Tag Archives: Marybeth Gasman

Come on People! What’s the Big Deal about a President Welcoming Students Back to School?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009Ronald Reagan did it, George H.W. Bush did it, why can’t Barack Obama?  Why can’t public school children listen to our president welcome them back to school? 

I’ll admit that I was not the biggest fan of our last president, but I would not have a problem with him speaking to school children — reading a book to them, talking to them in front of their classroom, giving them a welcome back to school speech.   As an historian, I think it’s important and meaningful for children to see their president and hear what he (or she) has to say.  They don’t have to agree with him — they can put their heads down, for that matter — but they should have some exposure to the leader of our country.  After the speech, teachers could tease out the ideas and ask the students to debate them — we do want our children to think critically, right?  Or, if the speech is what the White House says it is, teachers can just continue with the first day of school — motivated by the words of the president.  Barack Obama is a man, who despite many obstacles, made it to the presidency.  His journey to the White House, educational achievements, and role as a father are certainly ideals that we can all admire as citizens of the United States.  He is the embodiment of the American dream.

So, why would someone object to President Barack Obama delivering words of welcome to our nation’s young people?  I can think of only two reasons and they both begin with “P”:  extreme partisanship or prejudice.  Although Obama ran on a platform of bringing people together, he is a figure that can be easily used to polarize people.  In addition, since Obama became president, we have seen prejudice and racism rear their very ugly heads way too many times.  People who have benefited from the status quo are scared that their way of life may change.  The president has been accused of being a Communist, a Socialist and the like for proposing that we “be our brother’s keeper,” that we take care of one another in this nation of ours.  Interestingly, this is a similar message thatwe give our children in school.  We tell them to be kind to one another, to treat each other with respect, and we discourage bullying.  I know my 10-year old daughter is graded on her treatment of others and respect for diversity in the Philadelphia public school system.

Presidents have influence that can be used in good and bad ways — we have seen this throughout history.  Motivating our young people to stay in school and pursue college is a good and is vitally important given our high dropout rates and need to increase college enrollment.

The positive aspect of all of this Obama speech hub-bub is that most liberals and conservatives agree that it’s fine for the president to welcome students back to school with a speech.  It’s typically those at the fringes (regardless of party) that have issues with these kinds of actions.  Those in my friend circle — Democrats and Republicans alike — think it’s not only appropriate, but, in fact, patriotic to listen to our president on the first day of school.

 

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).

 

It’s HBCU Week in Washington DC: Let’s See What the Future Holds

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009Every year, I attend the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference, which is held in Washington D.C. in September.  It’s a unique event in that it brings together the leaders of both public and private HBCUs with members of the federal government, funders, and those representing the private and nonprofit sector.

This morning I had the privilege of listening to the new Executive Director of the White House Initiative John S. Wilson talk about his goals for HBCUs.  Wilson a dynamic and entertaining speaker who has a wonderful ability to appropriately incorporate history into his vision for the future of HBCUs.  Wilson is also a straight talker who realizes HBCU success and the success of their graduates is tied to improved graduation rates and increased outcomes across the board, including stronger endowments, higher alumni giving, lower attrition rates, lower deferred maintenance, higher faculty salaries, lower faculty teaching loads, and higher enrollments.  Of course, the only way to increase outcomes at HBCUs in the way that Wilson describes is to provide these institutions with the necessary support and the appropriate tools for success.  Wilson understands that increased support for infrastructure and tools for capacity building are essential.

Wilson’s agenda for HBCUs is results-oriented.  He mentioned strategies such as “collecting data to make the case for HBCUs.”  He specifically told the large audience of HBCU supporters that we all need to  Recover, Uncover, and Discover HBCUs.  First, he encouraged HBCUs leaders to recover the history of HBCUs and to share that history of success with others, noting “you can have a great history without a great heritage.”  From this historian’s point of view, it was  refreshing to hear an HBCU leader point to new examples of the contributions of HBCUs — their role in increasing literacy rates in the United States, for instance — rather than the same examples that are pointed to over and over.

