The HBCU in the Coal Mine
I may be breaking protocol by writing this, and I’m definitely going against some other alums’ wishes by doing so, but I’m writing this post about some goings on at my alma mater, Morehouse College, that are certainly important to the school, and perhaps to the general HBCU and higher education landscape as well. I know about the perils of airing “dirty laundry”, but I feel like this debate is relevant to what we try to do here at 40 Acres and also to Black America and has strong parallels to other elements of Black Higher Education. Also, I know that people in HBCUs tend to be hard-headed about the existence of problems until people start to talk about them in public spaces. So there’s that.
Morehouse has certainly gone through crises before, and has weathered them pretty well; no worse for the wear. However, in the wake of the abrupt announcement of President Franklin’s resigning, there have been more and more rumblings of a more existential nature at the school regarding its mission and business practices. I bring this argument here because these concerns echo a good deal of what’s going on at HBCUs across the country and add to the debate over the relevance of the HBCU. If the number 3 HBCU in the country is facing questions about its purpose and how it runs its operations, aren’t others as well? So I bring to you this letter, written by an alumnus of the school, addressed to the board of trustees and concerning the issues at the school. It’s a public website and a public link so I guess it’s ok to share.
In summation, the letter details the primary problem that perhaps having a social mission unique to HBCUs isn’t enough (without high academic rigor and resources) to draw top-notch Black students who are also applying to the Ivies and Dukes and MITs of the world. Basically, Morehouse has a fairly average curriculum and average facilities but has a price tag just shy of Ivies. The cultural intangibles simply aren’t enough to justify the cost. The letter also details that pretty poor business practices and high administrative costs inflate the price tag and leave students paying for much less actual educational value per dollar than other schools with a similar cost. The letter also says that perhaps Morehouse is a bit too supportive of the Business program at the expense of other departments. And there’s also the fact that Morehouse is still struggling with very salient (necessary for an all-Black, all-male school) issues of gender identity and embracing homosexual students.
I propose that none of these issues, even the struggles with gender identity and homosexuality, are unique to Morehouse. They are diseases affecting all HBCUs that make pretty good reflections on the problems of Black America. The fact is, HBCUs do still provide a social good and an indispensable cultural function that only they can offer, but the presentation of this has become stale and may no longer add enough value to offset the gulf between HBCUs and other institutions in terms of facilities and academia. And they’ve gotten a hell of a lot pricier, too. Basically, all of the major advantages HBCUs had over PWIs for attracting good students (cultural value, social mission, and cost) are diminishing, while the advantages of good PWIs (academia, facilities/faculty, and customer service) are either increasing or staying the same. How can you justify telling a young elite Black scholar who got into Duke to even consider an HBCU where the wireless internet may not even work everyday? How do you attract donors in the post-racial age, where racially-based philanthropy isn’t seen as necessary to prove that corporations have a soul? Despite alums saying that the inefficiencies and inconveniences associated with their degrees taught them how to be self-sufficient, Harvard grads seem to be doing a pretty good job without all of that. And what about enterprising young homosexual, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students who feel like HBCU communities are rigid and backwards in their sensibilities and prejudices? Something’s gotta give.
I think the HBCU (and Morehouse, specifically) has some soul-searching to do (even you, Spelman). Too many HBCUs chase business dollars and want to see themselves as Higher Education elites without winning business plans or even basic customer service. Although Business is by far the biggest major among Black college students, I think this is partly a function of HBCUs doing a very poor job of promoting and developing the sciences and humanities. It’s great that we at Morehouse put out amazing businessmen who are taking Wall St by storm. It’s great that they get everything they need, awesome facilities, make the school look good, and are in turn given attention and promotion at the school. But it would also be great if HBCUs produced more scientists in the mold of George Washington Carver who helped usher in the scientific age in this country, politicians like Andrew Young, thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois, writers like Toni Morrison, and revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr and imbued them ALL with a sense of social responsibility based in just giving back and helping out. Wouldn’t it be great if HBCUs were known once again nationally for being the backbone of Black progress and culture in America and the equal other half to PWIs in the Black Higher Education puzzle? I don’t think the situation is as dire as many think, and HBCUs are certainly still useful, but I think that if we ignore or put off these issues, that soon HBCUs will be relics of a past age. We may be too proud to admit, but continuous improvement, honest-to-God self-critique, and boldness are the hallmarks of good business in this country. And bad businesses fail, even with bailouts. Bottom line.
Let’s start a discussion. First, let’s ask for complete transparency in our schools as to where EVERY dollar goes and how much students spend on our actual education. How can it be lowered through a continuous basic implementation of business efficiency and Six Sigma/Kaizen practices? Are certain people over-compensated? Are their controls for nepotism and cronyism that keep poor-performing administrative members from continually providing bad service. Let’s look at academics. Are our tenure systems rigorous enough and do they ask enough of professors pre-tenure? Are our schools offering diverse curricula, especially in areas like health policy, education policy and technology that are on the cutting edge in the country and in the world? Are we offering distance educational opportunities and flexible degree options for nontraditional students? Are we doing enough to provide guidance for those who are less college-ready that we accept because of our social mission?
And more to the expressed “social mission” of HBCUs; I think that our lackadaisical commitment to our expressed ideals results in a lot of our poor performance. We take in a lot of Black students who aren’t ideal candidates at other schools, but are still promising candidates, because our mission (and perhaps necessity in paying bills) dictates it. But we do almost nothing to help them develop, and so many end up leaving, which absolutely wrecks our six-year graduation rates. There isn’t proper guidance to prepare students for interviews and professional life, and nothing done to help them manage their finances, and our pride and desire to imitate higher-performance schools’ rigor leads us to abandon those who came in at a handicaps. We don’t teach kids how to best manage their debt and HOW to go to college (something that seems basic, but is a skill taught in high school that many Black kids don’t get). So people drop out because of academics and finances and we wonder why our graduation rates suck. We also don’t put nearly enough back into communities to develop pipelines of skilled applicants or even enough to uplift the communities that our schools are in. The fact that most HBCUs are smack in the middle of bad hoods is pretty damning to me.
In summation, Black colleges and universities are going to have to become more efficient, cheaper, more service-oriented, more rigorous, and more innovation-minded in order to remain relevant in today’s society. Once upon a time, they were revolutionary because they were the only places that provided mass numbers of Black students educations. This isn’t the case anymore, and I think we have struggled to carve out a niche in a culture now where most people are expected to go to college. As a college with many connections and resources relative to many other HBCUs, my Dear Old Morehouse is going to have to be a “thought leader” in this niche-definition. In this, we can’t wait for someone to find our solutions for us and we can’t pretend like there is no problem or that it isn’t serious. We ask now if you would send your (real or speculative) children to HBCUs in their current state, but the option may not even exist not too far in the future.