Howard University alumna and clinical psychologist Kristin Carothers joins our HBCU Voices in STEM Excellence podcast series to discuss her path to a career in psychology, and the value of mental health awareness in black communities.
Archives for September 2016
Glorious dedication is stark contrast to Charlotte uprising and extrajudicial killings.
One hundred years is a long time to fight for anything —but not when something challenges racist stereotypes of what it means to be Black in America. Finally, the glorious three-day dedication festivities of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) — which culminated in its grand opening yesterday — have affirmed the long and hard fight for a federally-mandated museum which celebrates black life, history, and culture.
The dedication was the crowning achievement of a fight begun in the shadow of the Civil War. Black veterans representing the 180,000 members of the United States Colored Troops were denied the opportunity to march in the Grand Review of the Armies, a parade through Washington, D.C. on May 23 and May 24, 1865 celebrating victory over the Confederacy.
Determined to receive the honor that was rightfully theirs during the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the parade in 1915, U.S. Colored Troop veterans formed the Committee of Colored Citizens of the Grand Army of the Republic. In addition to helping to provide housing, food, and logistical aid, the committee used its remaining funds to establish a National Memorial Association.
The fund was set up to create a permanent memorial to the military contributions of Black Americans, and early plans to erect a memorial building evolved into a vision for a National African American Museum.
The campaign to establish the museum received a modern push in the 1970s. But even these efforts had little effect until anti-poverty activist turned congressman the late Rep. Mickey Leland —a Texas Southern University alumnus — and Civil Rights Movement veteran Rep. John Lewis — an alumnus of American Baptist College and Fisk University — led a much more serious legislative push in 1988.
Leland was tragically killed in a plane crash less than a year later. Continuing the fight, Lewis introduced the museum bill during every session of Congress for 15 years. Due in large part to his bipartisan legislative efforts, in 2001, President George W. Bush created an exploratory and development commission for the museum.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture Act established the 19th Smithsonian museum two years later. A site was selected in 2006, its design was approved in 2009, and President Obama helped to break ground on February 22, 2012.
The museum still faced two additional unique challenges: securing funding and building a collection.
Historically, government funds have covered all or most of the building costs for every Smithsonian museum. In the case of this museum, the federal government was only going to cover half of its $540 million price tag.
According to The Washington Post, 74 percent of the individual donors who contributed $1 million or more were African American. Tennessee State University alumna Oprah Winfrey’s $21 million contribution secured her place as the museum’s largest benefactor, and considerable support came from organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as from the wider black community.
Since its congressional authorization, museum officials have painstakingly collected 37,000 items from institutions — including several historically black colleges and universities — and everyday Americans to tell the nation’s story through the lens of Black America.
Excitement in the months leading up to the three-tiered, Yoruban caryatid-inspired museum’s opening was palpable. It still is. Black America, arguably, has not felt this much pride since the elections and inaugurations of President Barack Obama.
President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Will Smith, Stevie Wonder, Usher Raymond, Oprah Winfrey, Debbie Allen, David Oyelowo, Ava DuVernay, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Lupita Nyong’o and Glynn Turman were among those who punctuated the opening’s star-studded celebrity guest list. With ornate gowns and tailored tuxedos that more than do justice to the 1950s and 60s ‘Sunday Best’ of modern Civil Rights Movement protesters, Black Hollywood and the Black intelligentsia smiled smartly into the flashing lights of cameras; their glamour a stark contrast to the plight of rank-and-file Black folk in communities across America.
Visitors to the museum should be more woke than ever to the connections of the museum’s artifacts to the affirmation and movement that is Black Lives Matter. While the funeral program of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sits among the ruins of nonviolence, Nat Turner’s Bible, Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, a banner from the Attica rebellion, and guns owned by the Deacons of Defense endure as testaments of black self-defense.
“In one hand I witness the triumph of collective work and responsibility with the ribbon cutting of the Smithsonian African American History Museum an official federal landmark acknowledging not just the accomplishments of Black people, but this institution is a spiritual witness to our tenacity and creative ability to thrive in the lower circle of Dante’s inferno and still fashion a heaven while experiencing hell,” wrote the Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III, a Morehouse College graduate and senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ.
It is a high, weighted down with the painful reality of a growing number of extrajudicial Black deaths.
Moss continued, “But the duality of being black in America is intensified when death is recorded for public consumption yet justice is banished from the courtroom.”
