Historically Black Colleges and Universities in a Time of Economic Crisis

By Gasman, Marybeth | Academe, November/December 2009 | Go to article overview

Historically Black Colleges and Universities in a Time of Economic Crisis


Gasman, Marybeth, Academe


How have HBCUs responded to the current crisis?

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have suffered disproportionately in the current financial crisis. The difficult situations at these institutions have many causes, but they stem in large part from the commitment of HBCUs to serving disadvantaged students and from the history of underfunding and discrimination that disadvantages HBCUs themselves. Tightening budgets and low enrollments have forced some HBCU leaders to take drastic steps to keep their institutions vibrant or in some cases afloat. This essay looks at how well some HBCU leaders have maintained respect for academic integrity and shared governance amid pressure to impose austerity on their institutions.

HBCUs were created during the decades after the Civil War to educate the newly freed black population (three exceptions being Cheyney University, Lincoln University, and Wilberforce University, all created before 1861). The majority of private HBCUs were established by missionary organizations aiming to Christianize the former slaves. The bulk of the nation's public HBCUs emerged as a result of the second Morrill Act of 1890, which enabled southern states that were not willing to integrate their historically white institutions to continue receiving federal higher education funding by establishing a separate group of black institutions. Through the 1970s, these institutions, both public and private, graduated the lion's share of African Americans in the United States. In effect, HBCUs have graduated most of the black middle class as we now know it. Currently they enroll 16 percent and graduate approximately 20 percent of all African Americans who attend college. Although growth in their enrollments has leveled off in recent years, HBCUs continue to compete for students with better-funded historically white institutions. The main draw to HBCUs for many African American students is the empowering, family-like environment of small classes, close faculty-student relationships, and life without the daily racial tensions experienced off campus.

James T Minor, writing in the puntai of Negro Education, has argued that "criticisms endured by HBCUs and their leaders" for autocratic governance "have been made in the absence of contextual understanding that may shed a different light on the appropriateness of governance structures and decision-making practices used in these institutions." In an article in the May-June 2005 issue of Academe, Minor noted that HBCU faculty and administrators he interviewed claimed that "the climate in which these institutions operate justifies many of their distinct practices," with some respondents going as far as to say that strong presidential leadership has been partially responsible for the very survival of HBCUs. From my research, I know that HBCUs, like historically white institutions, have many kinds of leaders.

Exemplary Leaders

Two presidents who stand out in their respect for faculty tenure and shared governance are Johnnetta B. Cole, the former president of both Spelman College in Atlanta and Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Walter Kimbrough, the current president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock.

In her article in the November- December 2006 issue of Academe, Beverley Guy-Sheftall, former faculty senate chair at Spelman, observed that Cole "actually encouraged faculty to pursue the establishment of formal governance structures." Given her own history as an active, outspoken faculty member, Cole believed Spelman would be a stronger institution if more faculty members were involved in institutional decision making. Guy-Sheftall also noted that at Spelman the faculty shares responsibility in a very real sense for "tenure and promotion policies, faculty hiring, the faculty handbook, curriculum review, faculty grievances, and, most recently, program development and review." She added, "It hasn't always been easy, and it's still a work in progress, but faculty members, with support from the administration [under both Cole and the current president, Beverley Tatum] , are exploring more effective, long-term strategies for institutionalizing a new model of shared governance that we hope will be replicated on other campuses of our size, especially at HBCUs. …

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