Faculty Governance at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Article excerpt

To better understand governance at HBCUs, we need studies defining the relationship between governance practices and institutional performance.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 103 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. Although this sector of higher education represents just 3 percent of all U.S. institutions of higher education, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that HBCUs grant approximately 25 percent of the baccalaureate degrees awarded to African Americans. Educator Jacqueline Fleming's 1984 book, Blacks in College, and subsequent research show that students who attend HBCUs graduate at higher rates and report greater satisfaction with their college experience compared with African American students who attend predominantly white institutions. Similarly, an article in a 2001 issue of the Peabody Journal of Education reported that approximately threefourths of all black PhDs earn their bachelor's degrees at HBCUs. This institutional sector is thus a critically important pathway to higher education for many African Americans and contributes significantly to the social and economic balance of the country.

Despite their importance, these institutions are also the focus of much criticism. Many stories can be told about the triumphs and shortcomings of HBCUs, some of which concern their governance practices. For example, M. Christopher Brown, director of social justice for the American Educational Research Association, has suggested that HBCUs have some of the best faculty of color and offer quality education with limited resources, a tribute to institutional effectiveness. At the same time, Nancy King, co-editor of University Faculty Voice, a publication that covers HBCUs, regularly criticizes HBCUs for employing seemingly autocratic styles of leadership that violate central AAUP tenets of shared governance.

The involvement of faculty in decision making is of particular concern. Ivory Phillips, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Jackson State University, offered a scathing view of "unshared governance" at HBCUs in the July-August 2002 issue of Academe. He stated that "on virtually every [HBCU] campus on which I have talked to faculty senate leaders, the administration has also used the tactic of ridiculing and bad-mouthing the senate and its leader. Such blatant undermining of shared governance rarely occurs on white college campuses."

Given the absence of research on governance practices at HBCUs, pedestrians and bystanders in the higher education community find it difficult to assess the quality of governance at HBCUs. To help rectify this situation, in 2002 a colleague and I conducted a national study of governance at four-year colleges and universities. The institutions we sampled and surveyed included twenty-seven HBCUs. The following year, I surveyed the remaining sixty-one four-year HBCUs and combined the data. Respondents from the eighty-eight campuses included the chief academic officer (provost), the chair of the faculty senate (or formal faculty governing body), and three department chairs from different academic disciplines, whose views I counted as representative of faculty. I hope the findings I describe below will help inform and guide future discussions about decision making within this institutional sector.

Distinctive Context

When studying the institutional structure of HBCUs, one has to be mindful not to make false comparisons with predominantly white colleges and universities. Taking into account the cultural and contextual differences between the two types of institutions helps one avoid this mistake. Thus one survey item asked: "In your opinion, are HBCUs governed differently than predominantly white institutions?" More than 50 percent of respondents felt that they were, while 35 percent did not know.

Site visits to the HBCUs involved in the survey revealed that contextual dynamics such as history, race, politics, and perception influence decision-making practices. …