Second, Wilson asked the audience to “uncover” the problems and challenges that HBCUs face, saying “we cannot fix what we do not examine.”  Although there are risks in pointing to the problems that HBCUs confront, it is absolutely essential to their future that we identify these problems, interogate the reasons for their existence, and work diligently to tackle them in an effort to make HBCUs stronger.  Wilson urged HBCU insiders to shine a light on their challenges; this is imperative because if HBCU supporters don’t shine this light, others will.  Wilson also wants us to hold HBCUs responsible for the education of their students, but he also wants to hold the Federal government responsible, admitting that in the past there has been “bias and bureacracy in federal funding to HBCUs.”

Third, Wilson asked the group of HBCU leaders to “discover” HBCUs all over again, emphasizing that HBCUs are often well-kept secrets.  These institutions boast some of the best programs and resources for educating African-Americans and other students.  There is much to be learned from their strategies for success, but all too often HBCUs fail to highlight success and to share their legacies with those outside the HBCU community.

In closing, Wilson said one of the most important things I have heard in years pertaining to HBCUs.  Based on his own personal experience at Morehouse College, he talked about the student who loves his HBCU, but doesn’t always like it.   He noted that the way that HBCU leaders handle this student is absolutely key to the future success of HBCUs.  If you engage the student in making changes that strengthen the institution — if you listen to him or her — more than likely, you end up with a lifelong supporter of your institution and a donor.  But, if you ignore the student and dismiss his or her perspective, the result is an alumnus who never looks back with fond memories and never gives back.

In my opinion, Wilson exemplifies President Barack Obama’s stance on HBCUs and  articulates the Obama vision for these institutions as well as higher education overall.

Get and Give All You Can: Advice for New Graduate Students

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009It’s that time of year — new graduate students are setting foot on campuses across the nation hoping to gain knowledge and have new experiences that will help them progress in their careers.  As a professor and adviser, I get really excited about new graduate students.  They are usually wide-eyed, excited, and eager to get started.  However, after a semester, I often sense their frustration with the academy.  So, I thought I’d offer a bit of advice for getting (and giving) the most out of your graduate experience.

1.   Keep an open mind.  Don’t let the students who have been around for a few years color your experience.  Make your experience your own experience and enjoy it.  This is one of the most wonderful times in your life — oh to be able to just think!

2.  Get to know the faculty members in your program.  Make appointments with them a few months into the semester.  This is especially important if you are enrolled in a master’s program and you want to enroll in Ph.D. programs in the future.  Most master’s programs are short and you need to get yourself on the radar screen of faculty members right away so that they are willing to write letters of recommendation for you.  Getting to know faculty members and having good intellectual conversations and debates will stimulate your thinking.

3.  Ask faculty members if you can help them conduct research and write articles.  You can do this in one of three ways: serve as a research assistant for a faculty member and learn the ways of writing and research in an apprentice-like way; ask to be a partner in a current research project (making sure to negotiate co-authorship if there are publications involved); or bring one of your own ideas to a faculty member and ask them to partner with you and serve as a co-author (with your name as first author).  One of the best ways of learning in graduate school is through collaboration around ideas.

4.  If you truly enjoy a class that you are taking and you do well when grades are given at the end of the semester, ask the professor if you can serve as a teaching assistant (paid or unpaid) for the class the next time it’s offered.  As a teaching assistant, you can gain experience grading, facilitating class discussions, lecturing, and designing a syllabus. 

5.  Most universities have many different cultural events, speakers, and organizational activities.  Frequent these.  The relationships that you establish across disciplines can be wonderfully beneficial and long lasting.  In addition, interacting with people outside your program or discipline keeps you on your toes and intellectually stimulated.

6.  Read, read, read.  Although there is typically more reading assigned than can possibly be digested in graduate school, do it or as much of it as you can!  Being well read is essential in life, especially if you plan on being a professor.  In addition, reading makes for better writing.  Study the way people write, keep track of smart phrases and uses of language and pull them out later when you are writing.  Read all kinds of things — fiction, magazines, newspapers, journals, blogs — reading non-academic works keeps you in touch with the rest of the world and stimulates creative thinking.

7.  Attend conferences even if it means rooming with lots of other students.  Sometimes graduate students make the mistake of only operating within their own institutions or only listening to the perspectives of their program’s faculty members — don’t do that!  Get out there and gain many different perspectives.

