Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dr Boyce Watkins Has some Harsh words for HBCUs

By Dr. Boyce Watkins

I recently saw a study stating that our Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are not graduating Black students at the same rate as non-Black institutions. This study was particularly disturbing, since many consider HBCUs to be a place of protection and support for students of color. We shouldn’t jump to immediate conclusions based on the results of the study, since piling all HBCUs into one category would be silly. Some universities have more rigorous admissions standards than others, and many top HBCUs do an excellent job of graduating students.

I was not able to attend an HBCU for college, since I had both bad grades and an empty wallet. I later hoped to teach at an HBCU, but getting a position with one is not as simple as you might think. During recent visits to a couple of prominent HBCUs on the East Coast, and speaking to many of my colleagues in the profession, I figured out what might be going on. I expected that my visits would be overrun by African American professors, all in support of strong, progressive Black scholarship. I assumed that those nurturing young African American students would be, for the most part, African American as well.

I was wrong.

Not only was I wrong, I was DEAD wrong. In fact, for many HBCUs, African American professors are as rare as popsicles in a forest fire. This is especially true in Schools of Business. To say that I was shocked and confused would be an understatement. I was devastated and curious to find out why African American professors have disappeared from HBCUs. How could HBCUs be given so much credit for nurturing young African American minds when there are few African American minds available on campus in the first place? Were Black professors choosing not to apply for positions with these schools? Were our most brilliant Black scholars forgetting about HBCUs and abandoning them?

It turns out that, in many cases, it is actually the other way around.

You see, in academia, there are cliques. Many of these cliques are formed around the ethnic background of the scholar. Some scholars protect those in their cliques and ensure that academic cronyism works in their favor. When African American scholars apply to many HBCUs, they are rejected for hire by someone who is not African American. The applicant is arguably at a disadvantage because they are not in the gatekeeper’s clique.

In other words, many of the primary decision-makers at American HBCUs are not African American, and they are refusing to hire African American faculty. So, rather than sending your African American child to learn from other strong African American professors, your child may go through his/her entire 4 years without having a single Black American professor in class. The nurturing support you expect your child to receive from people who look like him/her may instead be coming from BET or Maya Angelou books. HBCUs have, in some cases, become America’s next great plantation, where, like NCAA sports or our public school system, the product is Black, but African American managerial influence is kept outside the gate.

Does this mean that HBCUs are not a good investment for your child? Absolutely not, it depends on the institution. I am a huge fan of HBCUs and I feel that some HBCUs, such as Spelman and Morehouse, are better than any university on the earth when it comes to creating intelligent and empowered students of color. Am I saying that only African American faculty should teach at HBCUs? Of course not. Some of the greatest minds in the world are non-Black. What I am clearly saying is that if you are sending your child to an HBCU because you assume they will be taught by African American professors, then you may want to do a double take…..the African American professors may not be there.

So, when I see that HBCUs are not graduating African American students, I am not surprised. It may be the case that they are unable to graduate Black students for the same reasons that the public schools don’t graduate our kids either. The mentors left in charge of our children are, in many cases, not from our own community. So if you want your child to learn from other African Americans, be sure to check the stats – don’t judge the book by its color.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” For more information, please visit

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