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The once and future promise

Times columnist and editorial board member Bill Maxwell kept a promise to himself, to become a professor at a small historically black college, to nurture needy students the way that mentors had encouraged him as a young man. After two years, he returned to the Times.

By BILL MAXWELL
Published May 27, 2007


The conflict between my head and my heart over the future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities is reflected in enduring scenes from my two years of teaching at Alabama's Stillman College.

There were the young men who hung out at the entrance gates of the small Tuscaloosa school and had no interest in learning. They represented my frustration with too many students who arrived on campus unprepared for college, who failed to attend class or buy the textbooks, who refused to complete the assignments and who forced professors to coddle them.

Then there were those few dedicated students who saw Stillman as their only path to a brighter future. There was the young single mother who worked full-time at night and struggled to stay awake in class, the unpolished journalist eager to improve and find work at a newspaper, the young man who turned himself into an expert on President Bush's campaign speeches and dared to stand out from the hip-hop culture around him.

One group leads me to question whether historically black colleges are worth saving. The other is an inspiration and symbolizes why these institutions still are vital for many young people struggling to build productive lives.

Nearly a year after leaving the campus, I am only now resolving the conflict in my own mind.

Glory years are gone, but ...

Undeniably, the picture is bleak for many historically black colleges. There are more options for high-achieving black students, and integration has left these schools with diminished but more difficult roles in higher education.

The situation was different before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, when a degree from one of these schools was the primary route to respectability, success and the good life for black Americans. Back then, they enrolled most black college students and were responsible for the bulk of the black middle class.

The glory years are long gone, especially at the smallest of the 39 private schools that receive money and other support from the United Negro College Fund. Majority white campuses seeking ethnically diverse student populations are enrolling many of the nation's best black students.

Now only 1 in 5 black students earn bachelor's degrees from historically black schools, which have increasingly become dependent upon marginal students from poor families. Two-thirds of HBCU students receive federally funded Pell Grants, aimed at families earning less than $40, 000 annually. More than half of the students receive those grants at every HBCU except at 13 of the best schools, such as Spelman, Howard and Morehouse.

Studies show schools with a high number of Pell recipients tend to have low admission standards, and the reasons for their low graduation rates are well-documented. Most low-income students have parents who did not attend college, which often signals that their homes have few books or other reading materials. Many of the students never develop a love of learning, and they tend to perform poorly in class and on standardized tests.

The statistics reflect my experience as a professor between 2004 and 2006 at Stillman, which had fewer than 1, 000 students. Most of my students would not study, regularly turn in their homework on time or read the assigned material. I walked grumbling students to the bookstore to try to force them to buy their required textbooks.

These students lacked the intellectual vigor taken for granted on traditional campuses. They did not know what or whom to respect. For many, the rappers Bow Wow and 50 Cent were at least as important to black achievement as the late Ralph Bunche, the first black to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and Zora Neale Hurston, the great novelist.

In time, I realized that my standards were too high for the quality of student I had to teach. Most simply were not prepared for college-level work, and I was not professionally trained for the intense remediation they needed and deserved.

Many HBCUs, including Stillman, lack the resources and money to assist these students with effective remediation. These students naturally find friends on campus who share their streetwise, anti-intellectual views and behavior. They lose interest in education or become so overwhelmed they leave school altogether.

Only a handful of HBCUs, including Fisk University in Tennessee, Spelman College in Atlanta, Claflin University in South Carolina and Miles College in Birmingham, graduate more than half their students (The graduation rate at Florida A&M is 33 percent). These schools funnel large sums of money into remediation, advising and counseling. They also offer small classes so students have easy access to their professors.

Others, such as Southern University in New Orleans, Allen University in South Carolina and Stillman, graduate less than 30 percent of their students.

As the number and quality of students drop, historically black colleges cannot depend as they once did on the financial generosity of their alumni. The problem is compounded by the reality that many corporations and foundations scaled back their philanthropic efforts following the 2000 economic downturn. Many donors still are not as generous as they once were, and struggling HBCUs have been hit especially hard.

Stillman president Ernest McNealey regularly told this joke: "I have a very large tin cup ... and I'm constantly running through airports with my tin cup, and wherever the plane lands; I will go to the tallest building and work my way from the penthouse on down to the garbage unit with my tin cup. And whether it's the CEO or the janitor, I will hear this long story about the declining stock market."

It does not help that too many black colleges have serious management issues. The media has regularly reported academic, financial or administrative problems at schools such as Morris Brown in Georgia, Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Grambling State in Louisiana, Edward Waters in Jacksonville and Florida A&M in Tallahassee.

The numbers for many historically black colleges are not encouraging. Declining enrollments, loose admission standards and low graduation rates produce ever-tighter budgets, less reliable alumni networks and grimmer futures.

Excellence by the handful

Yet I cannot turn my back on these schools. I cannot forget what they did for me many years ago, and I cannot forget the handful of dedicated students at Stillman who were determined to succeed even in the face of the school's considerable shortcomings.