The juxtaposition of the museum’s opening, and the continued police killings of black men, women, and children — including those in Tulsa and Charlotte in the past week alone — is at the very least, striking. With no justice in sight, Black Americans and their allies should be inspired by the museum to take the kind of action that will finally bring racism to an end.
Visitors to the museum — especially black folk — should be mindful that the objects on display earned their place in the museum — and in history — by virtue of the black people connected to them who disrupted business as usual with their ingenuity, acumen, and with their protest.
This is the harrowing story of blackness in America, of a people’s triumphant journey — a people still heartbreakingly under siege. And it continues.
Maybe he’d be alive today.
Tupac Shakur was murdered 20 years ago today, and his life and death remain among the greatest elements of hip-hop’s first conspiracy theory and case study on cultural martyrdom.
Did Biggie have a hand in it? Is ‘Pac or Biggie or someone else the greatest rapper of all time?
I’ve participated in my fair share of these debates. In doing so, I’ve also often thought about how being a student at an HBCU could have changed the trajectory of his life. I’m mean, what if 2Pac was a student at one of the nation’s more than 100 historically black colleges and universities? How might his music and message have been different?
Perhaps most importantly, would he — and not just his music — still be alive today?
If you were a black kid growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, chances are that you watched A Different World. And if you did, you probably remember the “Homey, Don’t Ya Know Me?” episode featuring Shakur as Piccolo, the Baltimore-based, ex-boyfriend of Lena James, played by his off-screen friend and fellow Baltimore School of Performing Arts graduate Jada Pinkett Smith.
Who could forget Piccolo’s campus visit? His red from top-to-bottom outfit stood out prominently against the colorful backdrop of 90s fashions and now-old school Black Greek-lettered fraternity and sorority apparel. It was clear that Lena’s Baltimore past stood in tension with her HBCU present, and ultimately with her future — some things had indeed changed and would never, ever be the same.
I wonder if the same would have been true for ‘Pac. There were plenty of real life ‘Pics and ‘Pacs at my HBCU. And while they had different, and arguably more difficult issues to unpack, many of them did the transformative work necessary to become good students and greater people.
I had a friend who probably fit this description. His signature gold-tooth stood out in a sea of otherwise pearly whites on campus. He was friendly, charismatic, a basketball team stand-out, and the sharpest of dressers. Fiskites of my generation undoubtedly still remember that time he sported a cream suit and crimson shirt — an ode to his fraternity membership — to the Homecoming boat ride.
I remember the time he helped a mutual friend pack a borrowed lawnmower into the trunk of her two-door 1998 Hyundai Accent so that he could cut my grass. And I remember the pride on his face when he walked across the stage to receive his diploma.
That’s why I wonder about ‘Pac. In addition to being among the greatest rappers of all time, ‘Pac — like the HBCU mission — was deeply committed to expressions of blackness as valid and valuable. He saw the connections between the black past, black present, and black future as inspiring and instructive. His experiences, good, bad, and ugly as a Black man in America, were a muse for his artistic expression.
I wonder about how different both Tupac and HBCUs would be because they were a part of each other’s life and times. Maybe with an alumnus like ‘Pac, HBCUs would have shed a little more of their preoccupation with black respectability. Maybe with the intervention of HBCUs, Tupac would be alive today.
I can’t say for certain. College degrees aren’t ballistic plates in bulletproof vests protecting their holders from violence, bullets, or death. Sadly, August 4 marked twelve years since losing my grass-cutting, Black fraternity membership-having, HBCU degree-holding, Pac-like friend to them. I still miss him — and ‘Pac too.
Here are some welcomed additions to depictions of Black manhood.
Allen Iverson, a former professional point and shooting guard with a career that hailed him as one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history, isn’t known for being big on practice. But it is clear that he painstakingly prepared the speech for his enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
His heartfelt remarks were a deluge of appreciation. It included family members, childhood and lifetime friends as well as dedicated coaches and the little-known player who taught him his now-signature crossover. It had nods to hip hop legends, daps to his legions of fans, and even sincere acknowledgements to the roles of fake, former friends, as well as to the media whose criticism of him was often less about the game and more about the respectability games he refused to play.
As I watched, I could hardly hold back the tears that flowed — neither, it seemed, could he, especially when thanking his ex-wife and mother of their five kids.
