Tuesday, September 29, 2015

              Since the founding of the first Black colleges, now referred to as HBCU, they have been important institutions in the struggles of African people in the United States and throughout the world.  They served not only to make formal education available to Black people but were also important political, social and economic agencies in the struggles for racial advancement.  In every historical moment-- beginning in the latter years of enslavement and continuing through emancipation, reconstruction, post-reconstruction,  and the modern civil rights period the Black college has been a significant community and national resource.  However, over the last decade or so as we have entered what some are calling the post-civil right era, the role and responsibility and contribution of the Black college have been questioned.  It is not clear that Black colleges, or the Black community as a whole, for that matter, have developed useful descriptions of the current reality that besets us as a people and determined the appropriate role of the Black college in the continuing struggle for racial equality.  In my view, it is imperative that we do so now because we are at a critical juncture in both the struggle for racial equality and in the history of the Black college as a national and community resource.  We need to launch a national effort for the reclamation, transformation and relevance of the Black college.  And we will be doing so, we must acknowledge, at a time when the financial solvency and cultural relevancy of these institutions are seen by many to be on shaky grounds. 
              The publicly supported HBCU, like the other public colleges, are suffering and will continue to suffer from the impact of short sighted austerity measures imposed by reactionary legislatures while the tuition driven privately funded institutions will suffer as their already meager philanthropic support dwindles.  In recent years a hand full of our private colleges have been forced to close and others seem to be teetering on the brink. And of course, the omnipresent move to close or merger existing state institutions            remains.  Thus, we are at an important juncture in the history of Black colleges as a valued and valuable community and national resource and it is incumbent on us to develop a plan to insure the survival and relevance of HBCU as a community and national resource. Creating a HBCU clearing house would be a logical first step toward that end.
              Self-assessment and self-criticism are necessary steps for institutional growth and development.  HBCU need to create structure through which such assessment and criticism can be done.  I suggest creating a clearing house  that would serve as a source of and depository for data that could be used to describe and evaluate HBCU and make recommendations for improvement.  The recommendations would be based on ideas generated by conferences and symposia sponsored by the clearing house. The clearing house would be designed by HBCU personnel and stakeholders, including and especially alumni and alumni associations, and used by them for self-criticism and advancement.  After due deliberations, those working under the aegis of the clearing house could develop hypothetical models of effective HBCU and use the models as tools to describe and evaluate existing institutions.
              In the introductory paragraphs above I referred to the role of the Black college as a community and national resource in the struggle for racial equality.  To be sure, I understand that the primary function of HBCU, like all institutions of higher education, is to produce well prepared graduates who are equipped to live productive and fulfilling lives.  My usage of the terms community and national resource, however, is meant to convey the understanding that the colleges and universities, on the one hand, are meant to play specific positive functions in the communities in which they are located; and on the other hand, the understanding that HBCU as a whole should be a resource available for use in the ongoing struggles of African American people in general.  By relevance I mean that HBCU must define its mission such that it accepts a special responsibility for serving African American communities.  Anticipating the arguments likely to be put forward by hypercritical naysayers, let me iterate that I am not suggesting that the colleges serve only African American communities.  Rather this is to suggest that the HBCU have serving African American communities as central to their mission.
              How do we develop such a plan?  A plan, in my estimation, must begin with a thorough and systematic description of the current state of the Black colleges and universities on a range of theoretically significant categories and variables.  Among other things, the categories would include (1) finances and financial management (2) leadership selection and governance, including trustees and other governing structures (3) quality and expanse of academic programs (3) quality and productivity of faculty (4) student population and performance, and (5) community service.  Using these and any other relevant categories we would develop a baseline description of HBCU and update the descriptions at intervals to be determined. Along with this theoretically driven systematic description, the plan would include a fulsome discussion and explication of the role of  HBCU in light of the changed and changing nature of African Americans and American society.  Finally, a third feature of the plan would involve developing strategies for transforming the institutions from their current state into institutions prescribed in section on the role of Black colleges.  The development of such a plan would be a challenging and perhaps arduous task but not an insurmountable one.  The plan, I hasten to add, would be a suggestive document used by institutions to guide their efforts rather than an inerrant doctrinaire prescription. This document would be developed primarily by faculty and staff actually working at HBCU and alumni.
