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Historically Black Colleges and Universities Must Embrace Diversity

Paul Quinn College, in Texas, recently announced that its number of Latino applicants has increased by over 300 percent. Alcorn State University, in Mississippi, recently hired a white coach for its football team. A few years ago, Morehouse College, in Atlanta, had a white valedictorian. St. Philip’s College, in Texas, is the only college in the nation that is designated by the federal government as both an HBCU and a Hispanic Serving Institution. Is the landscape changing at many of the nation’s HBCU’s?

Latino enrollment at HBCU’s is increasing, especially in regions of the country where the Latino population is growing rapidly. My guess is that Latino enrollment will continue to grow at HBCU’s just like it is growing at most majority institutions across the country. Latinos are the largest minority in college today, and given the U.S. Census projections, the population will continue to grow at colleges. Some historically black institutions are reaching out to Latino students to increase enrollments that have gone down because of African-Americans’ increased attendance at majority institutions. Other HBCU’s do not have a Latino admissions strategy but are merely enrolling interested Latinos who apply.

White enrollment at HBCU’s has leveled off and has actually dipped in recent years when compared with the 1990s. However, those white students who are attending black colleges are quite vocal about their experiences, talking about the supportive environment they encountered and recommending HBCU’s to other students. For example, I recently interviewed Rob Shorette about his experience at Florida A&M University, and he raved about the influence the institution had on his thought process and how transformative his experience was.

Hiring a white employee at an HBCU is nothing new. As most of us familiar with such colleges know, many of the founders of HBCU’s were white, some of the first students were white, and many faculty members were white. Today black colleges have many white administrators, staff, faculty, and students. Unlike majority institutions, HBCU’s do not have a legacy of exclusion and discrimination. They have always been open to enrolling and hiring whites, and in fact, played a noble role during the 1950s when they were a safe haven for Jewish professors fired from majority institutions because of trumped-up charges of Communism.

The increased diversity at HBCU’s is welcome by many at the colleges. Some presidents are speaking out publicly about increasing diversity. For example, M. Christopher Brown at Alcorn State recently told ESPN that as a public university, Alcorn has an obligation to all citizens of the state. He also noted that that “Alcorn used to be a great black school, now it’s just a great university.”  Some alumni of black colleges applaud Brown, noting that the nation is changing and as such HBCU’s need to actively embrace diversity. Others are nervous about Brown’s comments, worrying that actively moving away from the label of HBCU will take the blackness away from the colleges.

Some HBCU advocates think that if these historic institutions become less black in terms of their student body, the institutions will lose sight of their mission. These advocates are worried because historically black colleges play an important role in the lives of African-Americans, especially in terms of the willingness of many of the colleges to enroll low-income, often underprepared students, and their track record for sending blacks on to graduate education. Other advocates think that adding diversity only strengthens the institutions; HBCU’s can maintain their histories and traditions just as majority institutions that diversify do. One alumnus I talked with vehemently stated, “You can increase diversity and still have educating black students as your primary mission.” Still others think that it is advantageous for HBCU’s to enroll whites, Latinos, and Asians because it exposes these students to black culture and provides opportunities for learning and mutual respect.

The question that I’m left with is this: How can historically black colleges embrace diversity fully while also adhering to their institutional mission of educating, empowering, and uplifting African-American students? I no longer think that HBCU’s have a choice as to whether or not they should actively reach out to students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. The numbers are clear. African-Americans have options, and most are choosing to attend majority institutions. If HBCU’s are to survive and thrive in the 21st century, they must fully embrace others.

There are many benefits to the growing diversity at HBCU’s. First, diversity of all kinds makes an institution stronger. Second, based on the experiences of nonblack students that have attended black colleges, more and more students will have an appreciation for and knowledge of black culture—a benefit to everyone in our nation and our youth. And lastly, alumni from diverse cultures will give back and share their resources with HBCU’s, making them stronger over all.

Given the changing situation, how can historically black colleges pass on their legacy and maintain their cultural traditions and mission? How can they continue to be “historically black?” The answer includes educating all students on African-American history and the history and contributions of HBCU’s; maintaining longtime traditions on campus and sharing these with newcomers (majority institutions have had to learn to do this too); adding new traditions that are more inclusive to others and encouraging black students to embrace these new traditions (majority institution have also had to learn how to do this); and continuing to employ the best African-American faculty and staff and enroll the best black students.

Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

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