Dressed in all black, with four strategically placed cornrows, replete with neck tattoos on partial view and hand tattoos we glimpsed when he occasionally raised one of them to temporarily rest on his chin, A.I. offered a powerful portrait of Black manhood. And it was a beautiful sight to see. His display of emotion stood in stark contrast to what we expect and praise in Black men and boys away from the cloak of competitive sports.
But when Iverson declared that his baby girl likes to sleep in his bed rather than in her own room, the most progressive audience members and television viewers were probably made uncomfortable — even if only for a split second. It is attributable to the toxic masculinity, which is so common in our experience that sexualizes all touch and affection, including between fathers and their children.
Characterized at best as “weird,” and at worse as a trope in an imagined attack on heteronormativity, toxic masculinity was similarly on full-view in the internet’s vicious responses to Eric Owens’ image of he and son resting side-by-side.
“I’m so troubled by our trouble with it,” writes Dr. Tamura Lomax, co-founder of The Feminist Wire. “That intra-black male intimacy makes us afraid. That a father and son bond suggests gayness. That we problematize our gay kin. That we sexualize birth ties. That we fear touch. That we refuse to believe Black boys need nurture. That we can’t see Black fathers providing it. That we applaud father-son beat down videos for being indicative of real love while laying under your dad’s arm is perverse.”
Similarly, folk will probably question the motivations behind Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall’s support for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the National Anthem.
First, we call on athletes to use their public platforms to fight for causes that affect Black life off the court, out of the ring, and away from the gridiron — and that is exactly what Kaepernick is doing. Second, Marshall, who was Kaepernick’s teammate at the University of Nevada and is his Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity brother, should be commended for “stanning” for his brother’s just protest.
This is not practice. This is the real world where real issues need real redress. This is the world where just Monday, 22-year-old college student Tiarah Poyau was shot to death in Brooklyn for rebuffing the advances of a black male stranger.
That is why the imagery of non-sexualized care, of non-sexualized gratitude, of non-sexualized touch, and of non-sexualized support, matters. It is what black manhood, black fatherhood, and black brotherhood should look like.
And this is what historically black college and universities must continue to promote in the making of their men.
Iverson, Owens, Kaepernick, and Marshall — and yes, Poyau too — are not unlike our students. Versions of them are promising students at HBCUs, brimming with intelligence, productivity, leadership, and excellence. They are surrounded on all sides by some of the smartest Black men and women in the world, who dedicate themselves to building a better world for Black men, women, and children.
Like other institutions at the nexus of Black culture, our campuses struggle with mixed ideas about respectability and sexuality within the subject of manhood, sometimes deferring to simple, polar expressions of masculinity through displays of athletic prowess or social consciousness. But even with its flaws and shortcomings, black colleges remain an ideal place where Black men can learn to be black men — intellectual, sexual, professional, spiritual, physical creatures who deserve to live without illegitimate criticisms to their manhood.
And the hope is that their time on HBCU campuses yields a more well-rounded version of men who internalize what Black America needs most of them; the learned joy of embracing the struggle of a people, and the genetic fortitude to reverse its damaging effects.
We need HBCUs, because they are capable of building Black men who freely say thank you, who cry, who hold and kiss their kids, who protest, and who “stan” and take a knee for the just protest of their brothers.
We need HBCUs because we need more real MVPs.
What Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling, Beyoncé’s Formation, and the Black National Anthem have in common.
For more than 100 years, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” has been a part of the black college experience. Every historically black college and university graduate has heard it— at football games, at convocations, and at commencement. Most of us have sung it. Some of us still know it — if only its first stanza.
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Heralded as the “Negro National Anthem,” the song towered over the Black experience in the United States for much of the twentieth century but was initially written as a poem in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson, a 1894 graduate of Atlanta University — now Clark Atlanta University.
Then a grammar school principal, Johnson, who later emerged as an American diplomat, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader, and prominent voice in the Harlem Renaissance, had his younger brother John Rosamond Johnson, a composer who taught music at Florida Baptist Academy, set his words to music.
The song was first sung by a choir of 500 that included students from the Florida Baptist Academy — now Florida Memorial University — on February 12, 1900 at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, held at the segregated Stanton School where the elder Johnson was principal.
As the sons of the Bahamian native Helen Louise Dillet Johnson, who was the first black female teacher in a grammar school in the state of Florida, the Johnson brothers were well-acquainted with black achievement in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. But, the brothers also knew all too well, the bitterness of the racism so pervasive to the American experience at the turn of the twentieth century.
