Ph.d.’s in African American Studies at HBCUs: A Response to Where are They?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

This week Diverse: Issues in Higher Education ran a story entitled “Black Colleges Still Lacking Ph.D. African American Studies Program.”  The article rightly told the story of the development and expansion of doctoral programs in African American studies at historically White institutions and chastised Black colleges for having no programs — none at all.

According to a must-read book by Delores Aldridge and Carlene Young entitled Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies, the first courses that truly addressed the African American experience can be traced back to W. E. B. Du Bois’s teaching students at Atlanta University (now part of Clark-Atlanta University) in the early 1900s.  Although courses, like those  Du Bois taught, spread to some other Black colleges, the momentum never caught on.  According to Aldridge and Young, to date, no Black college has “required institution-wide a course with the black experience as its exclusive or primary focus” (p. 299).  Without this commitment, it seems unlikely that Black colleges would consider establishing a Ph.D. program in African American studies.

Of course, there are other reasons that make it difficult for Black colleges to create an African American studies Ph.D.  First, many leaders of HBCUs argue that all of the classes at an HBCU are taught with an Afrocentric perspective given that the focus of the institution overall is dedicated to the racial uplift of African Americans.  Critics of HBCUs would argue that Black college curricula is not Afrocentric and relies too heavily on Western perspectives.  Still other critics would argue that many HBCUs are often too conservative and unwilling to take risks with their curricula.

Second, very few HBCUs have doctoral programs.  In fact, out of 103 HBCUs, only 23 offer doctoral degrees.  Most Black colleges are just that — colleges and are focused on undergraduate education.  As such, it would make sense that there would be few doctoral programs in African American studies — but none is hard to justify!

Third, and this is perhaps the most convincing argument on the part of Black college leaders, doctoral programs are expensive to run.  They are especially expensive because most elite institutions (where the majority of African American studies doctoral programs are housed) can offer large fellowship packages to students — packages with which HBCUs cannot compete. 

Regardless of these reasons, Black colleges should aim to establish doctoral programs in African American studies.  They should lead the nation in providing a doctoral experience that focuses on the African Diaspora.  And, more importantly, they should produce future scholars and faculty members who will shape and challenge the minds of African American students.  In the words of Alan Colon, “HBCUs have the obligation to help change assumptions that have prevailed about the sanctity of Western civilization and the conventional ideologies that emanate from it” (p. 304, Out of the Revolution).


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).

4 responses to “Ph.d.’s in African American Studies at HBCUs: A Response to Where are They?

  1. As a person who attended an HBCU (Prairie View A&M University) in the late 80’s and early 90’s as well as received my Masters from the same University and then worked there for five years, I would take the side of the HBCUs. Most classes that I attended and that were thought by African-American professors would talk about issues that related to African-Americans (past, present, and future), regardless of what subject the class was. I think that being an African-American and going to class, living with, studying together, and socializing with other African-Americans you live and hear all the stories from parents, Grandparents, Great Grandparents, as well as friends of the various families you go around, so there really would not be a need for it at an HBCU. I think it serves better at a predominatly white university, because I think it’s whites and other ethnicities that need to know and understand our history just as much as we do. I took two semesters of history when I was an undergrad and I’m a history buff, so I learned more about my own history in those two classes then I ever had and plus with the amount of books out there to read on the subject if you really want to know more, you can easily get the information. I’m not saying that one of the other Universities, such as Howard, Morehouse, or Hampton should not offer these courses, but with the way budgets are and how difficult it is becoming for HBCUs to continue to operate, especially being questioned on should they even still exist, I think adding the African-American Studies program (especially Ph.D programs) is probably the last thing on these Colleges and Universities agenda. I know my school would rather add a Law and/or Medical program.

  2. Lonnie B. Davis

    “The cruel hoax of miseducation is that it denies to the miseducated the tools needed to detect the fact that they are miseducated, while emboldening its victims to confidently speak and write about matters which elude them, and while its victims vigorously fight to preserve the very system that miseducated them, completely oblivious to the glaring ignorance that they proudly display.”

    Dr. Carter G. Woodson

  3. Please explain why so many have been arrested wearing Obama t-shirts and why you can’t find any mug shots with Bush paraphanelia in them during his election years. There is a LOUD message here, but I am sure all of your uppity “ethinic” friends would not like to hear about it. I bet you live in a loft with a couple of cats and drink top shelf coffee don’t you?

  4. You know, the spirit of our african and african american ancestors should slap you for saying that African and African American studies are not needed at HBCU’s. Thats the most unintelligent argument I’ve heard of…ever!

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