              We can begin by calling together a group of professors and other interested parties who have shown or will express interests in the growth and development of HBCU.  After appropriate discussion and deliberation that group would develop a preliminary research schema for the descriptive study. Once the preliminary research schema for developing descriptions of HBCU has been vetted a national conference on the role of the Black college would be called to discuss the whole idea.  A concerted effort should be made to maximize participation by HBCU faculty, staff  and alumni from a cross section of disciplines and administrative units throughout the institutions because the descriptions must be thorough and accurate. Following deliberations at the conference a final schema would be developed and plans for its implementation would be finalized. (For those old enough to remember, I am envisioning a process similar to that which was used to develop the Gary Declaration preceding the Gary Convention of 1972.)
              Once the research schema is finalized, research teams at each participating institution would use the common research schema to develop descriptions of their college or university.  For example, in developing the description of leadership in a given institution, the local team would develop a description of, say, the board of trustees: laws, rules and regulations (both formal and informal) that govern their selection; pertinent biographical information about each trustee; decision making process of the board of trustees; relationship between the board of trustees and the faculty.  Similarly the description of administrative leadership would include pertinent information about the president, vice presidents, and other relevant administrators including their career paths, process of their selection, and their formal credentials.
              In describing the quality and expanse of academic programs researchers would include a discussion of the academic organization of the institution, the degree programs offered, faculty and other resources allocated to each, assessments by accrediting agencies, etc., production of graduates and professional placements and other relevant measures.  Faculty members from the different subject matter areas would be recruited to conduct the research in their fields.  For example, someone from the natural sciences would be responsible for developing the team to conduct the description of subfields in that area. The description of faculty would include number of faculty, pertinent demographic data, distribution across degrees and fields of specialization, research interest and peer recognition, etc.  The description of student body would be organized around standard categories.
              As for community service, the research teams should compile a list and description of all initiatives undertaken by the colleges to describe and address societal problems. And permit me to digress here and mention one problem that cries out, at least in my estimation, for attention and one that HBCU are ideally situated to address: the continuing gap in the achievement levels between African American and other students in secondary schools.
              Fifty years after the Brown decision the gap remains in spite of reams of studies and scores of public policy initiatives.  This is so in spite of the progress that Blacks have made in infiltrating the education bureaucracies at the local, state, and national levels.  There are more than 1800 African American school board members and according to the Alliance of Black School Educators there are more than 250 African American School superintendents including 133 of them who head urban school districts.  One in four African American students studies in districts with a Black superintendent.  Thus, as a nation African Americans are clearly in a position to impact the quality of education made available to our youth.  We need only put in place a system for doing so and HBCU are ideally situated to play a leading role in such an endeavor.  A consortium working under the aegis of a clearing house envisioned in this report could make the transforming the education of Black youth a top priority.
              The research teams, in my view, should be organized geographically.  In those states with multiple HBCU a state coordinator would be selected and that persons after due deliberations would select a professor from each participating institution to head the research team from each institution.  That person, in turn, would select individuals who would be responsible for the various subject matter areas.  Institutional coordinators would be encouraged to convene institutional workshops to facilitate work of the group and at some point or points state coordinators would hold state-wide workshops.
              Participation by alumni and alumni associations in the work of the clearing house would be essential for a number of reasons.  They not only embody the institutional memory of the institutions but they are also the critical bridge between the colleges and universities and the broader community.  Alumni associations along with faculty steering bodies would be statutory members of clearing house governing structures.
              So how would we begin to make this happen?  A critical mass of professors and others interested in the general idea should be assembled to brain storm about a plan of action that would lead to the formation of an organization such as the one suggested in this discussion note.  That plan might include: (1) development and circulation of position papers highlighting the need for and the nature of such an organization (2)identification of others who may be interested in and supportive of the proposed initiative (3)holding of a mini-conference\workshop as a prelude to issuing the call for a national conference on the current state and role of the Black college (4) identifying an HBCU interested in hosting the initial conference.
              It should be noted that neither the initial conference nor the clearing house should it come into being would be limited to those affiliated with HBCU but the whole enterprise would be HBCU centered and faculty centered. The clearing house would have a modest staff based at a HBCU.  Private institutions such as the AUC schools or Howard University and public colleges such as Southern University, North Carolina A&T, Jackson State University, and Texas Southern would be possible hosts for the clearing house.
Mack H. Jones
Professor Emeritus
Clark Atlanta University

