Liner Notes: Backdrop to "3 Things HBCUs Should Do"

This is a guest post by Donald Earl Collins. He is adjunct associate professor of history at University of Maryland University College. He previously taught at Howard University in the Department of Afro-American Studies and has written on topics such as multiculturalism, education, and African American identity.

cropped Donald Collins photoI come at the issue of the future of HBCUs, the topic of my article “Three Things HBCUs Could Do to Survive and Succeed,” from a number of perspectives. In 2000, I nearly took a full-time faculty position at Howard University. As an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall of 1990, I had applied to Howard to enroll in the MA program in History, only for the admissions office to lose my application for five months. As a nonprofit manager, I had worked with HBCUs like Morehouse College, Jackson State University, and Clark-Atlanta University to recruit students for social justice leadership development fellowships and discuss retention issues. Regardless of the hats I have worn, financial and accreditation crises have been part of my Howard and HBCU experience for a quarter-century.

What I have realized is that the issue of having sufficient endowments or having a physical and academic space suitable for an accredited higher education institution usually begins with a systemic approach to improvement. Depending on high-profile alumni, labels like “Black Harvard,” or 150 years’ worth of traditions is nowhere near enough. None of these will make HBCUs better for the students who want to attend and faculty who want to work in these much-needed American institutions.

My experiences as a potential and actual faculty member were especially instructive in guiding my ideas about what to do about the struggles HBCUs have in providing the best atmosphere and education for their students. My interview for a tenure-track position as an assistant professor in Howard’s Department of Afro-American Studies occurred in May 2000. The faculty was friendly enough. The process included showing me an office at the Founders Library that literally looked like it had been a janitor’s closet ten minutes before my arrival. It was next to a men’s restroom that likely hadn’t been renovated since the 1960s.

Then I had lunch with Howard’s faculty outside the Department of Afro-American Studies at the Administration Building, and the interrogation was something akin to being back in high school with a bunch of middle-aged faculty who may have been part of the popular clique. It was an hour of staid conversations, with lots of “Hey, Dr. So-and-So,” and “Great to meet you, Dr. So-and-So” in between. After this lunch, I felt about as welcome as a fox in a chicken coop, around faculty attempting to protect their tiny bit of turf.

Most academicians would take a sword and sacrifice their first-born child on a sanctified stone altar in order to say yes to any offer of full-time academic employment. But after that lunch, I didn’t want the job. The faculty’s Howard and HBCU traditions seemed more important to them than getting to know me, and any attempts on my part to get to know them beyond titles and traditions were met with derision.

In the summer of 2007, I taught the mis-titled Teaching Black Studies course in Howard’s Department of Afro-American Studies. It was really a research methods course in Black Studies, but the department chair wanted to attract pre-service teachers from the School of Education, hence the title. The main problem I had with administration was the time that they had scheduled my course. They originally wanted me to teach on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday noontime schedule. I preferred to teach an evening course. The department chair compromised, and gave me a 5 pm course that met Monday through Thursday.

My fall course fell through, as the latest time Howard wanted to schedule it for was 4 pm, and then kept the mislabeled course title on top of that. It was a disheartening experience, dealing with underprepared and entitled students, not to mention a lethargic faculty and administration. I learned later that Howard rarely offered evening, weekend or distance learning courses at the undergraduate level. I learned soon after that many HBCUs were more like Howard than they were like my student and teaching experiences at the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne and George Washington University.

There’s real income Howard and other HBCUs are losing to maintain an antiquated sense of the college experience for faculty and students, even as campus buildings are falling apart. Even among traditional students, working part-time jobs and having extracurricular activities make it difficult to fit in appropriate classes between 9 am and 4 pm, Monday-Thursday, and between 8 am and 2 pm on Fridays. Putting together course offerings that fit the schedules of twenty-first century students of color is a good place to start. HCBUs need to do and spend more to attract students, and thus attract more money.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.

One thought on “Liner Notes: Backdrop to "3 Things HBCUs Should Do"

  1. I can only agree with you 100% due to limitations in mathematics. Your janitor closet assessment was sad but true and I’m not surprised. I am a Maryland alum who interfaced with Howard as a client for several years followed by working at Howard for four years. In my MBA program Howard presented thee classic business case dream of how not to run an institution or business. My undergrad experience at another HBCU years ago was years of frustration as well so what’s not right at Howard is prevalent in other HBCUs except Howard is at the pinnacle. I’m not sure if there’s sufficient time for recovery. You might be aware that D.C was built on a swamp and a major tributary of the Denial River run underneath the campus.

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