The nation’s leading black social critic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a Howard University product. Shaw University has recently announced a strategic initiative to invest more resources into programs of strength and faculty members who publish research.
The chairman of South Carolina State University’s Board of Trustees recently published an editorial detailing the school’s research output as a sign of the university’s vitality in the development of Orangeburg, SC. Signs are all around us about the importance of HBCUs and what they produce in human and intellectual capital.
Alumni and students may not clearly understand why research and knowledge base development is important, but faculty and executives at HBCUs fully understand what the term “publish or perish” means. Frequently used to describe the pressure facing faculty members to brand themselves as experts in their fields, the term is a motivator for educators to constantly gain ground in the pursuit of tenure and executive appointment.
Historically black colleges and universities are looking out over a new day in increasing interest from students, increasing exposure in media, more balanced perspectives about their missions, and a national mandate to find brain power on campuses large, small, black and white.
But if we don’t respond to the moment with a collective emphasis on research and adding to the national palate for distinguished examination of race, class and social construct in America, then we are missing the best opportunities for funding, for attention, and to end the hate-driven speculation about the demise of HBCU relevance.
History shapes the perspective on HBCUs as hubs for industrial training and development in the context of segregation. Black colleges were the destination of choice for upper class black families who, while barred from predominantly white schools 60 and 70 years ago, still had earned the right for their children to be a part of the assimilation generation; the generation taught to look good, speak well, smile bright, keep quiet and work hard in front of white folks in whatever field of study its graduates would pursue.
That formula yielded an explosion of black talent which would ascend to the highest ranks of military, judiciary, business, athletics, science, education and politics. And because of the success of those graduates, the message of the Civil Rights Movement became that much easier to make before a growing liberal white establishment, which grew more comfortable with increasing productivity and revenue for companies regardless of the color of the employees who made the widgets.
Predominantly white colleges and universities soon followed, and so began the end of the HBCU market share in industrial and cultural training. But what our campuses didn’t change, at least collectively, was the approach to education and work force development. The early HBCU mission of making teachers, preachers and farmers, first introduced in the mid-1800’s, still resounds today – but the industries of choice are now teachers, engineers and social workers.
What mattered more than 150 years ago still matters today, but time, culture and industry need more from the HBCU mission in the way of research.
Every black college campus, regardless of size, accreditation status or geography, produces meaningful research. Wiley College is known for its debate team, but offers a strong criminal justice program anchored by a research institute in the same discipline. Morgan State is known for engineering but fields research centers in business, transportation, public health and urban assessment, along with its S.T.E.M. centers. Dozens of HBCUs have similar centers with similar output.
But are these centers producing research that enhances industrial access and training, or are they producing research which measures the state of humanity and community around them, using industry as a backdrop for assessment? Because it is the research which examines and touches people that makes for industrial experts and international exposure, not the research which aggregates numbers and attitudes.
The most recent report from Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce is on African Americans’ college majors of choice and earning potential. Georgetown has every right to do that report – especially since it is not coming out of our historically black high or moderate research institutions.
How does the Pew Research Center come out with data on Hispanic and African American degree completion before an HBCU? How did Gallup conduct a poll on the satisfaction of HBCU graduates before an actual HBCU did the work? How is the leading research center on HBCUs at an Ivy League school in Pennsylvania and not at an HBCU?
First, because HBCU executives don’t want to fundraise or pay for this kind of research because it doesn’t meet the bottom line in tuition revenue or development. Second, because the people best equipped to run research centers like these don’t want to work at HBCUs, because they’ve heard resources are low, egos coming from boards, presidents and deans are high, and they don’t need the headaches. Third, because tenure and promotion processes are perceived by faculty as driven by politics and nepotism, and thereby not worth the extra time above teaching loads and mentoring students.
When questions like these are asked, our faculty and executives are more inclined to scramble in defense of our deficiencies, instead of acknowledging the thousands of annually missed opportunities in media exposure, funding and brand building. It is true that HBCUs educate those who otherwise may not be educated, that they reverse engineer all that is broken in secondary education, and that they are economic engines and cultural repositories in black communities.
But it is also true that black colleges, like black people, can do more than three, four or five things at once. That’s the way we get by in this country, and the way forward for HBCUs to lead in intellectual and industrial spaces. S.T.E.M. and agricultural research development at HBCUs is growing, but liberal arts and social sciences must follow. That means that those HBCUs with strong programming in theater should’ve been the first out of the gates with research response to #OscarsSoWhite.
That means that HBCU criminal justice programs should be the first out every year with reports on the number of Black and Hispanic police officers sworn in as officers, versus the number of minority-filed claims of police brutality, wrongful arrest or lawsuits against cities or states for the same.
That means that historically black schools of education should be featuring the voices of school children and parents in under-resourced school systems, and pairing these perspectives with state funding formulas and data on the number of executives and teachers entering and exiting schools systems on an annual basis.
That means that HBCU performing arts programs should be doing case studies on the academic performance of primary and secondary students who participate in visual and performing arts versus those students who don’t, and weigh that data against districts which have made cuts in music and other fine arts extracurricular offerings.
HBCUs care about research, and their investment strategy has to show this level of care. If not, our schools are doing little more than modeling an industrial imperative from more than 100 years ago, while the nation continues to advance dialog on black people and black communities without our valuable and necessary expertise.