thing: being black may provide black instructors with an initial edge, but it certainly does not confer a lifelong monopoly on insights as to how to teach black students more effectively.
  • Gender balance in enrollments, retention, and graduation. The loss of black males at every level of our school system is a national catastrophe ... and white males are also fading. Therefore, BCUs would be charged with conducting research whose findings would enable them to recruit entering classes (and transfers) that were more or less 50 percent male regardless of race; to retain males at high levels regardless of race; and to graduate male students at more or less the same rate as female students, again regardless of race.
  • Racially diverse administration. In the New Millennium even the smallest college or university becomes a complex institution whose conflicting obligations to its faculty, staff, students, and alumni; its donors and creditors; and its federal, state, and local regulators require comparably complex managerial skills that have no demonstrable relationship to a manager's race. Therefore I submit that it would be counterproductive to insist that a BCU's management -- i.e., its president, provost, deans and chairs -- be predominantly black. Just as being black does not give black instructors a monopoly on insights as to how to teach black students more effectively, I can't see how being black confers superior managerial insights. The primary qualifications should be proven skills as academic leaders and the capacity to fully commit to the defining mission of the BCU.
  • Undergraduate STEM programs. One of the most pernicious manifestations of the persistence of racism in our society is embodied in the phenomenon called "stereotype threat" wherein black students (and members of other groups afflicted by prejudice) underperform whenever they perceive (rightly or wrongly) that other people expect them to do poorly just because they are black. Not only do black students underperform, they also tend to avoid stereotype threat situations by changing majors and/or by not seeking careers in fields wherein they think that they might be more likely to encounter stereotype threat. Needless to say, stereotype threat is strongest in STEM fields. Consequently, BCUs must focus considerable energies on developing more effective methods for teaching STEM subjects to black students.
  • Two-year and four-year BCUs. It's not enough for BCUs to provide a better education for their own black students; they must also determine why they were more effective and which factors were most significant. Answers to these questions will be obtained through multi-year research projects that employ sophisticated statistical assessment procedures. Although the faculty at most two-year and four-year colleges don't have the time or the technical expertise to conduct such research, two-year and four-year BCUs can finesse both shortfalls by entering into strategic partnerships with university-level BCUs.
  • Continuing education and distance learning. As information technology accelerates innovation throughout all sectors of our society, everybody will have to go back to school from time to time. Therefore BCUs would also run programs for non-traditional students, i.e., older students whose family and/or work obligations preclude their enrolling in courses that meet during daytime hours on weekdays -- in other words, students who have to take courses on evenings and weekends or via distance learning.
  • Research initiatives and related graduate programs (core mission). Repeated mention has been made of BCU research designed to identify more effective methods for teaching African American students. The second component of a BCU's mission would be its commitment to conducting high-quality research on issues that have disproportionately negative impact on African Americans and on other peoples of color in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora. BCUs would also offer masters and Ph.D. programs whose students would learn how to extend or apply this research. Some examples of these “real world” research issues are noted below:
    • Dysfunctional urban school systems, especially as they impact underperforming black males.
    • Hypertension, obesity, diabetes, drug addiction, AIDS, and other health problems related to diet and lifestyle that have disproportionate impacts on black communities.
    • Environmental impact of toxic waste disposal.
    • Development and transfer of low cost technologies for housing, water purification, and energy (wind, solar, etc).
    • Recovery from earthquakes, floods, and other catastrophes whose negative impact on poor communities is exacerbated by inadequate infrastructures -- e.g. New Orleans and Haiti.

On a personal note with regard to the last example, I was recently gratified to learn that one of my former graduate students provided tangible relief to the victims of the Haitian earthquake (January 2010) via the low-cost, solar-powered bakeries that she had organized in the hill country outside of the earthquake's epicenter. So while I was watching the depressing video clips like millions of other sympathetic but ineffectual TV tourists, she was in thick of things, feeding 1500 earthquake victims per week! Wouldn't it be great if BCUs became THE "go to" sources of expertise that provided reliable relief whenever such "catastrophes of color" occurred?

Given these core components, which HBCUs will evolve into BCUs? How many other MSIs ("minority-serving institutions") will elect to do so? And how many of the highly profitable for-profit universities that have been so successful in their recent efforts to recruit African American students -- e.g., Phoenix, Kaplan, Strayer, and DeVry -- will see the long-term profit opportunities to be gained from the know-how they might derive from sponsoring successful BCUs? Given the magnitude of the challenges, I submit that the nation should actively encourage the emergence of high-quality BCUs within each of these groups.

Roy L. Beasley
Author's email: 

Roy L. Beasley is academic systems analyst in the Office of the Provost at Howard University.

Merger Debates Waste Time

My first year as an undergraduate at Jackson State University was in the wake of the 1992 landmark Fordice Supreme Court decision. Almost 20 years ago I marched in a demonstration to oppose merging Mississippi’s public universities as a way to desegregate enrollment. With firm resistance that initiative dissolved. Since that time proposals for institutional mergers that combine public historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with traditionally white state institutions occasionally pop up like unwanted weeds in a landscape that is already difficult to maintain.

In the most recent case, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal proposed a merger that would have combined Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO), which is an HBCU, with traditionally white University of New Orleans. Soon after, the governor yielded to an independent study commissioned by his office that recommended changing the governance structure of public institutions in a way that would remove SUNO from the larger, historically black Southern University System. Aside from the historical and sociopolitical turbulence this created, the proposed legislation has very little to do with solving the problems of public higher education in Louisiana.

With the help of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and others, Southern University supporters won a tough political chess match last week, defeating the measure. Some feared that this kind of merger in Louisiana, if successful, would somehow set a precedent putting public HBCUs in other states at risk. The context for these conversations must be reframed. HBCUs are not "at-risk." Instead, this case reminds us that their success is becoming ever more important for meeting the educational demands of their respective states. The signal for HBCU leaders to observe is that even in pursuing their mission HBCUs are not exempt from this environment of accountability.

According to some estimates the nation will need to produce a million new degree holders each year for the next decade in order to meet workforce demands and to remain globally competitive. The public institutions that serve greater New Orleans (the University of New Orleans, SUNO, and Delgado Community College) each rank dead last among their national peers when comparing graduation rates. None of these institutions graduate more than 21 percent of their students as calculated by the federal government. Just 2 percent of students who begin at Delgado Community College complete or transfer within three years. This is the issue that Governor Jindal (a former president of the University of Louisiana System) is trying to alleviate. There is virtue in trying to reform an underperforming higher education system, but equally important is our newfound national (and local) understanding of the economic importance of having better-educated citizens.

No one could disagree about the need to pay closer attention to improving the outcomes for students attending college in the New Orleans area. The problem is that proposals to merge HBCUs create unnecessary political hurdles and have little promise of actually improving outcomes. I liken it to bowling down the wrong lane and then getting a split. There is virtually no evidence that these kinds of mergers, born from business models, actually produce better student outcomes. And, any potential savings from combining a few administrative functions have not been associated with institutional effectiveness. A lot of time, energy, resources, and political currency have been expended on both sides of the debate and none of it has been leveraged to actually improve student success in the state.

An old friend and colleague always warns about the usefulness of arguing over seats on the Titanic. I am in no way comparing Louisiana’s higher education system to the Titanic, but I do question the focus and value of the current debate. Instead of quarreling about who should control underperforming institutions, it is worth considering what might be accomplished if Louisianans netted the energy expended over the last six months to focus intensely on student success. One could argue that no matter where the votes fell on the bills, once the political dust settles little will change this fall for the students trying really hard to pass college algebra or those seeking the financial aid they need to persist towards a degree.

For example, the 2009-2010 Louisiana budget projected $129 million dollars in appropriations for the merit-based Taylor Opportunity Programs for Students (TOPS) attending public institutions versus just $29 million for need-based grants to help low-income students pay for college. According to the state’s office of budget and planning, the LSU system, which enrolls the fewest poor and minority students among Louisiana’s public institutions, received the largest appropriation from the state ($1.49 billion). This was nearly $500 million more than the University of Louisiana System, Southern University System, and the Community College System combined, which collectively serve 100,000 more students. These seem to be better legislative priorities if the goal is improving college completion.

For the last three months I have been peppered with questions, from all angles, about the righteousness of merging HBCUs with traditionally white institutions. To be clear, I have consistently argued that it is generally a bad idea followed by the specifics given the context or particular question. HBCUs are a critically important sector of higher education. They enrich institutional diversity, which is hallmark of American higher education, and still disproportionately produce African American graduates, especially much-needed teachers, those earning degrees in the STEM fields, and those who enroll in graduate programs. HBCUs are not the problem, and the framing of this policy debate is all wrong.

According to a recent report by the American Council on Education, Louisiana is the only state in the union that experienced a decline between 2002 and 2007 in the percentage of minority students enrolled in college. Meanwhile, minority students now constitute the majority of K-12 students in public schools in the South. Neighboring states like Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama all experienced double digit-gains in minority student college enrollment during the same years.

Given this context, I wince when I see HBCU leaders and supporters working hard to validate their existence or to protect their institutions, which diverts their focus on serving students. In the same way, I am disappointed when legislators who should be finding ways to support institutions that serve high percentages of poor and minority students advance bills aimed at merging them — a pseudo-solution to the real problems.

Yes, we should hold institutions accountable for graduating students. Regulators will have it no other way in this era of accountability in higher education. Still, legislative measures intended to improve performance must consider the contextual factors and policy actions that are more likely to promote success. The institutions committed to serving the neediest students receive the fewest resources from the state. This represents what I call policy incongruence, which should be on the governor’s list of priorities, not mergers. Reorganizing institutions that will have the same faculty, the same students, the same academic programs, and disproportionate funding makes little sense especially when precious time and resources are spent arguing about how to do it.

The latest e-mail alert I received warned that the political battle in Louisiana is not yet over. The Louisiana legislative session does not end until June 23. A series of amendments, hearings, and legislative sessions are expected to continue. For the sake of the students in the Bayou, I am hoping that they soon become the true focus of debate.

James T. Minor
Author's email: 

James T. Minor is director of higher education programs at the Southern Education Foundation.


Low-Hanging Fruit?

Smart Title: 
Looking for savings, Tennessee State eliminates "low-producing" majors, including physics and Africana studies. Critics ask why a black college would cut such offerings.

Staying Alive

Smart Title: 
Edward Waters College wins round in U.S. court, temporarily staving off loss of accreditation.


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