As Jacksonville natives, they were undoubtedly familiar with the story of how the promise of Florida Baptist Institute in Live Oak, Florida was nearly cut down in its prime when “unknown persons” fired shots into one of the school’s buildings in 1892, leading to the founding of the Florida Baptist Academy more than 70 miles away in the basement of Jacksonville’s Bethel Baptist Church.
It is difficult, if not impossible to ignore how this story, and the other compelling narratives of higher educational centers founded for the purpose of educating marginalized black people weave together to represent the history of America’s historically black colleges and universities. Their foundings represented courageous efforts to affirm black academic potential and respectability, to secure black personal and collective advancement, and to assert black lives always have, and always will matter, even in the face of clear, present, and very real dangers.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers died
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
The song’s singular place as an expression of black freedoms and un-freedoms, of black hope and disenchantment, and of black struggles and black strivings was followed by the publishing of W.E.B. Du Bois’ classic The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.
A 1888 Fisk University graduate, W.E.B. Du Bois used the book’s first chapter to make the case for the right to vote, the right to a good education, and right to be treated with equality and justice as the predominant needs of Blacks of the South. In doing so, he coined “double consciousness” as a reference to Black identity amid the damning psycho-social divisions of white supremacy and racism in American society.
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
– W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk
It is this “two-ness” that, has for more than 100 years, kept “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” as an integral part of black college history. In an age in which we have moved from hashtagging #BlackLivesMatter to hashtagging the names of those whose black lives didn’t seem to matter — after encounters with the police left them dead on city streets, on corner stoops, in subways, in Wal-Mart stores, and even in their own homes — HBCUs help to keep the song in its seminal place in black culture.
Its singing persists as a symbolic ‘taking a knee’ to the inequity and injustice still so ever-present in American life. Like the knee quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick now takes during the singing of the National Anthem, it is a protest whose militancy is not in violent weaponry, but in nonviolent wokeness.
Its spirit persists in unexpected places and ways including in the Shaderoom.com, clap-back quality of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s “Formation,” replete with its unrepentant profanity and sex-positive messaging that led to a spike in sales at Red Lobster.
Armstrong State University African American literature professor Regina N. Bradley described Knowles-Carter’s Super Bowl performance as that of an “HBCU dance line diva” and compared her evolution to that of Howard University alumna and Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. The description is arguably fitting for the daughter of Matthew Knowles who is of HBCU lineage by way of her father’s 1974 graduation from Fisk University.
The protest of each of these seemingly disparate acts is clear. So too is the place of black colleges in the long and on-going black struggle. HBCUs took on the lion’s share of guiding the freedmen from slavery to freedom. HBCUs provided intellectual homes both real and imagined for displaced Harlem Renaissance personalities like the Johnson brothers and Hurston who taught at these institutions. HBCUs educated the nation’s returning black veterans on the G.I. Bill, and HBCUs provided their students as foot soldiers for the nonviolent revolution known as the modern Civil Rights Movement.
HBCUs have long been touted for their ability to dance the fine line of black self-determination and white philanthropic funding, of nurturing nonviolent insurgency while discouraging violent insurrection, of producing accomplished and respected graduates who, to borrow from Shirley Chisholm, seem “unbossed and unbothered” by what 1953 Howard University alumna and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has dubbed “white gaze.”
These are qualities that have not been without damaging consequences, but they have served us well. So, I hope that we always hold on to the words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in our traditions in spite of whatever opposition to it rises up. I pray we forever carry its words with us — and that on our minds, in our hearts, and from our lips will ring out:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forgot Thee,
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.
At what point do we say we’ve had our fill of racism and racist behavior, and we decide to move on? Institutionally, it doesn’t seem like we’ve yet arrived at that point, but it feels like we should’ve been there and gone several years ago.
Fans from SSU and GSU corroborate that some knuckleheads on the GSU side instigated and carried on with racial slurs against one or some of our women. Is this going to be enough, or do we keep trading in financial reward for cultural risk when it comes to our HBCU brand, and historically black dignity?
We still play guaranteed games in football and basketball which propagate varying ideas of socio-economic inferiority with every blowout. But instead of re-engineering our approach to collegiate athletics, we essentially tell each other, “do the same thing you’ve been doing for the last 30 years, just try harder at it.”
Racist treatment for fans and anti-HBCU and anti-LGBT legislation wasn’t enough for the CIAA to leave Charlotte, and not enough for black and LGBT fans to demand it.
