Consequences of Conservatism: Black Male Undergraduates and the Politics of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

By Harper, Shaun R.; Gasman, Marybeth | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Consequences of Conservatism: Black Male Undergraduates and the Politics of Historically Black Colleges and Universities


Harper, Shaun R., Gasman, Marybeth, The Journal of Negro Education


Previous research has highlighted numerous ways in which historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) offer more supportive educational environments for Black students than do predominantly White institutions (PWIs). Notwithstanding the consistency of these findings, persistence and graduation rates remain low for undergraduates, especially men, at HBCUs. Furthermore, anecdotal reports and news stories have called attention to the conservative politics of many Black colleges. This study explores how Black male students characterize, respond to, and make sense of environmental politics at 12 HBCUs that participated in the National Black Male College Achievement Study. In addition to 2-3 hour face-to-face individual interviews with 76 undergraduates, documents from 103 HBCUs were analyzed to gather additional insights into the political press of these institutions. Conservatism was evident in the areas of sexuality and sexual orientation, student self-presentation and expression, and the subordinate status of students beneath faculty and administrators.

Each participant signed a consent form that granted us permission to use his actual name and the name of his institution, instead of pseudonyms.

Over the past decade, much attention has been placed on marginal college matriculation trends, problematic engagement and achievement patterns, and high attrition rates among Black male undergraduates (Byrne, 2006; Cuyjet, 1997, 2006; Harper, 2006a, 2008). While most conversations regarding these issues are typically based on anecdotal reports from individual campuses, a few empirical studies have illuminated the extent to which enrollments and achievement are problematic for this population. For example, Harper (2006a) found that 67.6% of Black men who start college do not graduate within six years, which is the worst college completion rate among both sexes and all racial/ethnic groups. Although Black male achievement challenges persist across institution type, researchers have focused almost exclusively on understanding complexities within me context of predominantly White institutions (PWIs).

Harper, Carini, Bridges, and Hayek (2004) asserted that gender gaps at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been narrowly considered in recent years, as most scholars have devoted their efforts to comparing Black students at these institutions to their samerace peers at PWIs. Similarly, Kimbrough and Harper (2006) noted, "Witti so much national attention being placed on issues facing African American students at PWIs, particularly with regard to affirmative action, the quality of life at HBCUs for these students (especially African American men) has gone virtually unnoticed" (p. 190). Thus, the aim of their research was to capture Black male students' insights into behavioral and attitudinal norms that yielded undesired outcomes on HBCU campuses. Kimbrough and Harper's study revealed troubling socioculturel norms within Black male peer groups on HBCU campuses, but left much to be understood about the environmental ethos and political dynamics that complicated Black male student success.

In 2005, 19% of the bachelor's degrees earned by Black men were conferred at HBCUs (U.S. Department of Education, 2007); however, little is known about what occurred throughout their persistence to degree completion on those campuses. Perhaps more troubling is the insufficient understanding of environmental factors that compel so many Black males to withdraw prematurely from HBCUs. Six-year graduation rates were factored into the 2007 U.S. News & World Report rankings of Black colleges. Only nine of the 81 institutions listed (11.1%) graduated more than half of their students within six years. Kimbrough and Harper (2006) found that low attrition rates are typically exacerbated between the sexes at HBCUs, with Black women sometimes graduating at rates two to three times higher than their same-race male counterparts. …

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