8.  Get in the habit of writing every day.  There is a great deal of research that shows that if you write every day, you will be a better writer, a more productive writer, and that writing will come more easily to you.  Writing becomes natural instead of feeling forced.  Even an hour a day can keep you motivated.

9. Stay focused on ideas and not academic politics.  Asa Hilliard, my wonderful mentor, gave me the best advice when I was a new faculty member.  He said, “live for ideas not academic politics” — such sound advice.  I have faltered a few times, but once my head clears, I let the politics go and get back to the work.  The work is what is important to making change and making a difference in the lives of others.

10.  Make sure that you give as much as you get.  Find something about which you feel immense passion and give as much as you can to whatever it is.  The only way to sustain an academic career, or any career for that matter, is to pursue something that makes you want to get up each day and go at it. 

Good luck new students!

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).

 

White Privilege: What if Henry Louis Gates had been White?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009By now, most enlightened people have heard about the incident involving Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Mass., police.  As a recap, the Cambridge police arrested the eminent scholar in front of his home.  Just having returned from filming a PBS special in China, Gates, along with his Black taxi driver, were trying to loosen the lock on the front door of his home.  A concerned woman called the police noting that “two black men” were forcing their way into a house in her neighborhood.  Although Gates was already in the house making a phone call to the real estate company that manages his home, the police arrested him. 

Gates’ arrest made me wonder what would have happened in this situation if he had been White.  It seems to me that whenever I am questioned by the police, they give me the benefit of the doubt.  Why? (of course I know why) Let me offer a recent example in which I thought to myself — ‘Hmmm what would have happened had I been African American?’ 

A few months ago, I was driving a friend home who lives in an area of Philadelphia that is considered “dangerous.”  The area is typically heavy with police officers as many people cruise the streets looking for drugs at night.  I dropped off my friend and started to drive home.  As I am not great with directions and it was dark, I got a bit disoriented and accidentally made an illegal right hand turn.  Within minutes the police were behind me, pulling me over.  They began asking me what I was doing in the neighborhood (most likely assuming that I was trying to purchase drugs) and where I was going.  I responded, “I just dropped off a friend after having dinner.  I’m trying to get home.”  Sensing that the officers didn’t quite believe me ,  I said, “I’m a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I just need to get to West Philadelphia where I live.”  The officers let me go immediately and, in fact, they helped guide me back to the main road that would take me home. They also apologized for suspecting me of anything but the traffic violation.

I was pretty shaken after this incident as any interaction with the police makes my pulse quicken.  As I drove home, I wondered what would have happened had I been African American.  Would my “I’m a Penn professor” plea have worked?  Unfortunately, based on the experiences of so many of my African American friends who have been stopped by the police for merely walking/driving/sitting while Black, I know what would have happened.  I now have a definitive answer in Henry Louis Gates’ encounter with the Cambridge police. 

Gates was in his doorway.  I was in my car, far from my home.  I was given a pass immediately by the police.  I can’t help but think my “Whiteness” was a benefit.  Unfortunately, most White Americans do not realize that they walk around with the immense privilege of being given the benefit of the doubt in most situations.  Post-racial America?  Where is this America? 

Let’s hope that people realize that racism is alive and well in America — that they own up to it, take ownership of it.  Better yet, let’s work as hard as possible to counter and confront these racist incidents, to educate those around us, and to fulfill the vision of our current president. 

I think President Obama said it best during his inaugural address:  “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

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).

Paul Quinn College: To Save or Not to Save

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman, Ph.D.

gasman2009Recently, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) voted to revoke Paul Quinn College’s accreditation, noting financial and academic problems. In the same breath, however, SACS acknowledged the excellent work being done by Paul Quinn’s president Michael Sorrell in recent years. Sorrell plans to appeal the SACS’s decision.

The loss of accreditation at Paul Quinn has been the subject of quite a few editorials and news stories over the past week.  Some editorials call for the support of the institution, noting its contributions to the community, nurturing educational environment, and recent progress.  However, other editorials and news stories have not been so supportive and in fact, have questioned the very existence of the institution.

