The Declining Significance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Relevance, Reputation, and Reality in Obamamerica

Article excerpt

Historically Black colleges and universities are a unique institutional cohort in American higher education. These colleges have been celebrated for their achievements and critiqued for their composition at differing points during their collective history. This article addresses contemporary ebbs and flows of their relevance and reputation in the national discourse. Particular attention is given to real or perceived changes in the status and place of these institutions since the election of President Barack Obama and the new imperative for maintaining institutional significance.

Keywords: Black colleges, institutional mission, postsecondary education, public policy

The 2011 Charles H. Thompson Lecture-Colloquium Presentation

"The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. "

Jeremiah 8:20, KJV

Introduction

On November 4, 2008, the United States of America held its 56th quadrennial presidential election. The ballots were led by six names-Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Chuck Baldwin of Florida, Bob Barr of Georgia, Ralph Nader of Connecticut, John McCain of Arizona, and Barack Obama of Illinois. When the night concluded with reports from the far East in Nashua, New Hampshire and the far West in Waikoloa, Hawaii the two lead vote getters were Barack Obama and John McCain. Their popular votes were 69,456,897 and 59,934,814, respectively. Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States with a lead of more than 9,522,083 votes (this would translate to 365 electoral votes over John McCain's 173).

On the morning of November 5, 2008, many media outlets in print, radio, and television began to engage a conceptualization of America as post-racial. Take as emblematic, Shelby Steele's (2008) article on that morning in the Los Angeles Times titled "Obama's Postracial Promise" declaring,

For the first time in human history, a largely White nation has elected a Black man to be its paramount leader. And the cultural meaning of this unprecedented convergence of dark skin and ultimate power will likely become-at least for a time-a national obsession. In fact, the Obama presidency will always be read as an allegory. Already we are as curious about the cultural significance of his victory as we are about its political significance, (p. 11)

Even more at a major international summit Mazrui and Luthuli (2008) in the article "Is This the Dawn of a Post-racial Age? From Othello to Obama " posited that President Obama was the manifestation of the prophetic admonition of the sociologist William Julius Wilson a quarter century earlier. In 1978, Wilson published his seminal corpus, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. In this classic text he explored the conflict and confluence of race and class in American life, particularly for persons of African descent. Wilson examined the "statistical significance" of race and class on the interplay of variables and constructs incident to education, housing, employment, and public policy. Therefore, he explored the permanence of race in society not as important or meaningful, but as a pattern of consistent effects that is greater than an occurrence of chance; also known as the p-value (Fisher, 1925). Many casual readers errantly construe his title as a declamation on the diminishing importance of race in American institutions. As proof of the above, Princeton University published the volume Racial Justice in the Age of Obama by Roy Brooks (2009) asserting that President Obama's election confirmed a national decline in the primacy and importance of race.

Wilson's (1978) book, more accurately understood, is a treatise on the pervasive persistence of race even at the intersection of class and social structure, not an apologia on the decreased import of race. This article employs the same utility as Wilson's epistemological posture. The pages that follow will explore the relevance of historically Black colleges and universities, their shifting reputation across higher education contexts, and the complex reality of this cohort of institutions in relation to the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. …