Predominantly white institutions around the country, shoved under a searing spotlight just a year ago by protesting black students who showed the nation the meaning of ‘micro-aggressions,’ and ‘safe space,’ still attract the largest share of black enrollment, even with many HBCUs breaking enrollment records.
We did more to respond to Wendy Williams clueless rants about HBCUs, and VH1’s airing of ‘Sorority Sisters’ then we have done to preserve our own campuses. We have been infinitely more concerned with how HBCUs are viewed on reality television, then with the financial solvency of our athletic and institutional capacity.
We’ve raised more money for Paine College in the last year than at any point in the school’s history, but only after its accreditation was taken.
When lawmakers in North Carolina proposed to reduce tuition at three HBCUs to $500, we protested enough so now only one HBCU remains on the verge of disaster instead of three. That one school — Elizabeth City State University — yesterday announced that a new executive team installed by the UNC System Board of Governors would be running its daily operations, completing its full takeover of the school likely to be merged in the next three years.
ECSU is one of several historically black institutions, including Albany State University, Alcorn State University, Fort Valley State University, Grambling State University and South Carolina State University to have a president appointed by predominantly white higher education boards without the customary courtesy of a national search or campus listening sessions.
Florida A&M University, with all of the attention and acrimony surrounding the fight between its president and board of trustees, will covertly be the next to make the list, thanks to new rules passed by the Florida Board of Governors earlier this year.
Maybe we keep waiting for Soledad O’Brien or Roland Martin to bring it up. Or maybe its going to require an actual merger, or the Department of Education closing an HBCU due to financial insolvency. But something has to give for our people to become more astute beyond reacting to the absolute worst of circumstance — a body in the street and slain on camera, an unjust verdict, a bill on the edge of passing or the closure of a black campus.
There are many systems at work to stymie our progress, and every one of them is built upon and powered by the notion that we don’t pay attention until its too late. And it shouldn’t take an inflammatory headline in the HBCU Digest, or a Facebook rant to get us to a better place of concern and mobilization.
At some point, we have to act like we’re as smart and worthy of equity as we say we are. And we have to do it in all cases, not just the ones involving Wendy Williams or Mona Scott-Young.
Snap was lit at Towson University over the weekend.
It's official. Towson is an HBCU. Fuck with us. Never sleep on us. S/o to CSA https://t.co/n9QyAmrwTI
And understandably, we started debating it.
Turning up doesn't make a school an HBCU . ALL colleges turn up . Mfs not in college turn up . It's bigger than that https://t.co/dnlnAzQTXQ
Towson calling themselves a HBCU isn't a big deal...the big deal is falling upon racial stereotypes to talk down on our education.
HBCU vs PWI argument is the straight definition of "the white mans ice is colder" mindset.
Yes, we would have loved for them to join us on our campuses. No, we don’t appreciate the public notion that the only thing HBCUs are good for is parties.
But there’s no difference in our brothers and sisters giving a nod to black schools in the same way that black men having intelligent, sacred conversation is described as ‘barbershop talk.’ There’s no shade in describing black folks dressed sharply as being in our ‘Sunday best.’ There’s no crime in describing good food served at a black-owned soul food restaurant as ‘like mama used to make.’
Does referring to ‘barbershop talk’ disrespect the shop as a stable black business, providing a good service and jobs to its community? Is calling someone ‘Sunday sharp’ disrespectful to religion, or the value of the black church? Is comparing food to your mother’s cooking disrespectful of the lessons she taught, or the home in which she reared you in?
The answer to all of the above is no, but we get sensitive about it with PWIs and HBCUs is because in the other examples, we aren’t checking for white appropriation, black assimilation, institutional discrimination, or cultural segregation in those spaces. We are all too happy to be separate and more than equal, because in our minds and in those moments, they are glimpses of what freedom looks and feels like.
Never do we stop to think that any and everything we enjoy as a people, is a direct result and response to separatist policy. All of the things we fiercely label and protect as ‘black,’ are because at one point, we had no other choice. And now that American culture has evolved into a small percentage of black folks cherishing these allowed spaces, we don’t want anyone, especially our own people, using them in derogatory ways against us.
But we can’t have it both ways, fam. We criticize and accuse black folks at large of assimilation and ‘selling out’ for choosing a predominantly white school over an historically black school, based upon a few personal anecdotes and the collection of idiots on Twitter who spark ‘white schools > black schools” debates.