A discussion note prepared for the session Plotting the Future of Historical Black Colleges and Universities at the 2015 Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Atlanta, GA, September 24, 2015. For elaboration of my ideas on the role of the Black college se my, "The Responsibility of the Black College to the Black Community", Daedalus (Summer 1971).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that authorities are considering using the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to prosecute teachers and administrators implicated in the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating scandal.  Conviction under RICO carries penalties of up to twenty years in prison.  This is absurd and an outrage and should be opposed by all fair minded people.  According to published accounts, 178 educators including 38 principals have been accused of altering student scores on tests mandated by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policies. Superintendent Erroll Davis has announced his intention to fire all of the accused and placed them on administrative leave with pay while perfunctory due process procedures ran their course.  However, the cost of keeping the accused teachers and administrators on the payroll while they await their pre-firing administrative hearings is said to be in excess of a million dollars monthly.  Using RICO would allow authorities to expedite the trial and firing processes.

This is an outrage.  Indeed the whole inquisition is an outrage.  The Atlanta Public School (APS) system is only one of scores in Georgia and hundreds of systems across the country suspected of doctoring student test scores. In 2009, for example, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement reported that answer sheets from 10 percent of classrooms state-wide showed erasures that justified moderate to severe concern. And the problem is not limited to Georgia.  Questionable test scores in states as disparate as Ohio, California, Texas, and New York have been reported.  Even schools that have been lauded with high commendations in the Race to the Top sweepstakes have come under suspicion.  Clearly Atlanta is not an aberration.  The problem is nation-wide.   But as far as I have been able to ascertain, Atlanta is the only jurisdiction committed to firing all of those implicated and conducting public hearings to humiliate the accused.  As Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant of Education under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton has said about the cheating scandals, “All of this was to be expected”.

Why would she say that?  And why have the other jurisdictions refrained from having show trials of those implicated. Ravitch argues, and I concur, that the best predictor of academic achievement is poverty, and I would add poverty compounded by institutional racism.  Taking these two critical factors into account, we know beforehand which are likely to be the high and low achieving schools. The tests only confirm what was already widely known or at least widely believed. Nevertheless the tests could be a useful diagnostic tool if they are used to render greater specificity in identifying problematic areas. However under the evolving NCLB regime, the test results have became more than diagnostic tools.  They have become punitive yardsticks to rank teachers and schools, and as a result, determine the career fortunes of school personnel.

For school personnel, especially mid to senior level employees, this means that the rules regarding career advancement and indeed job retention have been changed in mid-stream. Student test scores above all else are critical factors in determining career advancement.  Obviously this puts school personnel in what they quite rationally believe to be a no-win situation.  Given their experiences, they have no reason to assume that student test scores would show significant improvement in such a short period of time.   And apparently, the rest of the attentive public shared their misgivings because no one expected the low achieving schools to show dramatic improvement.  Indeed, the whole test-cheating scandal evolved because informed observers found the reported improved test scores to be incredible.

Manipulating student test scores is inexcusable, but it is also understandable.  The teachers were asked to collect and report data which would undermine any chance they have of career success—despite all their hard work.  It’s no wonder that many of them gave in to temptation to submit doctored reports and answer sheets when they felt that there was neither time nor resources to improve student performance in a legitimate way.

Moreover, the test cheating scandal is not an individual problem; neither individual teachers nor individual schools should be the foci of the investigation.  It is a systemic issue brought about as a result of flawed and misguided policy.  The discussion should be about rethinking education policy and not about prosecuting teachers for racketeering.  At a minimum that discussion should begin with the assumption that testing is to be used only as a diagnostic tool and not as a punitive instrument.  Schools must have more holistic measures for determining career advancement but that is outside the scope of this column.

Getting back to the APS administrative hearings cum star trials, personnel ranging from high level administrators to young elementary school teachers have been paraded before the tribunal and accused of a variety of transgressions.  One teacher has been slated for firing for using facial expressions to steer students away from wrong answers. The local newspaper headlined that she would be fired because she gave “a look” to students who chose the wrong answer.  Another was slated to be fired because he paraphrased test questions in a manner that made it more understandable to the students.  Others, of course, are accused of more flagrant violations including actually erasing incorrect answers.  So this is column is written not to justify the cheating but to concur once again with Ravitch that all of this was to be expected.  It is time to move on.

