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).