But to criticize our people for referring to the little bit of safe and enjoyable space at those white schools as HBCUs? It doesn’t seem to match up with the rest of our cultural approach. We don’t do that to black people who live in predominantly white neighborhoods, who work in predominantly white companies, or who put their money in white owned banks — phenomena which are now generational, in large part, because HBCUs created the black middle class.
We may not like or understand that choice, but we don’t get to control how they label their freedoms in the context of that choice. And if they choose to label their black student union, or their black homecoming, or their black poetry slam, or their black college weekend bus trip as HBCU culture, why would we want to take that away?
Those same things are real elements of HBCU culture. And for as much of black culture that has been pilfered by white appropriation, we now want to draw the line on our own people intermingling with the limited space that, while they did choose it, doesn’t mean their choice was made to cherry pick elements of blackness from college life.
Here’s what cherry picking blackness really looks like.
What if HBCU students and alumni didn’t look at black PWI students as sellouts? What if we spent more time helping to make their situations better? Or if they couldn’t be improved, helping them to find those places more conducive to safe and productive learning?
And what if black PWI students did the same for us, instead of looking at HBCUs as second-class institutions inferior in outcomes and professional access, and worked to make sure they were more equitable with PWI counterparts?
All of us, no matter what schools we attend, are looking for the HBCU experience. We all go to college seeking to live and learn with like-minded people from similar backgrounds, hoping that we’ll also find some other black folks with whom we can broaden our perspectives.
For black students at predominantly white schools, fewer black students and fewer opportunities for free cultural expression are traded for more resources and a perceived “value add” to their degree. Black students at HBCUs trade the resources and academic branding for better college cultural experiences and a sense of black community.
And both of these trades work fine, until they don’t. But we can no longer afford to argue about it amongst ourselves, or in public space. Because while we’re arguing about the merits of HBCUs vs PWIs, the margins of opportunity are closing in around all of us while we really aren’t paying attention.
And that’s not good for black America at large.
The most valuable lesson any college president can learn is that the board of trustees, even when dead wrong, is always right.
This is hard for new presidents to accept, especially when they figure out that the checklist that graduate school never taught them about, the one mentors tried to warn them about, exists.
- How many jobs are being requested of them for family and friends
- How many legislative moles are sitting among them
- How many contracts board members are trying to secure for family and friends
- How many feelings have been hurt because one or some of these requests weren’t honored
- How many votes for termination are in the room
It is not every trustee; when you think about it, there have only been a handful of HBCU boards embroiled in controversy over the last five years, mostly for lingering issues with politics and personnel.
- Alabama State University
- Florida A&M University
- Grambling State University
- Morgan State University
- South Carolina State University
These extreme cases earned national attention and were tied together with a common thread; increased college choices for students, new eligibility standards to get federal student loans, and cuts from federal and state funding that forced campuses to fall into further disrepair with limited personnel, technology and services to meet student need.
Those vulnerabilities increased the media scrutiny of university spending and management, introducing names like Joseph Silver, John Knight, Robert Bentley, Thomas Elzey, Nikki Haley, Rufus Montgomery, Rick Scott, David Wilson, Martin O’Malley, Dan Reneau and Bobby Jindal, to a nation of HBCU advocates and observers.
These are the key figures on the tragic tale of how boards became washed over by political interests, leaving behind them a trail of imperfections; punctuated by blatant displays of self-interest, contempt for presidential perspective, and increased loyalty to legislative and corporate overseers.
But is a culture of executive corruption and incompetence that shocking? Considering how boards are constructed, should nepotism and ego really surprise us?
How Boards Become Crooked
Appointment or election to a university board is seen as a status upgrade, a reward for excellence in the private sector, which in theory, should lead to economic and social clout for an institution. For most public colleges, board members are appointed by a governor. For private schools, members are elected by the body of membership.
For many, the notion of being chosen by the highest elected official in a state, or by a body of rich, influential people, is the beginning of the tainting process.
The insulation of selectivity breeds the board to become an elite social club, providing access to institutional contracts, free meals and event tickets, chances to be seen in the local newspaper, social promotion for a business or political aspirations, or hook-ups for friends and family members.
And that will never change, because just as trustees learn how to test the limits of membership privilege, those who appoint or protect them are usually making the calls to cash in on their voting power and operational influence.