The show trials should be stopped.  We have seen teachers who were caught up in a situation not of their own making being humiliated and paraded before the public as common criminals.  Many of them have given years of satisfactory and in some cases exemplary service to APS.  No public purpose will be served by these hearings.  I challenge anyone to show how any public interests or purpose is being served by the public hearings and aggressive prosecution of those implicated. Those who are guilty of the allegations were wrong but like others involved in widespread system induced indiscretions, amnesty for them would be in the public interest. In the American political culture it is not unusual to offer amnesty to individuals guilty of illegal behavior when that behavior grows out of the exigencies of extant public policy.  For example, those who stretched the truth to justify going to war in the Middle East were excused. So too were the bankers, mortgage companies and other financial players whose behaviors led to the recent financial crisis. The same compassion should be shown toward those accused in the APS cheating scandal
No more show trials.  No indictment.  AMNESTY FOR ALL.

Mack H. Jones
May 14, 2012


Thursday, April 26, 2012


 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s coverage of the Atlanta Public School test cheating scandal would be unworthy for even the Globe or National Inquirer. Under its banner of “continuing coverage” the AJC has run a seemingly unending sensationalized drum beat of stories about the scandal. It has identified by names scores of administrators, principals and teachers said to have been complicit in manipulating students test scores and demanded that they be fired. Even though the widely acclaimed school superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall, resigned early on, the AJC has continued running demeaning articles about her even suggesting that she should refund bonuses she received in past years. To be sure, manipulating test scores is inexcusable but given the dynamics of the misguided No Child Left Behind policy the behavior of those involved is quite understandable. Indeed that is why the Atlanta school system is simply one of many systems across the accused of doing the same.

 The No Child Left Behind regime calls for ranking school systems based on student progress as measured by student test scores. Ultimately the career fortunes of teachers, principals, and administrators are tied to student test scores. Higher the test scores the greater are chances for career advancement. However, when the policy was adopted, and continuing until today, the distribution of test scores among schools was predictable. Anyone who knew the basic demographic data of the system could predict with reasonable confidence which schools would show the higher and lower test scores. That is because aggregate student performance is a societal and systemic matter and not one determined by the individuals of particular schools. (Of course we all understand that there will be high achieving and low achieving individuals in every school but we are talking about aggregate performances). Give us pertinent socio-economic and demographic data and we can tell you where to expect to find high performing and low performing schools. Thus to ask teachers and principals working in low performance schools to submit their predictable low test scores with the understanding that their career advancement will be based on the reported scores is a rather dubious proposition, one that borders on self-incrimination. It is not unlike basing the career fortunes of police personnel on reported crime rates; or ranking universities based on crimes in and around campus. As is well known and readily understood,  people are loath to report information likely to cause them personal harm. 

 Thus it is time to move on. The problem surrounding the Atlanta school system and test scores has been sufficiently described and discussed. Those allegedly involved have been identified. Their names, and in many instances, their pictures have been plastered across the pages of the AJC. They have been embarrassed and humiliated. The AJC continuing coverage has become a combination of tabloid sensationalism and career opportunism. Perhaps the editor and the investigating team are hoping for a Pulitzer or some other accolades. They have made their case.  Kudos for them.

For us, it is time to say that enough is enough. Those with a genuine concern for the Atlanta Public Schools and the families they serve should stand up and tell the AJC that enough is enough. There is no redeeming social value in continuing the salacious coverage. It is time for the Mayor, other elected officials, the Concerned Clergy and others of good will to tell the AJC to tone down the sensationalism and begin a realistic campaign for improving our schools.

April 26, 2012

Saturday, October 2, 2010

HBCUs and the Continuing Problem of Leadership

The art department of Texas Southern University, my alma mater, has been one of the institution's centers of excellence. Over the years under the leadership of Dr. John Biggers, a world renown painter, students and faculty painted a series of African American history themed murals in Hannah Hall, the administration building. For almost a half century the murals were a source of pride and inspiration for those of us who love the University and appreciate the positive role it played in our growth and development. That pride was severely compromised recently when the current president,John Rudley,had the murals painted over because he found the titles of the murals embarrassing. Apparently he did not consult any of the interested constituencies, not students, not faculty, not alumni, before ordering workers to paint over the murals.

