• November 26, 2014

Black Colleges Still Play a Vital Role in Education

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Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

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Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

This past May, I was invited to speak to a Sunday-school class at a local United Methodist church. I talked about how being a president is a calling for me, and how I have to exercise a great deal of faith to do my job. I am the president of a United Methodist-affiliated, historically black college, so faith plays a huge role in everything that I do.

I also spoke about the radical transformation of Philander Smith College, including our greatly improved retention rates, graduation rates, and rankings, as well as our focus on social justice. And I talked about my admiration for Benjamin Mays, president of Morehouse College when Martin Luther King Jr. was a student there. Mays mentored his students, and I try to connect with mine as he did—through meaningful personal connections.

After my talk, I invited questions, and the group of mostly elderly white men and women had plenty. They wanted to know more. Then inevitably, toward the end, an audience member asked the question—the one asked, in various ways, of every president of a historically black college or university by people with limited knowledge of black colleges:

Do we still need HBCU's?

In this instance, the audience member phrased his question by asking if HBCU's are a holdover from a previous era, an anachronism incongruent with modern America. I was ready with an answer: I talked about providing options for students, and offering the best fit in order to improve their chances of graduating.

But then I went further and said that even if we eliminated HBCU's, the result would not be greater engagement between races at predominantly white institutions.

Most campuses feature black fraternities and sororities, a black student union, and multicultural-affairs offices. So just because a black student attends a predominantly white college, that doesn't mean he or she will have meaningful interactions with people of other races. In fact, black students can have experiences that are radically different from those of their white peers. I speak from experience, as a graduate of the University of Georgia.

Yet last fall, Jason L. Riley wrote a critique of HBCU's in The Wall Street Journal, suggesting that they are no longer necessary, since there are so many traditional colleges now willing to give black students a chance, and more black students are attending those colleges. A few weeks later, Richard Vedder, writing on the Chronicle blog Innovations, pointedly asked the question in a post titled "Why Do We Have HBCU's?" In the post, Vedder claimed to be disturbed by race-based institutions and the fact that we "subsidize and promote institutions that celebrate homogeneity," and suggested that we should "rethink the public funding of this anachronism from the past."

My wife, a higher-education attorney, is a graduate of a small HBCU, Talladega College. We often discuss articles critical of HBCU's, as well as the frequently weak responses from the HBCU community, which tends to rely on outdated platitudes about providing access, making lemonade from lemons, and so on. The truth is, some criticisms of HBCU's are valid. So we must do a better job: Nothing silences critics like success.

Still, my wife recently wondered aloud, why isn't there the same level of outrage about segregation in K-12 education? Don't we all subsidize homogenous public schools? Aren't we using public funds to maintain segregated schools, which really are supposed to be a relic of the past?

The answer, disturbingly, is yes. Even I, as a homeowner, subsidize segregated schools.

I live in Little Rock, Ark., where the first major test of the decision in Brown v. Board of Education took place one mile from my office. Today, Little Rock is about 55 percent white, but the public schools are almost 70 percent black. My own ZIP code is 51 percent black—yet we are zoned for an elementary school that is 93 percent black. When we tried to get our daughter into a more diverse school through a magnet program, we were denied. Our options were to go out of the way for a desegregated county public school, or pay thousands of dollars for a private school with few students or teachers like her, while our tax dollars support segregated schools.

And yet there is no outrage about the resegregation of public education.

Thomas M. Shapiro, author of The Hidden Cost of Being African-American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality (Oxford University Press, 2004), writes that white students are the most segregated schoolchildren, the result of a purposeful action on the part of their parents to create a competitive educational advantage. Because of the wealth imbalance among races, many white parents are able to avoid high-poverty schools that fail because of economic segregation. Parental resources vary greatly by race, Shapiro points out, adding that "educational quality results primarily from where children live and the resources their parents can provide."

Instead of working to end segregation at K-12 public schools, and fix their systemic failure to educate poor and minority students, some critics choose to attack HBCU's instead. It's been fashionable to label HBCU's as anachronisms while conveniently ignoring the racial and financial realities in America. The real truth is that HBCU's are not a relic of the past, because segregated schooling for our children is not.

When I was asked "the question" that Sunday morning at the church, I was the only black person among the 40 or so people in the room. While the church's pastor is progressive, only two of its 1,200 members are black. After I spoke, I went to my church for service, and of the 200 people there, two were white.

As Americans, we still live in segregated communities and attend segregated places of worship. Our children attend largely segregated schools. We must address the day-to-day reality of residential segregation, which causes us to lead, in many cases, segregated lives, no matter where or if we go to college.

Many people quote King's dream to justify closing HBCU's, but based on where we live, how we educate our kids, and how we worship, few of us live that dream. The fact remains that the man with the dream attended an HBCU and was inspired by his college president to address the social injustices of his time. HBCU's today are mentoring the next generation of leaders in a way that only we can.

That kind of inspiration will never be anachronistic. In fact, we need more of it.

Walter M. Kimbrough is president of Philander Smith College.

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