A ral­ly­ing cry to bol­ster Amer­ica’s black col­leges

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Daryl Michael Scott is a pro­fes­sor of history at Howard Univer­sity. RE­VIEW BY DARYL MICHAEL SCOTT

Ron Stodghill’s ex­plo­ration of the sta­tus of his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and univer­si­ties (HBCUs) comes at a mo­ment when our en­tire univer­sity sys­tem is im­per­iled. Since the rise of glob­al­ism, pol­i­cy­mak­ers have in­sisted that the na­tion’s con­tin­ued great­ness de­pends on be­ing the brains, rather than the brawn, of the world econ­omy. De­spite this, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, reel­ing from war debt and the Great Re­ces­sion, has joined states in lim­it­ing its in­vest­ment in higher ed­u­ca­tion. In­creas­ingly, the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for fund­ing has shifted from the need for an ed­u­cated cit­i­zenry to work­force de­vel­op­ment. We are wit­ness­ing the de­cline of the Amer­i­can re­search univer­sity and an ex­is­ten­tial threat to all but a hand­ful of HBCUs.

A jour­nal­ist and a pro­fes­sor at John­son C. Smith Univer­sity, an HBCU in Char­lotte, Stodghill is com­mit­ted to the fu­ture of HBCUs but calls on them to get their houses in or­der be­fore it’s too late. While ac­knowl­edg­ing that state poli­cies and those of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, es­pe­cially changes in the Plus Loan Pro­gram, have cre­ated an eco­nomic hard­ship on HBCUs, Stodghill sides with re­form­ers who, in gen­eral, be­lieve in less de­pen­dence on gov­ern­ment money, in­creased stan­dards for ad­mis­sions, merg­ing and con­sol­i­dat­ing col­leges, more ac­count­abil­ity for ad­min­is­tra­tors and boards of trustees, and con­struct­ing ma­jors tai­lored to the mar­ket­place. Un­like some of his in­ter­vie­wees, how­ever, Stodghill be­lieves in the stan­dard jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for HBCUs: pro­vid­ing a more nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment for stu­dents.

Un­for­tu­nately, Stodghill bases his case on his­tor­i­cal myths. He holds the view that ma­jor­ity-white schools “poach” the best black stu­dents. ( Who owns them?) He seems un­aware that those deemed the best stu­dents of­ten at­tended ma­jor­ity-white col­leges even dur­ing the seg­re­ga­tion era. Phi Beta Kappa keys from the Ivies and small North­ern col­leges were treated much like Olympic medals, while many HBCUs were con­sid­ered a con­tin­u­a­tion of high school — which, given their in­ad­e­quate fund­ing, they of­ten were. With­out doubt, de­seg­re­ga­tion, along with new fed­eral pro­grams, brought bet­ter fund­ing and trans­formed most HBCUs into vi­able col­leges.

Stodghill also pro­motes the myth that once upon a time, dy­namic, com­mit­ted fac­ulty mem­bers and ad­min­is­tra­tors led HBCUs and pur­sued the path to progress. In this golden age, Howard’s Morde­cai John­son, More­house’s Ben­jamin Mays and Fisk’s com­mit­ted fac­ulty func­tioned with in­tegrity and chal­lenged back­ward­ness. This leaves us with a false im­pres­sion. Those re­form­ers told of a dif­fer­ent, more per­va­sive re­al­ity. Ac­cord­ing to pro­gres­sive ed­u­ca­tors, the state HBCUs were run by syco­phants who served the white su­prem­a­cist gover­nors loy­ally and en­sured that black stu­dents would not get out of line. In re­li­gious schools funded by the Amer­i­can Mis­sion­ary As­so­ci­a­tion, the pa­ter­nal­ism was of­ten stul­ti­fy­ing. Most black ed­u­ca­tional lead­ers, like our mod­ern-day re­form­ers, preached a gospel of make do with less. Back then, how­ever, the black in­tel­li­gentsia out­right con­demned that gospel as part of what Carter G. Wood­son re­ferred to as “the mis-ed­u­ca­tion of the Ne­gro.”