On Tuesday, June 30, 2009, Mike Hashimoto wrote an editorial in The Dallas Morning News asking why anyone should support Paul Quinn College.  He noted that many in the Dallas area, where the small college is located, were calling for support of the institution.  He wondered why.  When supporters claimed that losing Paul Quinn would lead to increased job loss, Hashimoto countered, “there can’t be more than a relative handful of jobs on that campus.”  When supporters noted the diversity that Paul Quinn brings to the Dallas community, he exclaimed, “Diversity? It’s a historically black college so not really.”  When supporters claimed there would be an educational hole in the community without Paul Quinn, Hashimoto stated, “Hole in the community?  Down to 375 students, I’d argue not a very large one.”

Although Hashimoto makes a few interesting points in his editorial, he is not an informed critic of HBCUs.  He knows nothing about these institutions and their history.  He doesn’t understand the role that Paul Quinn has played in bolstering the lives, economy, and education of its surrounding community for decade upon decade.  Hashimoto doesn’t comprehend that the faculties and staffs at HBCUs offer more diversity than most of their “historically white” counterparts.  Moreover, he fails to realize that there is great diversity among Black Americans — being an historically Black college does not mean an institution lacks diversity in any way, shape, or form!  Hashimoto also fails to recognize the unique environment boasted by most HBCUs — one that nurtures and supports mainly low-income, first generation students regardless of the resources on hand.

What Hashimoto gets right is his assessment of the lack of support in the Dallas community for Paul Quinn.  Given the importance of the institution, it is imperative that both the majority and African American communities get behind the small college and support it regularly and systematically.  My good friend Nelson Bowman, the Director of Development at Prairie View A & M University (another Texas HBCU) often talks about “crisis fundraising” and how HBCUs sometimes fall back on this approach when in difficult situations.  In his words, the approach is  “Give us money or we will have to drop the program, go out of business or fail to provide for people who need us—and it’s going to be your fault.”  One need only recall Morris Brown College and its recent financial woes — resulting in the water company threatening to shut off the institution’s water supply.  Support during a crisis is not enough — if people in the community want the benefits of an institution, they need to support the institution regularly.  And the institution needs to ask for help regularly and not just practice “crisis fundraising.”

In 1872 a small group of African Methodist Episcopal (AME) preachers created Paul Quinn College — one of a handful of AME colleges.  These institutions are unique in that they were created by African Americans for African Americans and in that way they are American treasures that need to be held up as examples of African American agency and forethought.  It’s time for those in the community of Dallas as well as the Paul Quinn alumni to stand up for this institution now during a time of need and later during times of prosperity.

I’m hoping that President Sorrell can convince SACS and others that Paul Quinn College is back on track in terms of its ability to educate young minds.  I’m also hoping that he can keep up the good work being done by the institution and that this good work will be recognized by those in the community and especially the institution’s alumni.  Perhaps even Mr. Hashimoto will take notice.

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).

 

HBCUs a “Land of the Lost”? I Don’t Think So

MBPortraitClose2By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

Today, I came across a blog post written by a colleague who has worked in the HBCU community for many years. He titled the post Land of the Lost — after the Sid and Marty Krofft TV show and more recently, the movie.  At first glance, I thought the post was a review of the movie and was ready to move on to something more interesting.  However, as I read down the page, I noticed his post compared HBCUs to the Land of the Lost.  I had to keep reading given my research.

In the post, which I encourage you to read and respond to, my colleague, based on his experience working at HBCUs and working for affiliate organizations, is highly critical of these important institutions.  He compares HBCU presidents to the tyrannical dinosaurs in the movie, HBCU faculty to the Sleestack (lizard-like creatures), and students to Pakuni (I’ll let him explain that comparison).  At first, I was enraged given what I know about stereotypes of HBCUs and their leaders — admittedly, I’m still slightly enraged.

