The first thing to recognize about the alleged crisis at Hampton University is that the complaints, the viral videos, the rumors, and the bad press are outliers for the campus. While it is not immune to trouble or correction for issues impacting one or some students, Hampton is not a place with chronic issues that rise to the level of national coverage in outlets like The Root or Essence Magazine.
So even if you correct the exaggerated view of Michael Harriot’s hit job on Hampton U as an HBCU under siege of administrative neglect, you’re only halfway home on the real story about the new culture emerging at HBCUs. First, students are asking for improvements on campus in food service, facilities management, and public safety is not a mutiny; it’s students seeking improvements.
Is it a mutiny because they are black, or because it’s an HBCU? Hard to tell, but relatively easy to debunk.
Second, Harriot writes that Hampton’s Title IX compliance office must be jeopardizing students’ safety on campus because the coordinator is Hampton President William Harvey’s daughter; and their relationship must be a conflict which could lead to cases going unreported to police, Virginia’s higher education oversight agency, or the US Department of Education.
Regardless of who is running the office, suppressing reported rapes and gender discrimination would put Hampton in position for state and federal sanctions, to include being barred from receiving federal student aid, losing accreditation, and not to mention media scrutiny that would cause severe damage to Hampton’s brand.
So we’re supposed to believe that the tradeoff for Dr. Harvey keeping his daughter in a job is for rapes to be covered up and tuition revenue lost if accused students and victims withdraw from school; money and accreditation to be lost in fines and lawsuits, and the school to face national scandal?
Harriot should know better as a seasoned journalist; especially given his familiarity with similar issues in his extensive coverage of Morehouse College’s executive turmoil just a year ago.
And finally, there’s a narrative spurred by Harriot that students have rejected proposals from the university to fix several of the issues. The truth is that the school has been working with students for years to resolve occasional issues with campus safety, food service and discontent with administrators. It’s part of the reason why this round of dissatisfaction with HU is such an anomaly, where at other elite HBCUs like Howard University or large state HBCUs like Southern University, you can set your watch to students publicly complaining about similar challenges in similar ways.
But Harriot’s mashup of the facts isn’t the primary issue of what’s going on at Hampton; it is the gateway to the entire community recognizing that times, and people, are changing at HBCUs. If students at Hampton, who firmly believe in HU’s mantra of ‘the Standard of Excellence’ are fed up with response times and tone, then what is to come for smaller, less selective and poorer schools without the campus culture or the resources of Hampton University is going to be downright frightening.
Hampton’s culture is one where students will march silently and sit in on university grounds to make their voices heard. They have executed that right masterfully, and deserve tremendous credit for airing grievances without embarrassing or damaging the institution. But what about smaller schools with new presidents, or smaller bank accounts to address issues from deferred maintenance to food service to student life?
Hampton can go down that list, work with its student government association and have the majority of its students satisfied in a week. Can Saint Augustine’s University, Fort Valley State University, South Carolina State University do the same?
Probably not. And there are dozens of HBCUs in the same position.
All of our campuses have outdated facilities. All of our campuses wrestle with food service providers who will give our students half of the service they provide to predominantly white colleges or businesses. And all of our campuses are working to ensure that students understand and embrace the idea of sexual assault and the havoc it wreaks on victims, their families, and their schools.
The failing of some students at some campuses is that they aren’t aware of the culture they break down when going to the media when they feel unheard. The failing of some administrators is the people who they employ who do not make students feel heard, and then attack them for the way and the timing with which they speak out.
Everybody needs to do some growing. All of us need to appreciate that the slightest public misstep can cost an institution its existence; from an accreditation inquiry to dozens of students transferring or dropping out in a single year; all of our campuses are but a crisis away from destruction at all times.
The lesson in this story is not that Hampton students are mad or that administration is coming up short on its commitment to serving them; the opposite is true on both ends. Classy students who don’t typically go public with their concerns are getting to that point, and Hampton executives are responding. The same thing has happened at Spelman College and Howard in recent years, and the response has been the same from their top-notch administrative teams.
Every HBCU campus doesn’t have that infrastructure, but all of them will face the same kind of wrath sooner instead of later. All HBCU students expect quality service, instant response, immediate gratification and rewarding social experiences on these campuses. And those leaders who don’t deliver, or who think that students are whinier or more spoiled than they used to be, will pay with negative attention and falling enrollment numbers.
Regardless of what me, Michael Harriot or anyone else thinks about Hampton, its truth is that the campus is one of the standard bearers of the entirety of HBCU culture. And if it is not above the demands of millennial students and a millennial-driven world, then none of our campuses are above it.
But how many of our campuses are equipped to survive it?