While Stodghill’s book has the feel of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, the au­thor’s great­est short­com­ing is that he is of­ten a cap­tive to his sources, es­pe­cially in his treat­ment of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis at Howard Univer­sity, where I teach. Most ma­jor univer­si­ties sold their hos­pi­tals decades ago to avoid fi­nan­cial dev­as­ta­tion, but Howard hasn’t. In 2006, D.C. Mayor An­thony Wil­liams uni­lat­er­ally re­jected Howard Pres­i­dent H. Pa­trick Swygert’s part­ner­ship pro­posal to build a sec­ond hos­pi­tal and spin them both off un­der a sep­a­rate cor­po­rate en­tity, which would have ended the univer­sity’s re­spon­si­bil­ity. Since 2013, the fi­nan­cial bur­den of the hos­pi­tal has been a mat­ter of public dis­cus­sion as a re­sult of a leaked memo writ­ten by Re­nee Hig­gin­botham-Brooks, then a long­stand­ing trustee. Based on an in­ter­view with her, Stodghill pro­vides a sala­cious but largely ir­rel­e­vant ac­count of the dis­pute she had with then-Board of Trustees Chair­man A. Barry Rand and never ex­plores the larger ques­tion of whether the board has a vi­able plan to save the hos­pi­tal with­out do­ing per­haps ir­repara­ble dam­age to the other col­leges in the univer­sity. Given that the book fo­cuses on the short­com­ings of boards, we would have ex­pected more in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the HBCU that is the best funded by far and con­sid­ered the cap­stone of them all.

Stodghill does not ask what mo­ti­vates trustees and what lim­its their abil­ity to make the truly hard de­ci­sions. Even more than pres­i­dents, they sign on to do good and to vir­tu­ally never do harm, or even risk it. This can par­a­lyze or even pre­vent them from see­ing, let alone mak­ing, the tough­est de­ci­sions. No one joins to close pro­grams that have been at the heart of a school’s mis­sion, to do away with the things that gave mean­ing and pur­pose to their own lives. Who wants to close history and phi­los­o­phy de­part­ments— fields at the heart of pro­mot­ing democ­racy — in fa­vor of crim­i­nal jus­tice and med­i­cal records-keep­ing? What trustee wants to close or merge a univer­sity out of ex­is­tence? And some­times these is­sues are all too per­sonal to be seen clearly. Hig­gin­botham-Brooks cred­its Howard’s hos­pi­tal and med­i­cal school with sav­ing her life when she had breast can­cer. It is eas­ier to pass the prob­lem along and hope for an in­ter­ven­tion from with­out be­fore death comes from within.

For the most part, Stodghill ig­nores any prin­ci­pled op­po­si­tion to change. At Howard, Dil­lard and other HBCUs, the lib­eral arts tra­di­tion is in jeop­ardy. Iron­i­cally, Stodghill in­vokes the re­cent history in which protesters de­mand that HBCUs em­brace the changes be­ing man­dated by our na­tional ob­ses­sion with science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math, the STEM fields. As in the age of in­dus­trial ed­u­ca­tion and Booker T. Washington, col­lege is in­creas­ingly seen as a place for work­force de­vel­op­ment rather than in­tel­lec­tual growth and cit­i­zen­ship train­ing. These Bookerites of STEM seem un­aware that the fight to save and ad­vance the hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sciences at Amer­i­can univer­si­ties stands in the age-old tra­di­tion of Thomas Jef­fer­son, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Wood­son and John Dewey. A na­tion re­duced to a work­force will lack self-knowl­edge and will have trou­ble re­main­ing a democ­racy. This old African Amer­i­can de­bate is the new Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tional cri­sis.

WHERE EV­ERY­BODY LOOKS LIKE ME At the Cross­roads of Amer­ica’s Black Col­leges and Cul­ture By Ron Stodghill Amis­tad. 258 pp. $26.99

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