A Decade of Turbulence: A Report on Historically Black Colleges and Universities

By Stuart, Reginald | The Crisis, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview
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A Decade of Turbulence: A Report on Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Stuart, Reginald, The Crisis

When Lane College opened its doors for the new school year, it did so with a confidence reflecting its stability in what has been a stormy decade for the nation's historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Students at Lane, a small, liberal arts school in Jackson, Tenn., found three new dormitories with housing for 304 students and a new dining hall that can seat 675 guests.

This good-news story stems from Lane's decision at the start of the decade to aggressively recruit, nurture and graduate Black male students and to highlight that commitment as it markets the school to prospective students and donors. Lane boasts of having a dress code, maintaining a curfew (11 p.m. on weekdays, 1 a.m. on weekends), barring profanity, drugs and weapons on campus and requiring students to attend chapel every Wednesday. "We have some rather strict rules," said Wesley McClure, Lane's president for the past 15 years and proud architect of its strategy for survival and growth.

"There are not many institutions that hold on to their traditional role," said McClure, a Lane alumnus and native of Jackson. "Most don't do it."

Evidence shows Lane's throwback to old-school HBCU rules is working. Its enrollment had more than doubled to 1 ,500 students this fall from 702 students in 2000. Lane's enrollment is roughly split, with men slightly outnumbering women, a steady trend for the past five years.

Lane's story of growth, expansion and rising endowment is rare these days. Historically Black colleges, the second-class citizens in American higher education since they began to emerge in the years following the Civil War, have faced challenges since the end of legalized segregation in higher education.

Recent years have been especially tough, educators say. "It's been a turbulent decade," said McClure, board secretary ofthe United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and former chairman of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), the professional association of HBCU presidents. "I've never seen anything like this and it's going to continue," said McClure, who has been in higher education 38 years.

HBCUs now enroll only 16 percent of all Blacks attending college in the United States. More Black students are making other choices, ranging from attending historically White colleges to attending community colleges, institutions that were almost nonexistent before the 1960s.

Public funds for state-controlled colleges and universities are shrinking as governors and legislatures scramble to support increasingly costly programs such as health care and K- 12 education. Among the few exceptions are public HBCUs in southern states where settlement of lawsuits aimed at dismantling dual systems of higher education brought capital improvement, scholarship and endowment windfalls to some schools.

Corporate and philanthropic support of HBCUs remains small and, in some cases, is shrinking. Exceptions include efforts by the Kresge Foundation and the more recent Gates Millennium Scholars Program, administered by the UNCF to benefit minority and low-income students seeking a college education.

More than a quarter of the nation's historically Black colleges and universities have changed presidents in the last five years, some numerous times, generating instability and hampering longterm planning.

At the same time, a relatively large number of HBCUs, including Florida A & M University (FAMU), have been placed under sanctions by various accrediting agencies. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) placed FAMU on probation in June after a peer review found shortcomings in the Tallahassee school's financial and management processes. Morris Brown College in Atlanta, which became ineligible to receive federal student aid funds when it lost its accreditation several years ago, is in a fight for its life. LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis was saved from financial collapse this summer by a last-minute infusion of $3 million from the city of Memphis, the second rescue of the school in a decade.

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