Tuesday, August 18, 2009
A Future for the Historically Black College?
Historically Black Colleges have always been a part of my world, I grew up in the Washington Metropolitan Area and remember the buzz each year that would surround Howard Homecoming and the Howard/Hampton football. The title of the "real HU" was at stake every year and alumni on both sides were passionate about the supremacy of their side, regardless of the final score. I was captivated by the culture of HBCU life that I saw played out not only as a child in the stands of Howard and Morgan State football games but also on shows like "A Different World" and to a lesser extent "The Cosby Show." Even though an HBCU was good for only one of the Huxtables, I couldn't wait to graduate from high school so that I could find myself at Morehouse or Hillman College--imagine my disappointment when I found out Hillman didn't exist!
As I grew older I began taking great pleasure in learning the history of HBCU graduates, particularly those from Morehouse College as it was the institution that had the greatest gravitational pull for me. My parents both attended the University of Maryland and my fathers stories of seemingly endless confrontations with racist white students, the struggle to found a historically black fraternity on campus among other things didn't capture my imagination the way my aunt and uncles' recollections of Howard did. Nor did my dad every speak of having a mentor like Dr. Benjamin Mayes at his school. My uncle and aunt not only recounted about their wonderful experiences as HU, but they also talked about how impressive people I had heard about went to school or taught there. To this day my sister and I are convinced that our aunt and uncle tried to convince us that every important black person in American history went to Howard. To be honest, for a time I think both my sister and I were convinced that this was indeed true. It's safe to say I was in love with the HBCU experience and I couldn't wait to have it. Until it was time for me to go to college.
It's clear that college options of those born after 1980 have greatly expanded and increasingly each year fewer students are debating whether they will go to an HBCU or a Predominately White Institution (PWI) as more an more black students are choosing to attend PWI's. As Robin Chen Delos cites, financial costs are often the largest burden facing those students who do want to go to HBCUs. Organizations like the United Negro College Fund have found their commitment levels from donors drop precipitously as the nationals economic woes continue to persist. While the issue of college cost is a national one if, HBCUs in particular must figure out ways to run leaner budgets and increase technological capacity to reach max efficiency.
Five years ago when my sister was applying to colleges I remember my mother and sister complaining that the one HBCU application my sister filled out was by far the most confusing out of all the schools to complete, even paying the application fee proved to be challenging. A family friend who really wanted to go to perhaps one of the most famous HBCUs is now a Syracuse alumni because she got her acceptance letter from the HBCU school three weeks into her courses at what is now her alma mater. These administrative challenges were once a charming part of the HBCU bonding experience, however, in this day in age of intense competition for talented students slip ups are costly and fewer students see the charm in them.
Last week in Ebony-Jet online, Eric Easter posed the question Howard or Harvard? But in a world where the first black President has never attended an HBCU, for the ambitious young black student what motivations does he have to choose Howard? There is absolutely no doubt that many of powerful people both in the public eye and outside of it have graduated from HBCUs but HBCUs are doing a poor job of telling the story of these people. Far too often we hear about people alumni who are generations removed from this generation of college students: Ossie Davis, Thurgood Marshall, Donnie Hathaway, Martin Luther King, Jr., Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson. While this legacy of greatness is important to acknowledge we must go further and avoid the trap that many of our black institutions find themselves in: living in the glory of the past.
While HBCUs have educated a large portion of America's current black upper class their giving rate has lagged when compared to alumni of PWIs, this of course affects all parts of the University and is the biggest obstacle to getting HBCUs back on the right path. Not only does this affect the amount of money available to fund scholarships, but goes further in answering the question why more black students when given the choice may be more likely to choose Harvard over Howard when given the choice. Scholarship, research and access to endless educational resources. Almost all of the black commentators you see on CNN, C-Span and venues like The State of the Black Union reside at Universities like Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Georgetown, Rutgers and Michigan. It's a shame that Universities like Howard, Hampton and Fisk can no longer attract the type of faculty that command the interests of media outlets. Like it or not, how much media attention an intellectual gets is something that enters the decision making process of today's scholar. I'm not sure why people like Cornell West, Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Appiah have yet to agree to faculty positions at schools like Tuskegee, Florida A&M or Tougaloo, let alone Howard or Morehouse but somehow these types of high profile scholars must be recruited to HBCUs.
The next few years are critical for HBCUs and unfortunately we may see many more close, but I hope not. I hope that somehow, some way HBCUs will wake up and realize they are competing in a new world. Howard can no longer pride itself on being the "black Harvard" it has to proudly stand as Howard University for we no longer live in a world where capable students don't have opportunities to compete for spots in Harvard's incoming classes. Hampton can no longer be the "black Yale" nor can Tuskegee be the "black M.I.T." Some would argue that HBCUs are capable of doing the best job of educating students of color as potential racial insecurities are not as heightened as they may be in a PWI setting. While I tend to disagree with this idea, it may be true. Either way it's time for the HBCU to compete and it's time for HBCU alumni to stand up for these precious institutions and help supply them with the same technological advantages and resource advantages that the nations best colleges and universities offer. It's going to take some work but HBCUs have to make every black student fall in love with them again. As I was, and plenty in my generation were as we tuned in to "A Different World" every week and ingratiated ourselves in the drama of Dwayne Wayne and the woman I was destined to marry, Whitley Gilbert. Sure some will choose to attend PWI's, but if HBCUs don't start competing not just amongst each other both head to head with the nations best universities then the future, sadly, looks grim.