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The Truth About Historically Black Institutions


A Joint Statement by the Presidents of Maryland's Historically Black Universities

The age-old debate over the role and relevance of Historically Black Institutions (HBIs) is again taking center stage.  That debate is fueled, in part, by the views of some people who seem to not understand that a main object of the civil rights movement was to enhance the educational opportunities for African Americans by both eliminating the vestiges of segregation and enhancing the facilities and capabilities of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  Apparently, one such person is U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Abigail Thernstrom, who seems to suggest in a recent Wall Street Journal column that the object of the civil rights movement was to eliminate HBIs rather than to enhance them.  She seems to imply that the jailings, the beatings, the burnings and the murders blacks suffered during the sixties were for the purpose of moving the most talented black students into white institutions rather than providing both black and white students equal opportunities to a quality education at either an HBI or a traditionally white campus.

Similar views are advanced by columnist and George Mason professor Walter Williams in a syndicated column now being reprinted in a host of newspapers in the South.  Such mistaken interpretations of the 1954 Brown decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the landmark 1992 Fordice Supreme Court case do a great injustice to HBIs and the students they continue to serve.  Most unfortunately, they threaten to open old wounds related to race and poverty.

In Maryland, the debate over HBIs was once again brought to the forefront by a recently-published article in The Sun.  It has moved from one or two college administrators to the media, state legislature and, most recently, into the courts.  On the surface, the issue may appear to be about the relative effectiveness of public colleges and universities in educating students. In reality, it is about funding and the way the desegregation law requires the distribution of that money between the ambitions of the well-established, affluent universities and the needs of the less-developed and chronically underfunded HBIs.  It is about the struggle to level the playing field in the competitiveness of all public universities in attracting students of varying academic achievement levels and racial backgrounds.

Maryland's four Historically Black Institutions account for 64 percent of African American undergraduates enrolled in the state's traditionally public four-year institutions.  That enrollment includes many high-achieving high school graduates, as well as significant numbers of students not eligible for admission to more selective institutions.  The best prepared students enrolled at the HBIs graduate at the same rates or better than similar students at other public institutions.  Also, HBIs do remarkably well in graduating other students, though large numbers of them are forced to drop out because of unmet financial needs and/or academic difficulties associated with full-time students holding full-time jobs.  A recent report of the Maryland Higher Education Commission clearly establishes a direct correlation between unmet financial need and low retention rates.  Students with unmet financial need are much more likely to have to dropout or stop out for a period of time.  Many of those who persist without stopping out will lower their course loads so as to better balance work with the pursuit of their degrees.  Both phenomena lead to lower retention and graduation rates.

Recent data show that Maryland's Historically Black Institutions have been productive beyond their enrollment percentages.  In 2006, they accounted for 56 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded to African Americans by traditional public four year campuses; 49 percent of the master's degrees awarded to African Americans; and 55 percent of the doctorates awarded to African Americans.  In the critical fields of the sciences, engineering and education, Historically Black Institutions awarded 52 percent of the bachelor's degrees in computer science awarded to African Americans by traditional public four-year campuses; 50 percent of the degrees in education; and 64 percent of the degrees in health fields.

At the master's level, HBIs accounted for 35 percent of the degrees in computer science awarded to African Americans; 55 percent of the degrees in education; 60 percent of the degrees in health; and 44 percent of the degrees in engineering, with only one HBI awarding degrees in the discipline.  The significance of Historically Black Institutions in degrees awarded to African Americans is even more pronounced at the doctoral level where, in 2006, they produced 75 percent of the degrees in education awarded to African Americans by traditional public four-year institutions; 60 percent of the degrees in engineering; and 100 percent of the degrees awarded in the health fields.

Despite their effectiveness, efforts to enhance Maryland's black institutions have been slow and exceedingly limited.  All of the HBI campuses continue to have very serious capital needs for renovation and/or replacement of existing buildings as well as for new facilities and equipment. This hinders our efforts to attract new students.  Clearly, this lack of adequate funding results in a widening of the historic gap in the relative capacity of HBIs and their public white peer institutions in carrying out their respective roles and missions. 

Perhaps the key to resolving the question of the role and value of our four HBIs lies in the earlier mentioned Sun article indicating that African Americans, Hispanic and other minorities now constitute the majority enrollment in Maryland's public schools.  These young people represent, in large part, the pipeline from which the future work force for the State's knowledge-based economy will be drawn.  Unfortunately, this new majority represents the greatest deficits in high school achievement and bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree production.  Addressing that condition must be the highest priority of the State, and, because of their effectiveness, the Historically Black Institutions can be invaluable assets in meeting this challenge. 

As presidents of the State's Historically Black Institutions, we believe it to be counter to the State's best interests to consider proposals that would limit choices and, therefore, access to higher education for African Americans, Hispanics, other minorities and low income students.  It is clear that doing so would reduce the number of such students who earn baccalaureate and graduate degrees at the time when the "New Economy" demands a larger and better-educated workforce. With the focus on maximizing the human capital potential of all the citizens of Maryland, now is the time to continue the state's OCR commitment to "...ensure that the HBIs are comparable and competitive with Traditionally White Institutions in all facets of their operations and programs..." 

Mickey L. Burnim
Bowie State University

Reginald S. Avery
Coppin State University

Earl S. Richardson
Morgan State University

Thelma B. Thompson
University of Maryland Eastern Shore

*This is the unabridged version of an article that was published in the Outlook section of The Washington Post, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008.