New Research, New Questions: Social Foundations Scholarship on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

Article excerpt

Currently 300,000 students attend the nation's 105 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These institutions award 28 percent of bachelor's degrees to African-American students and prepare students for graduate and professional programs throughout the country (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2004). While their effect on higher education is well known, there is much to be learned about exactly how they achieve it. Over the past 35 years, many researchers have shown an interest in Black colleges. However, much of the research now available is dated and doesn't speak directly to current national and global trends. For example, a good deal of the historical research stops in the 1930s, missing the impact of the post-war period, the Cold War, and much of the Civil Rights Movement on Black colleges (Anderson, 1988; Anderson & Moss, 1999; Watkins, 2001). Although there has been significant sociological research, it is most often focused on the impact of Black colleges on student experiences--thus ignoring a cadre of other issues, such as governance, academic freedom, faculty, administration, and fund raising (e.g., Conrad et al, 1997; Fleming, 1984; Freeman, 1998; Garibaldi, 1991; Ross, 2003). On occasion, scholars have authored philosophical research on Black colleges (e.g., Allen & Jewel, 2002; Price, 1998). However, at a time when Black access to historically White institutions is once again in decline, we need additional scholarship to treat more comprehensively the basic assumptions and questions behind the African-American institutions that might fill the higher education gap.

The social foundations of education offer an important context for the study of Black colleges. Like most fields, the social foundations of education (henceforth referred to as "social foundations") exist within an historical context of contested norms and ideas. One of the primary characteristics of social foundations research is the promotion of social justice in both the educational process and in society generally. In this regard, social foundations research speaks directly to the history and development of HBCUs. Although their origins remain controversial, Black colleges were founded with the ostensible mission of uplift for the former slaves. Over the years, they have solidified this mission and become key players in the overall struggle for social equality among African Americans. The hallmark of this struggle has been the pursuit of social justice within the context of the racial discrimination that has permeated American life.

Despite the obvious similarity in the goals of both social foundations and Black colleges there has been little research on HBCUs from "within" the contemporary social foundations research community. The reasons for this are numerous. With the rise of higher education as a sub-discipline within education, the study of HBCUs found what seemed to be a natural home. Yet, many of those producing research in the social foundations area of education have remained focused on research related to public schooling at the K-12 level. Another possible reason for the lack of connection could be that (compared to the whole field of education) relatively few African-American scholars work within the area of social foundations. This special issue of Educational Foundations was conceived of as a way to showcase research that addresses this gap in the literature. Thus, the articles that we selected use a social foundations lens to explore various issues related to Black colleges. Their topics run the gamut: Greek life, multiculturalism, institutional impact, student activism.

Black fraternities and sororities have had a significant impact on the campuses of Black colleges and universities (Brown et al, 2005). These organizations have a long history of providing leadership opportunities and career advancement to African Americans. Moreover, they have instilled an ethos of service and giving back in their members (Gasman, 2005; Gasman et al, 2008). …