Terra Sigillata

When I went away to college after the summer when MTV was first launched, I had never heard of the term, “Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” But during the following summer while taking organic chemistry, I lived in a dorm with two visiting HBCU students who were doing internships at a local pharmaceutical company. The gentleman who I grew closest to had come from Hampton University (then-Hampton Institute) in Virginia.

As a Yankee born the same year as passage of US Civil Rights Act, I had not truly appreciated that African Americans, particularly in the South, had traditionally not been welcome at colleges and universities. As a result, the African American community, sometimes supported by non-black supporters, had to establish their own universities as it was recognized that education was one path to equality. In fact, while nearly all HBCUs are south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the original HBCUs were in Pennsylvania (what is now Cheyney University (1837) and Lincoln University (1854)) and Ohio (Wilberforce University (1856)) and were established by the generosity of Quaker, Episcopalian, and other abolitionist supporters.

I’m still embarrassed by my ignorance back then, in part because my Northeastern high school history classes usually began with the Industrial Revolution and the challenges faced by my post-Civil War, Eastern European immigrant ancestors.

So, I was happy to learn that since 1980, this second week of September has been designated by the White House as National HBCU Week:

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12232, which established a Federal program “… to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically black colleges and universities to provide quality education.” Each President since that time has subsequently issued an Executive Order on HBCUs, with President George W. Bush signing Executive Order 13256, Feb. 12, 2002. (Bush’s 2008 proclamation can be found here in PDF).

The US Department of Education is currently sponsoring a week-long conference in Washington, DC, with the theme, HBCUs: Established to Meet a Need, Evolving with the Times, Essential for Today and Tomorrow. (Here is one firsthand account of Sunday’ night’s events.)

The theme implies a harsh reality: that many HBCUs are struggling financially and are fighting to redefine their missions as highly-qualified African Americans now have their pick of the 4,000 or so US colleges and universities. But the continued value of HBCUs is undeniable as pointed out by Michelle J Nealy in Diverse Issues in Higher Education:

While HBCUs represent only 3 percent of all colleges and universities, they enroll close to one-third of all Black students. Forty percent of HBCU students pursue four-year degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, and about half of all Black students in teaching fields attended HBCUs. Three-quarters of all African-American Ph.D.s did their undergraduate studies at an HBCU, and, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the total economic impact of the nation’s HBCUs in 2001 was $10.2 billion.

Another interesting note I learned from Rochelle Rush is that, “Spelman College and Bennett College produce over half of the nation’s African American female doctorates in all science fields.”

But to go back further, HBCUs played an essential role in the health care of African Americans. The now-defunct Leonard Medical School and School of Pharmacy at Shaw University trained over 400 black physicians between 1881 and 1918, some of whom went on as founders of other universities and all whom addressed the critical role of health care in underserved populations across the Jim Crow South.

i-9171aeec7d6cc5cfc94355b16ec15447-oprah hbcu.jpgHere’s a pretty impressive list of well-known HBCU graduates including this Chicago businesswoman, a graduate of Tennessee State University.

But the Afrosphere is full of students and alumni debating whether HBCUs have relevance today. As New Orleans-based journalist blogger, Raving Black Lunatic, noted recently:

At any gathering of black people, either in person or on the web, the issue of whether it’s better to attend a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) or a mainstream university is pretty much guaranteed to come up at some point.

Being of Eastern European heritage as I noted above, I feel that it would be presumptuous of me to take a side in this issue, although whiteness hasn’t prevented some others from doing so (see On My Mind for a couple of video examples.) So, here are just a few of the blogosphere posts on the topic:

Bourgie Adventures is written by one graduate of a large state university describes how she didn’t miss out on “THE black experience” by not going to a HBCU.

Albany State graduate student dc1128 describes some of her/his frustrations with HBCUs and closes as follows:

I had a road rage incident where I shouted at the other driver. My daughter said, “Daddy, why do you yell at your own people?” I replied, “Your own people are the ones that do you the worst.” These incidents are not dispelling that theory.

AverageBro.com is kind of in the middle with, “Are HBCUs Obsolete?,” but leans in support of his own experience. This post is probably the most informative of all, with nearly 30 reader comments.

On the other side, one of my new favorite blogs, Keeping up with the Jonzee, the author makes a strong case about the need for HBCUs beginning with this statement:

I stand by my conviction that HBCU’s are necessary, important and valuable. And this comes from a woman who went to a majority, expensive-ass “elite” school.

Judge Joe Webster at Making a Difference at Howard U cites the importance of HBCUs throughout his career.

In the peer-reviewed literature, this Cell Biology Education article by Dr Steve Suits notes that HBCUs “are meeting a national science imperative.” This post at Historiann cites a NSF study that points to the importance of HBCUs in producing African American STEM Ph.D.s

The discussion thread on this post at The HBCU Republication Connection (yes, HBCU Republicans) provides more insight on this question.

But the best quote I found came from a magazine, not a blog. George E. Curry wrote last month in the Chicago Defender,

Do we still need Historically Black Colleges and Universities? It’s a question that even some Blacks are asking. Interestingly, those same people never ask whether Catholics still need Notre Dame or whether women still need Wellesley College?

For more information on National HBCU Week, please go to the US Department of Education webpage devoted to this proclamation.

Comments

  1. #1 leigh
    September 9, 2008

    a successful colleague of mine completed her undergraduate work at an hbcu. she recalls her years there very fondly, and it was a solid launching pad for her.

    as with everything, people have their preferences. if some black students prefer to attend an hbcu for whatever reason, it’s great that the option is available.

  2. #2 Abel Pharmboy
    September 10, 2008

    Serediptiously, yesterday’s paper had an article about North Carolina A&T University receiving a $18.1 million NSF grant to establish a Engineering Research Center for Revolutionizing Metallic Biomaterials.

    “It is a great opportunity for us to show that even as a HBCU (historically black college or university), the quality of our research and quality of our teaching is on par with other universities,” Shena Crittendon, assistant vice chancellor for communications and operations at North Carolina A&T, said Monday.

    Official press release here.

  3. #3 Samia
    September 10, 2008

    I have things to say about this…will probably blog later. Thanks for the post!

  4. #4 MissPrism
    September 10, 2008

    Thanks for this post! It’s one of those eye-openers that makes me realise how moose-ignorant I am about so many things.

  5. #5 acmegirl
    September 10, 2008

    I think that until minority students feel as entitled to an education at “Historically Lily White Colleges and Universities” (borrowed from DrugMonkey) as their contemporaries who are members of the majority, there will be a place and a need for HBCUs.

    As a minority graduate student at a HLWCU, I can honestly say, we are not there yet. My colleagues from more affluent, less brown families have a sense of ownership and entitlement to the place that I do not have. While I have not let that stop me showing up every day, maybe it’s not time yet to creating a possible obstacle to getting more minority students into and through college.

    Also, some black families have built a tradition of attending a certain HBCU, similar to the traditions of white families for whom going to [insert prestigious university here] is a right of passage. This sense of tradition is important and shouldn’t be discarded.

  6. #6 DrugMonkey
    September 10, 2008

    on my usual hobby horse, I should point out that the NIH has a variety of programs focused on getting their research dollars into institutions which do not typically seek a lot of funding. So the AREA program hits on smaller undergraduate institutions without huge research efforts. Entire states which are underrepresented in the NIH porfolio get bennies.

    There are programs that focus on HBCUs as well. Memory suggests I’ve seen more than a few although a quick search of the NIH Guide site isn’t pulling up much. Gotta refine my search terms or something.

    I did pull this NIDA site which indicates:

    Since 1993, the SPO has taken the lead on the HBCU Initiative at NIDA to encourage interest and increase the involvement of HBCUs in drug abuse research. Based on an assessment of the reasons for low participation of HBCUs in NIDA sponsored research, strategies were developed to provide various forms of infrastructure/capacity building support and research experiences to HBCU faculty and students. These have included technical assistance, support of a research center, support of the Lonnie Mitchell conference and the release of an HBCU Research Scientist RFA. One program, the Recruited Scientist Program co-funded by the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, provides support to three Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Howard, Morgan, and North Carolina Central Universities). Through technical assistance efforts designed specifically for Historically Black Colleges and Universities faculty, awards were made to other Historically Black Colleges and Universities in response to ongoing program announcements.

  7. #7 Rogue Epidemiologist
    September 10, 2008

    What about HLWCU that are now PAYCU (presently Asian yellow colleges and universities)? What can be done at a more fundamental level that would encourage Latinos and blacks to take charge of education in ways that parallel the ascent of Asian immigrants and their children in colleges?

  8. #8 DrugMonkey
    September 10, 2008

    Gee, Rogue, maybe waive a magic fairy wand and declare all racism instantly over?

  9. #9 Candid Engineer
    September 12, 2008

    Thanks for the informative post. I was unaware of the important (and impressive) role HBCUs are playing in science and engineering education.

  10. #10 DrugMonkey
    September 17, 2008

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