The Signs of Board Crookedness
The signs of political influence on a board can be subtle, until they aren’t. Students and alumni can’t see that when a board votes for new construction, or to increase student admission standards, or to approve budget for new administrative positions, that some members are using those votes to flip service contracts for associates, anti-HBCU agenda-setting for a governor, or to help an undeserving president earn a few more years on campus to help with shadow governance on campus.
But the crookedness is there in plain sight. Unaffordable building loans turn into accreditation warnings and probation for financial insolvency. Misguided enrollment management turns into schools losing thousands of students and millions in revenue over years, or glaring lapses in campus improvement.
Willie Larkin is hired and forced to resign at Grambling State University president as its third president in as many years, following a tenure which didn’t last a year. Less than 24 hours after his resignation, Grambling alumnus Rick Gallot is floated as Larkin’s potential replacement, and hired weeks later by the University of Louisiana board as the school’s permanent selection.
Florida A&M is moving to place president Elmira Mangum on administrative leave, willing to pay her more than $380,000 a year for the next two years with a 12-month paid sabbatical included. The board is also willing to pay her moving expenses and some of her legal costs. She’ll be leaving partially because of some missteps in hiring and political navigation in the first year of her presidency, and mostly because she is disliked and has survived attempts to fire her, thanks to her achievements in fundraising and state-required institutional performance metrics.
Days after a body was discovered decomposing in an academic building, Morgan State University was ordered by a Baltimore City circuit court to pay a former student more than $900,000 in damages stemming from a 2012 shooting, the second during the fall semester that year and one of several on-campus incidents of gun violence, stabbing, or other attacks taking place on and around campus over the last six years. The violence, which continued in February with the fatal stabbing of a student at an off-campus apartment near the school and an alleged suicide in the same facility in July, serves as a backdrop to a university with board dysfunction, efforts from MSU President David Wilson to subvert a federal lawsuit between Morgan and other black colleges against the state of Maryland for maintaining an illegal ‘separate but equal’ system of higher education, and his improper and excessive use of the university’s foundation funds.
And then there was this at South Carolina State, the day former board member James Clark, whom had served at SCSU for a year, was named president without a formal search.
Wilson will stay, Mangum will leave, and both Clark and Gallot have the support of all key stakeholders throughout their respective states — this is the inevitable cycle of HBCU board leadership, which doesn’t have the money to cover its corruption, or concern to value discretion in its dealings.
The Path to Progress
These are just the most extreme examples, and the sad reality for tomorrow is that there will be no changes with these boards. They will continue to think and act like elected officials, free of the burden of campaigning or making promises they would actually have to keep to ensure future appointment. They are scripted, insulated and clear about to whom they must answer, and they are entirely clear that it is not students, alumni, or taxpayers — it is those whom can benefit most from their influence, those to whom they may be married, related by blood, or connected by political leverage, real or perceived.
The only way to beat them? Give up. Concede that board leadership means there will be no fair bidding for certain contracts. Understand that key appointments in certain faculty and staff positions will continue to be filled on credentials of relationship, not skill or fit.
Release the idea that we can change the culture, if we complain or protest enough against it. Because no matter how many boardrooms we crowd, no matter how much we say we aren’t going to give money until things change, and how clear it is that HBCU culture is dying because of board politics, we have no power to change it.
We do not vote them in, we do not sit in the closed sessions where the lion’s share of their destructive work is done, and we never catch them in the act until the damage is done. And more than that, we believe silence to be a fair exchange for the notion of us, black people, bringing down other black people in the name of institutions we love.
So the work of saving HBCUs must begin by working around the innate corruption and egotism of boards. We must ask our presidents and chancellors to be all-in with building relationships with board members, first by asking them what most benefits them, and then constructing institutional vision around those favors and personal agendas.
Boards can’t be defeated on debates about policy — they make and enforce the same, often to protect their own interests. The traditional way of asking presidents to lead and boards to support, doesn’t work. It cannot stand under the weight of politics, pride and posturing.
To beat corrupt boards, the unfortunate and only solution is to buy into corruption as an institutional reality, much like the rising costs of college or the funding disparities between black and white institutions.
That’s part of the benefit of being on a board. Even when dead wrong, members will always be right until they aren’t. And when they aren’t, it is usually too late to do anything about it.
What does an increase in enrollment mean exactly? For some, it means increased interest in a campus or its degree offerings.
But for black colleges, a boost in students could make the difference in a stabilized or downgrade in bond rating, the fine line between hiring or laying off staff, the slim margin between operating on revenue instead of a line of credit, or having full accreditation status versus warning or probation for financial struggles.
