By 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).