Monthly Archives: July 2008

Not Just One Dark Body: Scaling the Intercultural Mountain in the HBCU Classroom

By Dr. Pamela Reed

It is no secret that classrooms at historically Black colleges and universities are becoming increasingly culturally diverse, both with regard to faculty and students. More and more, international students and faculty contribute in a singularly significant way to this heterogeneous mélange. Whether they hail from the African continent, the Caribbean, South or Latin America, or other global ports, university students and faculty of color are more representative than ever of the diversity within the African Diaspora.

In my department alone at Virginia State University, the faculty is/has been comprised of citizens of Guadalupe, Panama, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Ecuador. We even had Fulbright Scholars from Kenya and Egypt. Not to mention German, and other European-descended faculty members. Besides that, during my three-year tenure, I have worked with students from (or descended from) Jamaica, Ghana, Honduras, Nigeria, Trinidad, Dominican Republic, Virgin Islands, Bahamas, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and Haiti, among others. Add to that mix American Indians and Caucasians. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon to the HBCU, but the numbers are steadily increasing with the passage of time.

Certainly, this turn of events is not unique to the HBCU. For beyond the manifest benefits of the mobility that is afforded to students who study abroad, economic and otherwise, there are numerous gains that are less obvious to the laic observer. Indeed, recent studies indicate that those who study abroad, while undoubtedly confronted with the stress of culture shock in the short term, are ultimately endowed with life skills that enable them to more readily handle the trials and tribulations confronted in today’s complex world.

By extension, a survey of the literature reveals that — because of increased cultural sensitivity and skills acquired in working with “the other” — American students matriculating at colleges or universities with appreciable numbers of international students are likely more capable of competing in the global marketplace. The same is presumably true of all students; however, in this instance it is the African American case under consideration.

Still, it is undeniable that this “diversity” and “multiculturalism” is a radical departure from the established norms of the American (and global) academy. Most assuredly, in recent years, colleges and universities around the world are grappling with this sea-change in the collective educational landscape. It is for this reason that academic departments, and positions devoted to diversity, inclusion, equal opportunity, multiculturalism, intercultural studies, area studies, equity (or whatever name individual universities choose to assign them) are burgeoning around the country, as well as the greater western world, and beyond.

Ironically, these areas are routinely overlooked in the boardrooms and cabinets of HBCUs. Along these lines, I recently submitted a personally requested proposal for a conference presentation on this very topic to a major national organization of HBCU professionals, and the silence was deafening. Similarly, I broached the topic with a high-ranking HBCU official who told me, in short order, that this is just not done at the HBCU, that this is the purview of majority institutions.

Indeed, because most of the faces in HBCU classrooms are of a darker hue, we typically ignore the need for multicultural affairs and intercultural conflict resolution in our midst. The time has come, I believe, to address this void in HBCU administration and student affairs, and hopefully come to the realization that we can no longer afford to view our student population as just “one dark body,” if I may borrow and extend W. E. B. Du Bois’ classic metaphor presented in The Souls of Black Folk.

Hopefully, moreover, the notion of a Black monolith will soon be forever abandoned, and a spark will be ignited, propelling HBCU’s to begin to actively and formally acknowledge the internecine tensions — often simmering beneath the surface — amongst the various groups of African descendants matriculating and teaching in our hallowed halls. That is not to say, I must hastily add, that all the branches of the Diaspora are not tributaries of the metaphorical river that is African culture; however, we must actively work on strengthening the ties that bind us — lest the African continent should instead become a distributary, from which the diverse branches of the said river flow away from the source, never to return.

To this end, elements of the cultural mosaic, focusing on the visible and invisible components of culture must be systematically explored. From language, gender, and national origin, to family, educational values and religion/spirituality, the rich diversity of the African Diaspora must be examined, not only within the context of the academy, but within real-world current events such as Darfur, or even the upcoming presidential election.

Lastly, the role of culture on teaching and learning styles should also be a focal point, and the profound impact of cultural competence of both faculty and students must be acknowledged and studied — and restudied. Last but certainly not least, we all benefit from cultural exchange and, thus, it is to be treasured, encouraged and nurtured at the HBCU in a programmatic way, comparable to “minority” or multicultural affairs operations at majority institutions. And this cultural panoply must be critically examined. In so doing, both our kinship and our diversity must be studiously regarded. So, yes, we are one. One dark body. But, when you scratch the surface, we are so much more.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant and assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

Accreditation of Black Colleges: Future Success?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

On Thursday, June 26, 2008, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) removed Florida A & M University (FAMU) from its list of institutions on accreditation probation.  The historically Black institution seems primed for success, with President James Ammons including all of the campus constituents in his plan for the future of the institution. 

Since Black colleges are found almost exclusively in the Southern and Border states, most of them are accredited by SACS.  In the past, this organization has been criticized for its disproportionate attention to HBCUs [for a thorough discussion of this issue see Understanding Minority Serving Institutions]. For example, between 1996 and 2005, 25 percent of the SACS’ sanctions related to HBCUs, while these institutions make up only 13 percent of SACS’ membership.  In addition, between 1989 and 2007, nearly half of the 20 institutions that lost their accreditation from SACS were historically Black. 

Most reprimands and revocations of accreditation are the result of financial deficits; however, faculty quality, campus infrastructure, and student enrollments play a crucial part in the accreditation process.  Unfortunately, the loss of accreditation often has a snowball effect, making it impossible for an institution to distribute financial aid, leading to a loss of students.  As a result, some of these tuition-driven institutions cannot recover financially, which dooms their chance at reaccreditation.

Of note, the SACS’ Commission on Colleges installed its first African American president, Belle S. Wheelan, in 2005.  The previous president led the organization for 20 years.  Wheelan recognized the past tension between Black colleges and SACS; she has worked to increase communication with and provide educational programming for HBCUs to better their ability to maintain accreditation.  Wheelan has also committed to hiring more Black employees to enhance the image of the organization and improve its relationships with HBCU members. Since Wheelan took office, SACS has placed fewer Black colleges on probation.

In response to the accreditation problems at many HBCUs, the Southern Education Foundation (SEF) established a Black college leadership program in 2004.  It is funded by the Mott and Mellon Foundations and run out of SEF’s Center to Serve Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The initiative provides small grants, ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 to HBCUs to assist them in maintaining their accreditation.  SEF also provides funding to HBCU leaders to attend the annual SACS conference, hosting a special, day-long conference dedicated to issues faced by HBCUs.  The goal, of course, is that HBCU administrators will gain the tools to succeed and will have the positive working relationships with SACS representatives that lead to open dialogue about accreditation issues.

The majority of the work in maintaining or regaining accreditation falls on the shoulders of HBCUs themselves, however.  HBCU leadership MUST hire the best administrators possible and empower them to do their best work.  These leaders MUST hold the highest standards for their staff and faculty and create working environments in which individuals develop a firm commitment to excellence.

With a new, energized leadership at many institutions and increased attention to the issue of accreditation, HBCUs seem poised for accomplishment.

 

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).

 

Post Script:  Belle S. Wheelan, the president of SACS’ Commission on Colleges, took issue with my depiction of her leadership of the organization.  She noted that her efforts at SACS have not been directed specifically at HBCUs, but instead at small, private colleges (most of which are HBCUs) that have had difficulty attaining or maintaining accreditation in the past.  She also noted that she herself has made no special efforts on the part of HBCUs and, in fact, does not have a vote in the accreditation process.