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Historically Black Colleges: Anecdote Doesn’t Equal Evidence

aanb.jpgAfter a decade of work, on February 4th Oxford University Press and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute will publish the African American National Biography(AANB). The AANB is the largest repository of black life stories ever assembled with more than 4,000 biographies. To celebrate this monumental achievement we have invited the contributors to this 8 volume set to share some of their knowledge with the OUPBlog. Over the next couple of months we will have the honor of sharing their thoughts, reflections and opinions with you.

To kick things off we have AANB contributor Dr. Marybeth Gasman, an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Gasman’s has published several books, including Charles S. Johnson: Leadership beyond the Veil in the Age of Jim Crow, Supporting Alma Mater: Successful Strategies for Securing Funds from Black College Alumni, and Uplifting a People: African American Philanthropy and Education. In addition to these works, Dr. Gasman recently finished a book entitled Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press). Recently Dr. Gasman was awarded the Promising Scholar/Early Career Award by the Association for the Study of Higher Education for her body of scholarship.  In the article below Gasman looks at criticism of Historically Black Colleges.

Public discussions of Black colleges’ troubles are often distorted by the tendency to attribute one institution’s shortcomings to the entire group. Furthermore, I have noticed that critics often base their critique on anecdote rather than evidence. As someone who works with and studies Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) on a daily basis, I find this practice to be deeply troubling. Let me offer a few examples. In the January 14, 2008 issue of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, economics professor Walter Williams called into question the usefulness of HBCUs based on the experiences of one professor at one institution. The attitudes of some students at Stillman College, as represented by Williams, are shocking and of course, I don’t condone them, but are they representative of students at all of the nation’s Black colleges? On August 3, 2005, New York Times reporter Samuel Freedman commented that an “educational emergency” was taking place at HBCUs and no one was paying attention to it. Freedman was referring to the poor education offered by these institutions. He based his claim on one visit to Texas Southern University (TSU). Instead of focusing on how TSU’s retention rates have increased every year since 1997 (despite admitting students with lower standardized test scores), he looked only at the negative, then ascribed these negative characteristics to all Black colleges. In addition to these news stories, numerous similar articles have appeared in venues such as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution over the past few years; with few exceptions these articles have treated HBCUs as a monolithic entity. I ask: Are Historically White Institutions (HWIs) treated in this way? If Emory University, for example, has a scandal, does it shape the way we think about Georgia State University, and would anyone ever consider projecting the problems of one Historically White Institution onto those throughout the nation? When a violent incident takes place on one state university campus, do we consider all state universities violent? When students at an Ivy League school are caught cheating, do we say that Ivy Leaguers are cheaters?

All of this distortion leads back to Christopher Jencks and David Riesman’s infamous 1967 article that labeled Black colleges “academic disaster areas.” Having taken on a variety of social ills before, the two Harvard University scholars decided to embark on an exposé of America’s colleges. When it came to Black institutions, though, the pair didn’t bother to check facts. Based largely on anecdote and hearsay, they presented a scathing document that has been a blight on Black colleges’ reputations—and fundraising efforts—ever since.

Evidence of HBCUs good work is generally ignored in media coverage or op-ed articles that condemn these institutions. Those reporting on Black colleges today would do well to look at a 2006 study by Professors Clifton Conrad and MikYong Kim. Based on a large-scale, national survey, the study showed that African Americans have a similar probability of obtaining a bachelor’s degree whether they attend an HBCU or HWI. Yet the study argued that the HBCUs did more with less—they awarded degrees to students who had started out further behind academically, and did this on a much tighter budget. In addition, and also in 2006, Professor Shaun Harper and his colleagues found that Black college students were more engaged with their faculty members, participating in research projects and informal intellectual conversations, than their counterparts at HWIs. Moreover, these students were more likely to participate in leadership positions and out-of-classroom activities, providing them with a well-rounded educational experience in comparison to African American students at HWIs. Research also tells us that Black college students often thrive in the HBCU environment – one in which they do not have to confront White racism on a daily basis. Moreover, many students who have been ignored by a failing and often forgot public school system find solace at HBCUs where they are nurtured and cared for by what some would call an extended family. Many of these same students go on to attend graduate school in medicine, science, and technology—fields in which African Americans are underrepresented – and to contribute significantly to society at large.

As an individual who studies HBCUs, I also think it is necessary to be upfront about the challenges theses institutions face in the twenty-first century. All colleges and universities must demand nothing less than the best from their students. HBCUs need to work harder to tell their remarkable stories to the public. They need to continually contribute to national discourse on their institutions rather than letting others, who are often less informed, do it for them.

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