The list of HBCUs reporting enrollment increases in first-year or overall student enrollment increases includes:
Alcorn State University
Alcorn reports a six percent increase in its total enrollment from 2015, and officials cite investments in new scholarship programs as a key element of the student gains.
“The commitment of our dedicated faculty, staff and alumni to our vision of increasing access, affordability and student success has forged our enrollment success,” President Alfred Rankins Jr. said. “Aligning our tuition pricing and scholarship offerings with our institutional priorities, increasing our admissions and recruitment staff, enhancing customer service, strengthening our marketing and branding strategies, and support from our faithful alumni have all contributed to our growth.
Bethune-Cookman University welcomed 1,224 freshmen to campus this fall, a 23% increase and part of an 10.11% overall enrollment jump from the 2015–16 academic year.
“It is essential that we make sure that our students feel our culture of care and genuine desire for them to all succeed. B-CU is a place that these students can truly make their mark,” says President Edison Jackson. President Jackson is also proud to announce that more than 3,000 students now live on campus. Last year, the university could only accommodate 1,800. The completion of two state-of-the-art residence life centers has welcomed an additional 1,200.
Central State University
CSU welcomed 634 new first-time students this fall, a 22 percent increase from 2015. The enrollment jump coincides with the university’s new initiative to reduce out-of-state surcharges for students from neighboring states by 76 percent.
Dr. Stephanie Krah, CSU’s Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, said, “Our recruitment efforts increased the University’s visibility and once they heard about our academic programs, opportunities for growth and value, their interest increased.”
Florida Memorial University
FMU broke a six-year high for student enrollment this fall, with 498 students breaking 2015’s freshman class tally by more than 100 students.
University President Roslyn Artis credits FMU’s summer orientation program that allowed parents and students to work on testing, advising and fiscal clearance as part of the reason for the enrollment in- crease. “For the first time this year we started orientation as early as June to allow parents and students an opportunity to get organized, get cleared and get ahead,” Artis stated. “I commend the outstanding efforts of our Student Affairs team for their diligence in recruitment and professional, high quality customer service that they extended to all of our families and students.”
Harris-Stowe State University
The Hornets welcomed their largest freshman class in school history, with more than 600 students contributing to a two-year, 50 percent total increase in enrollment.
Indeed, students are coming to St. Louis to attend Harris-Stowe from 37 states and 10 countries, including China, Brazil, India, Scotland and Nigeria. This emphasis on out-state recruitment has filled the University’s two residential halls, which are at capacity for the first time. The first facility, the Rev. Dr. William G. Gillespie Residence Hall and Student Center, opened in 2006 and the Freeman R. Bosley Residence Hall opened in 2011.
North Carolina Central University
The NCCU Campus Echo reports on the school’s increase in students, with focus on the school following a national trend of more women enrolling in college than men.
Last year, 742 female students made up 66% of the class, and male students, at 383, made up 34%. This year, the gap increased by 2%, with 752 women and 357 men in the class of 2020.
Shaw increased it freshman class to more than 600 students, the largest in six years and part of a reversal of five consecutive years of declining enrollment.
(Shaw President Tashni) Dubroy credits the shattered records to the university’s enrollment management team, which funneled an unprecedented 9,000 applications. She also notes an intentional effort to use technology to drive the recruitment process. Not only were students able to apply online, but the “robust online portal” also made it possible for transcripts to be electronically uploaded and opened lines of communication between Shaw and high school guidance counselors across the globe, she said.
South Carolina State University
Enrollment at the state’s historically black flagship institution is up 40 percent, and has created a need for additional housing on and off campus.
The increased number of new students enabled S.C. State to exceed its projected enrollment goal of 2,900 with a total of 2,963 students for the fall semester.
However, the number of returning students was down over last year’s total, Clark said. That decrease was due to the school’s new stricter policy that limits how much money students can owe and still return to class.
Virginia State University
Trojan Land welcomes nearly 1,000 freshman to campus this fall, a 30 percent increase from last year’s class.
“We are excited to welcome our newest members to the Trojan family,” said VSU President Dr. Makola M. Abdullah. “It’s a new year and a new season for Virginia State University. I am confident that our faculty and staff will assist the Class of 2020 and the rest of the Trojan student body succeed and transform their academic experience beyond their dreams and aspirations. We pride ourselves as a university whose role is to provide a transformative experience for our students and embrace our role as Virginia’s opportunity university.”