THE BLACK COLLEGE IN THE 21ST CENTURY
PLOTTING THE FUTURE
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
Clark Atlanta University
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).