To those of us working at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Justice Antonin Scalia’s remarks that blacks would do better at “less advanced” universities came as no surprise. He is against diversity at predominantly white institutions because it interferes with the homogeneity of privilege. White folks always think their institutions are better, conclusions are right, ice is colder and research is more empirical. Maybeth Gasman and Nelson Bowan (2011) in “How to Paint a Better Portrait of HBCUs” in Academe, determined that the media quickly reports on the ills of HBCUs while ignoring their achievements. HBCUs provide the chance for higher education to students who initially need more support.
According to the National Center of Educational Statistics (NCES), HBCUs conferred 46,000 bachelor degrees in 2010-2011 and 73% of bachelor and master degrees at HBCUs went to black women. Scalia, like most biased critics, ignores the fact that students of color still receive the poorest quality educations in public schools. Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu demonstrates empirically that by 4th grade black students are behind two grade levels, by three at 8th grade and by four at 12th grade – meaning if they graduate at all, they do so with the equivalent on an 8th graduate education. Sonia Nieto has confirmed nearly identical results for Hispanic students. Graduation rates for blacks and Hispanics hover just above 50% nationally. Black and Hispanic students are an undervalued national resource. Should they be shunned from higher education because their school systems failed them? The answer is no.
Underprepared students do seek out HBCUs. Even with challenges, HBCUs are willing to admit them, provide support and expose them to the rigors of higher education. FMU, like other HBCUs, admits these students and offers an array of academic support services like tutoring in mathematics, reading and writing; summer pre-college intervention; retention strategies; mentoring and counseling on persistence. FMU has have an entire department (CASR) devoted to student persistence. Each freshman is assigned an advocate for advising and support. We monitor their academic performances each semester. Yes, some black students require more support but when they get it, they succeed. Charles McGee, one of our graduates, will complete law school at Florida International University this spring.
We HBCUs are not ashamed of our mission nor are we lesser institutions. HBCUs contribute value to American society and graduate some of our best professionals. The top graduates of my 1979 class from Miami Northwestern Senior High School began their academic careers at HBCUs and went on to success at predominantly white graduate schools – Hazel Dean (Spelman College to Tulane (PhD); Joycelyn Lawrence (Spelman College to University of Arizona College of Medicine (MD), Darlene Goring (Howard University to Northwestern University School of Law (JD, LLM) and Jeffrey Dean Swain (Morehouse College to University of Miami School of Law (JD) and Union Institute & University (PhD). All of us were nurtured in high quality HBCUs and earned degrees at predominantly white institutions. We all chose HBCUs over other schools.
Scalia confirms why HBCUs should never be questioned. Black folks need not beg at the doors of institutions that question our raison d’etre. Black people do not need the imprimatur of predominantly white institutions to be valuable. We should send all our students to HBCUs. Scalia is merely a reminder of our past impediments. HBCUs are the catalysts of our indomitable future. Our work is honorable. We are a national treasure.
Dr. Jeffrey Dean Swain is Dean of Campus Ministry at Florida Memorial University and author of six books on the African Diaspora experience in America.