From HBCUs to BCUs

Roy L. Beasley, who has spent his career at a historically black university, writes that now is the time for a new model to serve black students.

August 3, 2010

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


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