All of my public school teachers were HBCU alumni, and I admired them. My sisters graduated from HBCUs, Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach and Florida Memorial in Miami. Bernard Irving, my high school football coach, graduated from Wiley College in Texas and was responsible for my attending that school. I went there from 1963 to 1966, when I joined the U.S. Marine Corps. After I was discharged from the Corps in 1969, I went to Bethune-Cookman, where I graduated with a double major in English and history in 1971.

Just as those schools provided me with an opportunity, I tried to create the same chances for my most engaged students at Stillman. I had a few successes, but I mostly fell short.

A researcher for the Education Trust, an independent policy group, said in 2005: "Instead of a certain kind of student dragging down some institutions, we could just as easily argue that some institutions are dragging down a certain kind of student."

I found that to be true. I had a handful of excellent journalism students at Stillman who all had SAT scores below 1, 000. Ebony Horton, for example, was a natural-born reporter. She had an eye for a good story, knew how to find the right sources and was a better-than-average writer. She did not, however, have classmates who shared her enthusiasm and gift for reporting. As a result, she bowed to peer pressure: She often cut corners, handed in flawed copy and missed deadlines more times than I liked.

Because she had natural skills, Ebony interned at the Tuscaloosa News and after graduation landed a full-time job with the Dothan Eagle as a general assignment reporter. Although Ebony found a good job, I am certain that we ill-served her at Stillman because we lacked a critical mass of motivated, competent students and the right facilities that would have enhanced her skills.

The same was true of Cedric Baker. Even before he graduated, the Tuscaloosa News hired him as a part-time sports reporter, where he had a byline, sometimes two, each week. Ironically, he is on Stillman's public relations staff today. I regret that we did not have an environment that could inspire Cedric to produce his best work.

Three of my other promising students withdrew after only one semester. One of them, a young man from Mississippi who was a talented reporter and photographer, said: "I can't stand it here, Mr. Maxwell. Nobody's serious. The students don't study. They just bullshit all the time, and the administration doesn't care. It's all messed up."

He gave up on an HBCU and transferred to Millsaps College in Mississippi. I pleaded with him and the others to stay. I did not want to lose such potential. Although they came to Stillman with low standardized test scores, they were smart and highly motivated. They were precisely the kind of students most HBCUs were meant to serve: those who otherwise would not see a college campus.

These were young people who needed the second chance the HBCU can provide. As I watched these students languish, I knew I was not delivering a quality college experience to young people who deserved better.

Because of our lack of money, inadequate services and incompetent leadership, we were not giving these bright young people the same quality of education they would have received 2 miles away at the University of Alabama - which would not have accepted most of them because of their low test scores.

Make some hard choices

In the end, the numbers signaling the decline of historically black colleges cannot trump my affection for these schools. I appreciate what they did for me, and I appreciate the good they are doing today for their most dedicated students. Despite my disappointment at Stillman and the crises at many HBCUs, these schools still have an important role to play in society.

But to continue to play that important role, they must show huge improvement and make some hard choices.

The top-tier schools will continue to attract good students and remain vibrant, financially viable institutions. Among those familiar names are Spelman College and Morehouse College in Atlanta and Howard University in Washington, D.C., each a member of the so-called "Black Ivy League."

But some schools are so academically inferior and so poorly serving their students they should be shut down. Others, such as Lemoyne-Owen, which is millions of dollars in debt, are in such financial trouble that the operations should be handed over to independent agencies.

A few black colleges should merge into regional campuses. In Alabama, Stillman College and Talladega College are notable examples. Together, they could create a well-funded regional campus to serve thousands of students.

Because of students such as Ebony Horton, Cedric Baker and others, most historically black institutions still serve a valuable role. Although these students are intelligent, motivated, ambitious and morally decent, their low standardized test scores and low family incomes prevent them from attending most traditional schools. But they deserve a chance to discover their self-worth and mature into responsible adults, just as I did.

At Stillman, there were not enough of these dedicated students to overcome my own frustrations. Yet despite my personal disappointments, I am not willing to write off historically black colleges.

For the good they still do and the opportunities they still provide for deserving students with few other options, the majority of HBCUs are worth saving. It will take a lot of effort, but it is too important not to try.


Two years at Stillman

May 13: The first year: Trying to make a difference.

May 20: The second year: A bad situation gets worse.

Today: The epilogue: Should historically black colleges be saved?

 

School

6-year graduation rate
Spelman 74%
Miles 72%
Claflin 68%
Howard 67%
Morehouse 61%
Fisk 58%
Hampton 55%
Bethune- Cookman 35%
Grambling State 34%
Florida A&M 33%
Stillman 29%
Allen 23%
Southern University- New Orleans 22%
LeMoyne-Owen 18%
Edward Waters 13%

SOURCE: U.S. News