Along with spring and the cherry blossoms, America's top black educators came to Washington this week. During workshops, conferences and receptions at the Washington Hilton, they concentrated on ways to improve higher education at black colleges.
At a time when many of their institutions are threatened by declining student bodies and slashes in federal aid and student loans by the Reagan administration, these heads of the nation's 105 historically black colleges grappled with issues ranging from governmental and nongovernmental sources for raising revenues to strategies for keeping kids in high school so they can get to college.
They also discussed the need for blacks in the higher education community to form coalitions with other groups. "We assume there is power within the black community and we need to coalesce that power with churches, corporations and alumni," said Samuel L. Myers, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the umbrella organization.
But the negative side to coalitions, historically, was raised by John Hope Franklin, a noted historian formerly at the University of Chicago and now a professor at Duke University. He said that "the most respectable elements of society" have joined forces with "reprehensible merchants of violence" to "frustrate the principles of freedom and democracy."
Coalitions aside, however, one of the main topics of informal conversation was a book, "Blacks in College," by Jacqueline Fleming, a psychologist who is on the staff of New York's Barnard College.
According to Fleming, black students who attend black colleges may have a better chance to succeed than those in predominantly white ones. The reason for this surprising finding, said Fleming, is that blacks get better peer and mentor support at black colleges, which in turn produces greater intellectual growth and leadership skills that extend beyond graduation.
Stressing her point further, Fleming said, "Students in black colleges seem to have a virtual corner on intellectual satisfactions and outcomes during the college years."
Fleming's book resulted from a seven-year study of 2,500 black and 500 white students' development in 15 institutions representing a cross-section; it was funded by a $700,000 Carnegie Corp. grant.
As Fleming sees it, most black students have long been faced with an educational dilemma: white colleges provide them with the best facilities such as libraries, laboratories and teachers with good credentials, while tending to deny them interpersonal warmth with their peers and teachers. Black colleges, on the other hand, tend to have poorer than average facilities, but superior opportunities for significant attachments to friends and teachers.
But while her study was good news for the educators at the Hilton, you have to ask how relevant her study is for the majority of black students, 80 percent of whom attended white universities in 1985. To these, Fleming had a bit of counsel: "Behave as if you were in a black college environment. Make friends, assume leadership roles and seek out encouraging people despite obvious obstacles to doing so." In other words, be normal human beings, despite racism.
Many questions remain to be asked, perhaps in a follow-up to Fleming's study: What happens to black students after graduation from black universities compared with blacks who graduate from white ones; how many reach the upper echelons of their fields? How should predominantly white colleges that want to encourage black students modify their practices? The controversy over Fleming's book is probably only beginning to brew.
The day before the conference closed, the Rev. Leon Sullivan of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America, addressed a ballroom of black educators in sermon-like tones. "There are three Cs for black educational advancement," said Sullivan, "Confidence, Competence and Cooperation."
Commenting on the way some black children are falling behind their white counterparts in this high-tech, conservative age, he suggested that parents make intellectual pursuits take precedence over athletics and entertainment: "Blacks have been educating themselves from the hips down," he said. "It is time now to start educating ourselves from the waist up."