This episode is simply the latest evidence that of all the problems that bedevil HBCUs, leadership selection and ascension are primary. How could someone with such limited imagination and seemingly unlimited ignorance be appointed president of any university? What criteria do trustees and governing bodies use in the selection of HBCU presidents? And above all, who actually makes the decision?

Check out the story below from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, September 30, 3010.


Controversy at Texas Southern University Over the Destruction of Two Murals

John Rudley, president of historically black Texas Southern University in Houston, ordered workers to paint over two murals that had been created over 40 years ago in the Hannah Hall administration building. The murals were painted in 1970 and 1971 by Harvey Johnson, who was a student at Texas Southern at the time and subsequently taught at the university for 34 years before his retirement in 2007. Johnson was devastated when he heard the news that his murals had been destroyed.

One mural was called “Dere’s a Han’ Writin on de Wall.” President Rudley reportedly objected to poor spelling. He told the Houston Chronicle, “When I bring dignitaries to campus, I can’t have them seeing that kind of thing. All art isn’t good art.”

After student and faculty protests, President Rudley announced that he was earmarking $50,000 to hire a conservator who will review the remaining murals and will develop a plan for their restoration, preservation, and conservation.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Last week the Texas School Board revised its State Social Science Curriculum to reflect the idea of American exceptionalism, i.e., the notion that the American people and the culture and institutions they have created are superior to those other countries and cultures. The idea of American exceptionalism, of course, is not new to American political discourse. For a long time, Americans have been socialized to believe that they are exceptional, a breed apart from the rest of the world. However, thanks to the Texas Board, this notion has now moved from popular folklore and become an element of public policy. Texas teachers will be required to teach it and publishers will be required to include it in text books. Given this new reality perhaps it is time to pause and ask what is so exceptional about America, its history, culture and political system.
What is exceptional about the history of the United States? Does its history of genocide of the Native American population and the centuries of enslavement of African people make it exceptional? How exceptional was the slaughtering of the indigenous population, the trail of tears, and the creation of concentration camps euphemistically called reservation? How exceptional was the use of slave labor to build the infrastructure of the country? And when the enslaved people won their freedom, how exceptional was it to release them without property to sustain themselves or political power for their protection?
Moreover during the era of enslavement, the virulent ideologies of white supremacy and Black inferiority were concocted to justify what was and continues to be one of the most sordid chapters in human history. These ideologies remain major currents in American culture and confound efforts to use government as a tool for creating a more just and egalitarian society. How exceptional is that?
And speaking of government, the American political system was never the exceptional democratic institution the Texas State Board imagines it to be. The Constitution of 1789 actually created a system of government designed to serve the interests of the propertied classes while minimizing the prospects for majority rule. Of the four political structures created by the Constitution--the presidency, the Senate, the Supreme Court and the House of Representatives-- only members of the House were to be chosen by popular vote, and even that vote was constrained by property qualifications established by most of the states. Senators were to be elected by state legislatures and the president was to be chosen by electors selected by rules established by state legislatures. Supreme Court judges were to be appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate (but not the House). Moreover, members of the House were to be elected every two years while senators served six year staggered terms. These arrangements made the House of Representatives, the people’s chamber, a junior partner to the other three political institutions. And even though the president and senators are now chosen by popular vote, the non-democratic character of the system prescribed by the Constitution still endures because senators who represent only a small fraction of American voters can easily stifle the majority.
This is so because of the way senate seats are apportioned and the rules established by the Senate itself. Each state without regard to population size has two senators. This means that the 544,270 people of Wyoming have the same weight as the 36,892,663 Californians. For ordinary matters, a simple majority of the 100 senators is necessary to pass legislation. Thus 52 senators from the smallest 26 states with a combined 17.7 per cent of the population can impose their will on the Senate and the country. Under other circumstances, senators can filibuster to prevent senate action with sixty votes being necessary to end a filibuster. In such instances, 42 senators from the smallest 21 states with 11.4 per cent of the population can prevent the senate from acting.
Given the nature of American politics, powerful interests can and often do have their way by cultivating influence with senators representing only a small fraction of the American population. Recently we saw this at work in the struggles for reform of the health care and financial systems. For example, the House of Representatives, consistent with public opinion, passed a public option health care provision but it was quickly buried in the Senate. How exceptional is that?
Finally, the claim of American exceptionalism is rendered suspect by a host of unexceptional currents in the American political culture. How exceptional is it, for example, when “spinning” becomes a standard part of American political practice and discourse? In contemporary American politics, political actors routinely appear in the media to spin, i.e., give self-serving interpretations of events purposely designed to obscure rather than clarify matters in question. Spinning is an acceptable and accepted practice and the media dutifully reports it as such. How exceptional is that?
Only if we conceptualize exceptionalism as a continuum ranging from exceptionally commendable at one extreme and exceptionally deplorable at the other does it make sense to talk about American exceptionalism. We can then decide where America ranks along the continuum of exceptionalism. I will not attempt to pre-judge the answer to that question but I do know where I would rank the Texas State Board.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Integrity of Southern University Presidential Search Challenged