However, after re-reading the post several times, he makes some interesting points (albeit his criticisms could be lodged against any institution regardless of racial history).  With regard to college presidents, he calls for more transparency and more open debate.  I agree that open debate and clear processes should always be the goal on a college campus.  With regard to faculty, he points out the heavy teaching loads at HBCUs and how these loads stifle creativity.  Although HBCUs are primarily teaching institutions, it would benefit these colleges and universities if they more readily encouraged research and exempted faculty from some of their teaching duties to pursue research (funded and unfunded). With regard to students, although my colleague believes in their potential, he thinks they need to more deeply explore this potential — defying peer and parental expectations.  This could be said for all college students, by and large.

The problem my colleague has, as well as others who heavily critique HBCUs, is that he fails to realize that the problems with leadership, heavy teaching loads, and unexplored potential are issues at all institutions.  Yes, these issues manifest at HBCUs, but they also surface at historically White institutions and have for centuries.  Merely pointing to problems within the HBCU context as if they are race-based problems is dangerous.

A perpetual believer in what is good and right, my colleague ends with the following:  “HBCUs must be relentlessly creative in making education relevant and continue to be a fearless advocate for those whom society would consign to the abyss of hopelessness.”

Now this is something about which we can both agree.

Check out Land of the Lost and participate in an open debate at http://dlpeterkin.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/land-of-the-lost/

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).

Intellect and Discipline: The Keys to a Successful Academic Career

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

I have a good friend who is the most brilliant individual I know.  He has a mind that most of us would kill for — at least most academics would.  He is well-read, possessing a deep, almost stunning, knowledge of diverse subjects.  He thinks in innovative and refreshing ways.  He also has the “proper” educational background to succeed as a professor.  In fact, given what is often valued in society, he could go just about anywhere with his three Ivy League degrees.  What is the problem you might ask?  He lacks discipline!  He is fascinated by everything, yet easily bored.

I typically feel confident in my intellect.  However, I did have a professor in graduate school once tell me, “Marybeth, you may not be the smartest person, but you work harder than anyone I know.”  Of course, he was probably right no matter how much the comment stung.  He had a point now that I think about it.  One can be wonderfully, almost beautifully intelligent, but it doesn’t amount to much unless you are disciplined. 

Often students and faculty members will ask me — “How on earth can you be so productive?”  The secret is discipline.  As an academic, you must find time to write and I have learned over the course of my career that you need to compartmentalize your days.  There is always something to do — ideas to explore — and your work will spill over into every aspect of your life if you let it. 

Work expands (read that in a book once and firmly believe it).  So, what do I do?  I write every day but Saturday.  During the week, I usually begin at 9 a.m. and write (and do research) until roughly 2 p.m.  I schedule all meetings and teaching after 2 p.m. unless absolutely necessary. On Sundays, I write in the evenings after my daughter goes to sleep.  I’m not saying everyone needs to do this — but you need a routine, you need discipline.

Why this writing schedule and why this discipline?  As I explained to another  good friend the other day, most academics have a mission that they work toward fulfilling — they live life for a bigger reason than themselves.  I am one of these folks.  I don’t live merely for material possessions, but instead I thrive on the exploration of ideas and the solving of problems.  I consider research a mystery and writing the pathway to solving a mystery.  I am not a dreamer but a doer!  Without this kind of passion and discipline, intellect will get you and more importantly, society nowhere. 

I tell my doctoral students, as well as those masters and undergraduate students interested in a faculty career, that crafting a workable routine that is rooted in discipline will help them succeed.  Having a sense of discipline also means knowing when to say “no” — this is especially important for women and people of color who tend to be asked more than others to do service-related work in the academy.  Having discipline also means learning how much time to spend on teaching and advising.  These areas are probably my favorite part of my job, but I realized long ago that being productive in terms of publications gives you a stronger voice in the academy — a voice that leads to more freedom in the classroom and a greater ability to take care of and advocate for your students.

Lastly, discipline means knowing what you are good at and focusing on that area.  Too often academics try to be good at everything — becoming a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’.  We forget that as professors we have a lifetime ahead of us to explore new ideas.  Focusing on a few ideas at a time — becoming an expert in one or two areas — works to our advantage.  Plus, no one likes a “know it all”!

So back to my friend mentioned at the beginning of this post.  I am working diligently to help him increase his level of discipline.  I’m modeling good behavior.  Hoping that the issue is nurture not nature at play because “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”

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).