Racial Infighting at Kentucky State, Lincoln Threaten HBCU Culture

Kentucky State University’s faculty is divided on its confidence in the school’s board of trustees and its board chairman. Executive drama is not foreign to college campuses, and specifically HBCUs; but it is not everyday that a black college finds itself embroiled in controversy because of race-based tension.

The school now has a caucus of black faculty members, who maintain that their interests as the racial minority among the academic ranks is being overshadowed by the majority-white faculty senate. They say that a recent no-confidence vote in the board and its chair is split along racial lines, and illustrates massive division which threatens the potential of its present and future prestige.

In a state which will embrace any reason to dissolve leadership and capacity in the name of austerity, it is a storyline which threatens the culture at large. Not just because Kentucky’s view on higher education is in flux, but because this is a similar story playing out at campuses across the country.

Lincoln University of Missouri faculty is recovering from a similar dispute with academic construct as a backdrop. The headlines depict issues with administration, tied mostly to academic programs being canceled and reinstated. But like Kentucky State, the real story lies in the growing division between diverse sets of faculty, administrators and the impact these differences have on curriculum, student advancement and ideas of shared governance.

All faculty members have ideas about how the academic enterprise should foster strong systems of tenure and promotion, research, and professional development for undergraduates. But the resource problem at HBCUs appears to be so profound and so bleak, that it is now translating into racial distrust and blame.

Black students, faculty and executives are questioning if white faculty grade students too harshly or want them to learn subjects which do not culturally enrich their lives and identity. White faculty question if shared governance is a reality for resource-challenged schools within an unprecedented climate of executive turnover.

Both sets of fears are legitimate, but only one fits the common HBCU narrative and that stokes the division of schools like Kentucky State, Lincoln and other schools with uncommon racial composition. It is not very different from the hundreds of racial rebellion episodes we saw at predominantly white schools just a few years ago, when black students grew tired of being marginalized by fellow students and faculty, and grew impatient with the lack of representation among teaching and operational leadership.

But black students at Ivy League and larges public white institutions had a distinct advantage in their appeals for equity. They opposed long-standing attitudes against black and minority students which damaged their right to feel welcomed as students on campus. They never made a case that they received inferior teaching, inferior equipment or disparate access to resources. They never suggested they were taught differently or deprived of opportunities outside of social comfort as a result of their race.

At HBCUs, no one has the right kind of resources. No one has a big enough budget, enough technology or enough support to truly capture and deliver the essence of the HBCU mission. But instead of campuses holding communities accountable for not sending their children, instead of holding the state accountable for drastic budget cuts and historic underfunding, we take the easier route and start saying “things would be easier if there weren’t so many white people on campus,” or by saying “things would be so much smoother if these black folks would keep this class, hire this president, or appoint this board member.”

Black students and faculty ask for attitude adjustments at white schools that no amount of money can buy, and white faculty ask for curriculum, leadership and infrastructure leverage at black schools which will never be able to afford it.

Higher education is nothing without its traditions, even to its detriment. And every campus is shaped by the cultures, rituals and values that are shaped as much by race as they are by the concepts of workforce development and human improvement. But HBCUs are different in that our disagreements, our breakdowns and our challenges, all contribute to harmful ideas of irrelevance and why we should look towards PWIs for our educational salvation.

Too many of our institutions do not have the numbers in enrollment, endowment or industrial impact to project a sound future, beyond the noble idea of access and opportunity for marginalized communities. Kentucky State and Lincoln are drawing attention away from the real issues of how diminished enrollment and public funding allows bad practices in human resources, research and governance to publicly flourish. And when they do surface for the public to see, they become fodder for dangerous interpretations on the value and direction of these campuses, all without any conversation on the real issues at hand.

Everything has always been about race in this country, and it always will be. But it’s time for campuses to understand that diversity in the HBCU context is an asset, not a challenge to be overcome through tests of wills. Black and white faculty better quickly realize that the more they fight and divide, the more they wade into political sesspools based upon empty promises and false ideas of progress, they stronger they push our schools towards the brink of merger or closure at the hands of rich, white guys with no attachment to black colleges.

And that’s not something from which economies can easily recover, or of which history will favorably judge.

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