Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What If HBCUs Never Existed? -- An Alternative Response

This question has recently been asked and answered in an historical context. With all due respect for the good intentions of the author of that widely read essay, in my opinion neither the question nor an historical response addresses the existential challenge: Why are HBCUs still needed?

A similar question could be asked and answered about family farms. There was a time, prior to the industrialization of farming in the nineteenth century, when over 70 percent of the population was directly engaged in farming. Today less than three percent of us are farmers. Times change.

Railroads provide a more insightful example. Prior to the invention of cars, trucks, and airplanes, railroads transported over 90 percent of the passengers and goods across the continent. Today, railroads still play a vital role in our nation's economy -- not as 19th century monopolies, but as core components of a multimodal, national, transportation infrastructure. Times changed, but fortunately, so did the railroads.
As I stated in my own essay "From HBCUs to BCUs," the existential challenge can only be addressed by identifying new missions for HBCUs that will enable them to continue to play a leadership role for the central issue that inspired their creation in the first place -- providing better higher educational opportunities for African Americans. We know what HBCUs have done in the past, but looking forward, what will they do in the future? More specifically, what will they do that other institutions of higher learning won't do as well, or perhaps, won't do at all?
Almost fifty years after African Americans entered the higher education mainstream, their retention and graduation rates lag far behind their Caucasian and Asian American counterparts. I hesitate to say that integration hasn't worked, but it certainly hasn't worked anywhere near as well as we had hoped. If HBCUs don't play a leadership role in developing new teaching methods that are more effective for all African American students, not just for their own students, but especially for African American males, who will? And if HBCUs don't play a leadership role in developing and implementing solutions to social, economic, and environmental problems that have disproportionately negative impact on African American communities, who will?

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