In a previous post I suggested that leadership and leadership ascension were critical problems facing HBCU. I argued that governing authorities (boards of trustees, boards of supervisors, etc.) arbitrarily select presidents and other academic leaders without substantive input from other constituencies and stakeholders and without a thorough vetting of candidates. The recently concluded Southern University presidential search and selection process dramatizes the problem and validates my concerns. On April 30, 2010, following an extended search by the Southern University System Board of Supervisors (SUBUS) selected Dr. Ronald Mason, the sitting president of Jackson State University (JSU), as the new Southern University System president. However, days before the announcement was made, the search process and the already anticipated appointment of Mason were challenged by two prominent members of the University Presidential Search Committee and a SU faculty member.

Before examining the issues raised by the three challengers, a brief history of the search process might be helpful. The SUBUS launched the search in July 2009 when it appointed a 15 member search committee that included representation from each of the systems three campuses, the alumni federation, faculty senate, students and the Baton Rouge business community was formed. The search committee retained a presidential search firm to help it identify and recruit qualified candidates. In February 2010, the search firm presented the search committee with a list of thirteen finalists who were brought to the campus for preliminary interviews. Following the preliminary interview process an additional name, Dr. Ronald Mason, was added to the list. Shortly after the addition was made public, rumors began circulating that a deal had been struck and that Mason would in fact be the next SU president. Leaving nothing to chance, however, a group of Jackson State University alumni reportedly organized a pray-in to implore the supreme deity to make sure that Mason got the SU presidency so that JSU would be free of him. Other Jackson State, stakeholders including the Mississippi Black Legislative Caucus, the student body, and faculty Senate had all excoriated Mason for what they perceived to be his duplicity in first opposing and then supporting the governor’s plan to merge the state’s three black colleges. When the Supervisors announced on April 14th that Mason was one of three finalists, the alumni group celebrated the success of their pray-in.

At any rate, it is the question of the integrity of the search process that demands our attention. Professor Albert Samuels writing to the SUBUS a week before the official announcement was made argued that the “so-called head hunting firm” had presented the search committee with a sorry field of candidates several of whom, he alleged, had been rejected, fired or forced to resign by their previous employer. He argued further that some of the candidates had glaring disqualifying characteristics that could be uncovered by a simple Google search. Samuels cited two in particular; Dr. Carolyn Meyers who was leaving the presidency of Norfolk State amidst a scandal and Dr. Robert Jennings, who was let, go after a short and tumultuous tenure as president of Alabama A & M University. Samuels also strenuously opposed the by then widely anticipated appointment of Mason because of his duplicity in the campaign to merge the three Mississippi HBCU.

Samuel’s reservations were shared by Donald Wade, past president of the SU Alumni Federation and member of the search committee. In an open letter to Friends of Southern University dated April 26, Wade suggested that the search process had been a case of the tail wagging the dog with the search firm exercising too much control over the search process. Search committee members, he reported, had not been allowed to ask their own questions but rather the search firm had provided individual committee members with questions to be asked. Fundamental questions about the role of the president in university affairs or the land grant mission of the university, according to Wade, were never even discussed. He also noted that search committee members as a group were not allowed to participate in the final scoring and ranking of candidates. He asserted that “At no time was there a meeting of the whole and an OPEN tally of the points awarded by committee members to candidates conducted”.

Another member of the University Search Committee, Dr. Sudhir Trivedi, president of the SU Faculty Assembly, sent a letter to the supervisors complaining about undue secrecy of the process and noting that there were several important questions that he would have liked to have asked the candidates but that there was no opportunity to do so. For example he said “I would have liked to ask the question why the faculty senate at JSU expressed a vote of no confidence in Mason or if Haynes could tell us three things he accomplished with respect to academic standards and faculty matters during his tenure as Southern provost.” Trevedi echoed Wade’s complaint about the lack of transparency in the evaluation process. He also lamented the fact that the search firm discouraged committee members from asking the candidates tough questions.

None of the complaints mattered, however. The co-chair of the Search Committee, Murphy Bell, intimated that the complaints were suspect because they were raised at the last minute, apparently forgetting that Mason had been added to the list of candidates at next-to-the last minute.

So what do we make of all of this? It reaffirms our position that the selection and elevation of leadership at our colleges is a critical but critically flawed process. The governing authorities in conjunction with presidential search firms are accountable only to themselves. Those concerned with the future direction of HBCU must organize to, first of all, influence the selection of supervisors and trustees and develop structures and processes to hold them accountable.

Now is a good time to start.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

HBCU Clearing House and Quest for Relevance

Self-assessment and self-criticism are necessary steps for institutional growth and development. HBCUs need to create structures through which such assessment and criticism can be done. I suggest creating a clearing house that would serve as a source and repository for data that could be used to describe and evaluate HBCUs and make recommendations for improvement. The recommendations would be based on ideas generated by conferences and symposia sponsored by the clearing house. The clearing house would be designed by HBCU personnel and stakeholders and used by them for self-criticism and advancement. After due deliberations, those working under the aegis of the clearing house could develop hypothetical models of effective HBCUs and use the models as tools to describe and evaluate existing institutions.
The clearing house would hold regularly scheduled conferences where participants present papers on their research and conduct round tables on the state of HBCUs. Deliberations at the conferences would identify best practices, delineate ongoing and emerging problems facing the colleges and universities, and provide a forum for debating proposed solutions. The clearing house and the conferences, above all, would create a sense of community and confidence among HBCU faculty and staff and encourage them to take the lead in developing plans for continued growth and development. One key to such a plan would include recruitment of young African American Ph.D. and attracting a representative share of high achieving students.
How to attract and retain young African American professors is a critical issue. Given the fact that the more prestigious flagship American universities actively recruit among the relatively limited pool of African American Ph.D., HBCUs must develop a special strategy to attract its fair share. To do so, they must develop recruiting packages that include competitive salaries and working conditions featuring reduced teaching loads and greater research opportunities. I believe that there are bright committed young scholars who would be willing to consider careers at HBCUs and work on problems especially critical to Black life and culture if they could be assured of adequate funding and a supportive and rewarding intellectual environment. Rather than being part of a Black dream team at traditionally white universities, being part of a pioneering research center at, say, Howard, the Atlanta University Center, or the Southern University System may have special appeal to young race conscious scholars. A center focusing on the education of Black youth may be an ideal place to start.
I suggest this because the achievement gap between African American and other students continues to be a universally recognized problem. Fifty years after the Brown decision the gap remains in spite of reams of studies and scores of public policy initiatives. This is so in spite of the progress that Blacks have made in infiltrating the education bureaucracies at the local, state, and national levels. There are more than 1800 African American school board members and according to the Alliance of Black School Educators there are more than 250 African American School superintendents including 133 of them who head urban school districts. One in four African American students studies in districts with a Black superintendent. Thus, as a nation, African Americans are clearly in a position to impact the quality of education made available to our youth. We need only put a system in place for doing so and HBCUs are ideally situated to play a lead role in such an endeavor. An HBCU or a consortium of HBCUs could make transforming the education of Black youth a top priority. Working in tandem with political forces, the universities could establish a research center and policy institute dedicated to transforming the education of Black youth. That would be in keeping with the Du Boisian dual mission of the Black college and it could become the sorely needed beacon to show us the way to the next stage.
What we need are enlightened leadership and a commitment to transformation and relevance.