Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Booker T 2

Last updated: Tuesday 11/5/13 @ 7:16 am
Dr. John S. Wilson, the former Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs and now President of Morehouse College, posted an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year that was titled,"Wealthy Americans, Meet Historiclly Black Colleges. Again." (Chronicle, 11/5/12)

Booker T 1 ==> Andrew Carnegie's gift to Tuskegee

Wilson's op ed noted the substantial contributions that wealthy Americans had made at the beginning of the 20th century to what are now called HBCUs, contributions that were capped by Andrew Carnegie's gift of $600,000 to Tuskeegee Normal and Industrial Institute (a/k/a "Tuskegee University") after Booker T. Washington's speech at a fund raising rally in New York's Madison Square Concert Hall on April 14, 1903. 

The rally was attended by the nation's industrial and financial elites. Wilson also noted that, as a percentage of Gross National Product, Carnegie's donation would be worth roughly $350 million today. In essence, he asked the following question: if Mr. Washington could extract such a huge donation  from a wealthy American back then, can HBCUs extract comparable support from wealthy Americans today? And he expressed confidence that his question should receive an affirmative response.

... but I'm not so sure because I don't think that Wilson's op ed provided sufficient context for his question nor for his optimism. To be specific, why were the nation's elites so responsive to the pleas from the most prominent black American who was also the most prominent spokesman for black higher education? Wilson asserts that Washington's "strong case for black education dwarfed his controversial views on racial equality. Washington was captivating." 

I have no doubt that Washington was captivating, even though I can't find a copy of his speech on the Web. But I have read enough of his other speeches to know that he knew how to present a persuasive case to powerful white audiences; and I am also sure he would have emphasized the same points in this speech as in his other speeches that appealed for support for Tuskegee and for other HBCUs.
  • IMHO Washington's controversial views on racial equality could never dwarf his appeal to America's industrial elite because his acceptance of "separate but equal" was at the core of his appeal.
     
  • Also at the core was his opposition to unions.
     
  • As was his focus on industrial education, vocational education if you will, and his disavowal of professional or liberal arts programs
In other words, Mr. Washington was asking for an investment in the production of highly skilled, politically docile, low wage black workers who could help maintain an industrial system that had made many of his white listeners fabulously wealthy. How could they refuse? Indeed, Mr. Carnegie was so impressed by Mr. Washington's personal views in his speech and in his autobiography, Up From Slavery, that according to the New York Times, his letter transmitting the funds to his financial agent for Tuskegee's endowment (in 5% U.S. Steel bonds) contained the following specifications:
  • "I give this without reservation except that I require that suitable provision be made from the gifts for the wants of Booker Washington and his family during his own and his wife's life. I wish that great and good man to be entirely free from pecuniary cares that he may be free to devote himself to his great mission.

    To me he seems one of the greatest of living men, because his work is unique, the modern Moses, who leads his race and lifts it through education to even better and higher things than a land overflowing with milk and honey."

    -- As quoted in "$600,000 for Tuskegee and B T Washington" (NY Times, 4/24/1903)

     
  • It must noted that Mr. Washington was profoundly embarrassed by the personal gift and that he subsequently persuaded Mr. Carnegie to remove this provision from the donation. 
All of the above does not prove that the capitalists/philanthropists of the early 20th century only acted in their own self-interests. However, given how often these "Robber Barons" loudly proclaimed their belief that their self-interest was justified because it was the most powerful engine of modern capitalism, self-interest must always be regarded as the primary driver, if not the only driver of their actions.


Booker T 2 ==> Support for HBCUs from Today's Wealthy Americans
Mindful of the precedent set by Mr. Washington's highly successful appeal to the self-interests of the wealthiest Americans in the early 20th century, Dr. Wilson's question should now be rephrased as, "How can HBCUs make successful appeals to the self-interests of the wealthiest Americans for their support in the early 21st century? Or put another way, "How can today's wealthiest Americans be persuaded that HBCUs provide good investment opportunities?"

This is by no means an "academic" question. It is an existential question. Indeed,  every President, Provost, Dean, Chair, and member of the senior staff of every HBCU and of thousands of non-HBCUs must devise effective answers to this question in order to ensure the survival of their institutions in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Unfortunately, I haven't devised an effective answer for my own HBCU yet; but I think I know what some ineffective answers look like, e.g.:
  • Appeals for support based on HBCU's historical provision of undergraduate and graduate education to most of the nation's traditional black professionals, i.e., black doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, dentists, etc, etc, etc.

    Why should wealthy Americans give a damn, especially those that know that 91 percent of today's black undergraduates are now attending non-HBCUs? How will rich Americans get even richer or just keep their current riches by supporting HBCU programs that will produce a decreasing share of the nation's black doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers, etc?
     
  • Appeals for support based on HBCU's continued production of a disproportionately large share of the nation's black baccalaureates in STEM fields. (See the post on this blog, "HBCUs -- the Best Producers of Black Graduates in STEM")

    The fat cats who hustled their billions in STEM technology, especially via highly successful Web start-ups, know that this game is not so much about quantity as quality. We're not talking about Mr. Booker T. Washington's black masses here because there is an ever increasing chance that mediocre STEM talent of any color will be replaced by robots and other forms of artificial intelligence. We're talking about highly creative, ergo indispensable talent, the Talented Tenth of Dr. DuBois. HBCUs may be producing more black baccalaureates in STEM, but most of the black creme de la creme in STEM fields are now attending Harvard, other Ivy League colleges, Stanford, UC Berkeley, M.I.T, Cal Tech, and the nation's other top ranked colleges.

    However, the good news within the bad news for HBCUs, but bad news for the nation as a whole, is that very few black students from the nation's most elite campuses have become STEM-based entrepreneurs. Indeed there is reason to be concerned that elite black students' perceptions of and aversion to continued prejudice in these fields at elite campuses is leading them away from STEM studies. (See Maya A. Beasley,'s
    Opting Out, Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite (University of Chicago Press, November 2011)

    This is good news for HBCUs because the "quality matters" sword cuts both ways. Elite non-HBCUs may enroll a larger share of black America's Talented Tenth, but it won't matter if HBCUs enable their smaller share of this elite to become far more productive. That's why campus-based initiatives for entrepreneurship are so important, e.g., the HBCU Center for Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship that will be launched at the HBCU Innovation Summit (October 29 to Nov 1, 2013 at Stanford University) sponsored by UNCF and the White House Initiative on HBCUs.

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