Few things irk me more than hearing someone say or imply that now that we have a Black president, perhaps the time has come to abolish Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). I have zero tolerance for such ignorance.
HBCUs are being held to a different standard than other universities that target certain communities. Because Jews and Catholics were refused admission or subjected to quotas at major universities, they established their own institutions. That’s why we have the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., the College of the Holly Cross in Worcester, Mass. and the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. for Catholics.
Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. says on its website that it was “founded in 1948 by members of the American Jewish community.” Like HBCUS, these schools did not restrict enrollment to Catholics or Jews. HBCUs have always welcomed White students and faculty members on campus.
The belief that we should pay our respect, have a proper funeral and send our Black colleges off to a graveyard for relics simply because Barack Obama is president is preposterous. In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president amid questions of whether America was ready to elect its first Catholic president.
JFK won but no one declared that it ushered in an era of post-religious bigotry. No one said, “Now that we have elected a Catholic as president, Notre Dame and Holly Cross have outlived their usefulness.” If universities established because of religious bigotry have not outlived their usefulness, why should HBCUs be put out to pasture?
There are 106 accredited HBCUs, 47 of them public. According the White House Initiative on HBCUs, Black colleges award more than 35,000 degrees each year. In Mississippi, HBCUs handed out 37 percent of the degrees awarded to African Americans in the state, followed by Louisiana (36 percent), North Carolina (34 percent), Arkansas (31 percent), Maryland (25 percent) Alabama and South Carolina (23 percent each), Tennessee (19 percent), Georgia (18 percent), Texas (13 percent) and Florida (9 percent).
As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a speech last September, “Too many Americans are unfamiliar with the staggering accomplishments of HBCUs. Most of America’s civil rights giants were educated at HBCUs – Dr. King, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, and Thurgood Marshall.
“In our time, Jesse Jackson, Andy Young, Barbara Jordan, Congressman John Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman, and Doug Wilder all earned their degrees at HBCUs. Legendary artists and authors came out of HBCUs – Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison.
“Yet what is most impressive about the HBCU record is not just your famous alumni. It is that HBCUs, working with meager resources, almost single-handedly created an African-American professional class in the face of decades of Jim Crow discrimination.”
Duncan continued, “Even, more than a half-century after the demise of Jim Crow laws, HBCUs continue to have an outsized impact in educating Black professionals. We have over 7,000 institutions of higher education across the country, 106 of which are HBCUs. But in 2010, HBCUs still awarded a sixth of all bachelor degrees and professional degrees earned by African Americans in the U.S.”
At a time, when its projected that we won’t have enough college graduates to meet our future needs, it would be foolhardy to diminish a pool of institutions that have proven their value over the years.
While the Obama administration is saying the right things, HBCUs are approaching death by a thousand cuts.
Pell grants were reduced by Congress in 2011, making students eligible for 12 semesters instead of 18. That will hurt Black students who, on average, take longer to complete their undergraduate education.
Without consulting HBCUs, the Obama administration made changes in the Parent PLUS loans three years ago that made it more difficult for parents with less than stellar credit to obtain a loan. By some estimates, that change, which has since been modified, caused up to 20 percent drop in enrollment at HBCUs.
And now the proposal for the federal government to pay for the first two years of community college, a move that is certain to harm HBCUs. It would have been better to offer to pick up the tab for the first two years at any public university.
Some Black college presidents are reluctant to criticize the proposal publicly for fear of falling in disfavor with the White House. The head of some higher ed organization are carefully picking their words because they represent community colleges as well as HBCUs. And some people are hiding behind the time-worn excuse, “the devil is in the details.” In this case, the community college proposal represents the devil for the continued existence of HBCUs. And because we have our first Black president or have other conflict of interests, not too many people have the temerity to say it.
As one educator told me privately, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. must be rolling over in his grave.
George Curry is the former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and is currently editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service.