It is not my usual intellectual behavior to respond to newspaper – popular print media matters, due to a plethora of reasons – oftentimes being that I have more important activities to engage myself; with one major priority being to teach talented African American (and a select number of equally talented Caucasian as well as Hispanic) students at a Historically Black College / University (HBCU) – Cheyney University of Pennsylvania (the oldest historically degree granting Black College/ University in America).
I am compelled to address Jason Riley’s (September 28, 2010) Wall Street OpEd piece, Black Colleges Need A New Mission (once an essential response to racism, they are now academically inferior); because it carries a message that if left unchallenged, potentially positions readers with a mindset that greatly distorts the vast merits of HBCUs, and does a tragic injustice to African Americans (and others) who have / had any association with such institutions of higher education.
I am a full professor (12 years) who teaches at a HBCU. It is serendipitous that the Riley piece appears one week after The Chronicle of Higher Education published an insightful article, Why I Work at a HBCU , that highlighted the dedication and accentuated the excellence as well as positive intangibles that anyone associated with an HBCU realizes as beyond the measure(s) in which Riley attributes / identifies in his research citations.
Riley’s contention that President Obama needs to “shake up the status quo” of HBCUs, in a fashion similar to the President’s K-12 education reform agenda, is grounded in a logic that highlights his quantitative perspective that “90% of Black students spur” such schools; that in a comparison of standardized tests scores (SATs), no Black college ranks with the “Ivy League” standards; and, the graduation rates of HBCUs are well below the national averages. (I would submit that these statistical profiles also apply to a vast number of predominantly white institutions of higher education.)
While Riley’s editorial may reflect factual evidence, it omits / ignores context – explanation – understanding – and insight into what HBCUs continue to do; have historically done; and, are uniquely equipped to do better (in some / many instances) than
even the “Ivies.”
HBCUs continue to provide an opportunity, and access to the American dream of realizing one’s potential through education in a nurturing environment. While many non-HBCUs and even faceless online educational opportunities have opened up options for African Americans, the millions who continue to “miss-out” on higher education is unconscionable in a country that prides itself on being the beacon of freedom – opportunity and hard work leading to success.
In fact, if the K-12 education reform initiatives of the Obama administration are 50% successful, HBCUs will realize increased enrollments; a higher quality / better prepared student, and be the avenue that millions of urban educated students will travel, because the Ivies and other so-called select universities (predominantly white), will not admit them.
Riley’s editorial focused on standardized test scores, that even many select universities realize do not predict a student’s academic or life success. He cites research from 35 – 40 years ago to call into question the current merits of HBCUs. These are “old views” that were challenged then and shown to lack research credibility beyond the writers’ biased perspectives.
HBCUs educate highly talented young people who oftentimes demonstrate a level of resiliency that is complemented by a vast array of capabilities which the verbal / math sections of the SATs can never capture.
Black colleges/universities are at a crossroads; yet for reasons very different form what Riley posits. HBCUs must be given an opportunity to be put on a level playing field with their white counterparts. That has never occurred.
At Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, not even a $50 million federal civil rights award is enough to compensate for the historical roots of inequities and racism that continue to limit HBCUs from competing successfully with white institutions of higher education.
The sense of quiet intellectual rage by myself and others against Riley’s editorial could go on in a manner that similarly equates to Black Scholars and enlightened White intellectuals in academia who objectionably responded in the late 60’s and early 70’s to Jencks, the Coleman Study, and others’ research that suggested students of color were not intellectually capable of academic success unless “exposed to White classrooms/classmates,” as Riley implies related to the new vision for HBCUs.
As a graduate of Dartmouth College (BA) (attended for 6 months Talladega Colleges—an HBCU); Harvard University (Ed.M.); and the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D.), the students I teach at Cheyney University, especially in the Master’s Degree thesis class, when I return their drafts for corrections / re-writes, etc.; they have often commented to me, “Are you trying to make us work as a Harvard – Dartmouth – Penn student?”
My response is always the same, “Excellence can be found at any institution of higher education. The Ivy League does not have a lock on excellence!”
The dedication and quality of faculty and administration, as well as the commitment we bring to excellence, when further supported by increased resources, funding and an understanding of what HBCUs continue to do that is uniquely our own method of preparing students for success in America; and maybe with the help of a Black President, the mission of HBCUs (instead of being revisited) can be realized!
Dr. Wesley C. Pugh, a graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, is a professor at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania.