Planting the Seeds of Academic Excellence and Cultural Awareness: The Michigan-Tuskegee Exchange Program

By Park, Laurel | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Planting the Seeds of Academic Excellence and Cultural Awareness: The Michigan-Tuskegee Exchange Program


Park, Laurel, Michigan Historical Review


The years between 1954 and 1965 witnessed a dramatic shift in the racial climate of the United States. Segregation was systematically challenged, requiring citizens of all ages to confront the reality of a changing societal landscape. This push for change was particularly significant in education, where the ideals of equality and social improvement collided with the realities of prejudice, inferiority, and violence.

In 1963, at the height of this volatile period, the University of Michigan and the Tuskegee Institute embarked on a partnership that strove to benefit both schools through a series of academic and cultural exchanges. The Michigan--Tuskegee Exchange Program was one of the first interinstitutional programs initiated between predominantly white northern universities and predominantly black southern colleges, and many of the specific activities undertaken were later echoed in the provisions of Title III of the 1965 Higher Education Act. A number of such programs, including Indiana--Stillman, Brown--Tougaloo, Wisconsin--North Carolina College, and Southern Illinois--Winston-Salem, were developed in 1964 and 1965, while the Michigan--Tuskegee venture was formulated in June 1963. (1) The motivation for creating such programs was the recognition that "the predominantly Negro colleges ... were not especially favorably supplied with the necessities for excellence," (2) meaning teachers trained at leading research universities, academic resources, exposure of talented students to educational opportunities outside the black-college system, and strong curricula. In order to assist these schools, a university with high-quality academic programs lent support to a black college in its quest for improvement. (3) According to Harold Rose, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee, black colleges of the South operated in a type of "closed system" due to their "nature and quality," making it difficult for their graduates to seek employment in "the open sectors of the economy." Rose referred to the black higher-education system as producing "graduates prepared for yesterday's world, rather than tomorrow's." (4)

Tuskegee Institute was founded in 1881 as the Normal School for Colored Teachers. Although its first B.A. was awarded in 1900, throughout most of its history Tuskegee emphasized subcollege academic and vocational training, in keeping with the educational philosophy of its founder Booker T. Washington. (5) By the mid-1920s Tuskegee initiated a college-level program, due in part to changes in public high school curricula and in certification requirements for teachers. (6) In nearly all black colleges in the South, including Tuskegee Institute, most faculty members were themselves black and were usually graduates of other black colleges. Thus, Tuskegee lacked the opportunity to draw upon talented faculty from other educational backgrounds to strengthen its academic core. Administrators at Tuskegee were aware of the intellectual limitations this placed on their students, as evidenced by the 22nd All-Institute Conference, held in 1962-1963, which took as its theme "Forward Steps: Meeting the Needs for Further Student Development." In the report from that conference, Tuskegee faculty and administrators examined in detail student retention and graduation rates, the academic and social needs of Tuskegee students, the liberal-arts curriculum, and the steps needed to retain students and provide a stronger academic experience. (7) In an October 26, 1963, speech given at the Tuskegee Conference on the Disadvantaged, Basil O'Connor, chairman of the Tuskegee Board of Trustees, highlighted specific important issues. These included the economic, social, and political integration of blacks into society, the realization that "knowledge is power" to achieve social integration, and the importance of "energies and money" being devoted to improving the education of blacks. He also noted that major private philanthropic organizations such as the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and the Rockefeller Foundation had recently announced financial programs to promote "Negro advancement. …

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