Racial tension rose on many colleges and university campuses last year, with protests erupting on dozens of campuses and a national debate over “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings” and freedom of expression. A recent survey of college and university presidents conducted by Insider Higher Ed and Gallup found that less than 25 percent thought race relations on campuses other than their own were good or excellent during 2015-16 (though 84 percent said race relations on their own campuses were just fine).
Amid this friction, many historically black colleges and universities are suddenly witnessing a surge in enrollment. Why? Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, a private, historically black liberal arts college in New Orleans, writes about this in the following post.
By Walter M. Kimbrough
As we begin a new academic year, many colleges and universities find themselves with heightened sensitivity around issues of race. Led by the unrest last year at the University of Missouri, dozens of campuses from coast to coast saw protests as students of color, particularly black students, reached a collective breaking point. As students saw their peers at Missouri create a national conversation and topple both a system president and campus chancellor, they found the courage to address similar concerns on their respective campuses.
A typical outcome was a list of demands. Several themes emerged from the campuses: changing names of buildings, more black students, faculty and staff, mandatory diversity training, targeted support and counseling for black students, and the creation of safe spaces including in designated residential halls. Campuses have responded in kind with task forces, new initiatives, and the hiring of chief diversity officers.
Recently, the University of Chicago made news by plainly stating to students that in an effort to protect academic freedom, they will not support trigger warnings, canceling speakers that might be controversial, or the creation of academic safe spaces. In contrast, others argued while academic freedom is important, we must not have environments which tolerate hate speech or harassment expressed as free speech.
The past year has been a great reminder for families as they prepare to select a college. Ask yourself what is important to you, and then find an institution that is a great fit for you. If learning from black faculty is important, going to a place where they are less than 5 percent makes little sense. If a curriculum that uses diverse points of view is a factor, attending an institution driven by the Great Books will create disappointment. If having a residential experience with students who look like you is important, attending a school where you see more black students on brochures than on a campus tour is a recipe for problems.
As a graduate of three predominantly white universities I still believe black students can thrive there, but only if they accept them for what they are and not some fantasy. As the president of a black college, I’ve noticed that students and their families are giving historically black colleges and universities, HBCUs, a second look, and many really like what they see.
Simply put, as we see young black people chant “Black Lives Matter” in the streets, their actions clearly indicate that black colleges matter as well.
Many HBCUs this year have seen enrollment jumps in the wake of the Missouri Effect. Freshman enrollment is up 49 percent at Shaw University, 39 percent at South Carolina State, 32 percent at Tuskegee University, 30 percent at Virginia State University, 22 percent at Dillard University, 22 percent at Central State University, 20 percent at Florida Memorial University, and 19 percent at Delaware State University. Dillard, Philander Smith College (overall enrollment up 29 percent) and South Carolina State University all rely on overflow housing to accommodate the influx of students.
Record freshmen classes were welcomed at Claflin University in South Carolina, and notably at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, a campus just miles from Ferguson and two hours from the epicenter of unrest, the University of Missouri.
The renewed interest in HBCUs should not be seen as a step backwards in race relations. In fact, black colleges provided the educational and spiritual grounding for America’s civil rights heroes. The fact that John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Diane Nash, and Martin Luther King Jr. attended black colleges in no way hampered their ability to work across racial lines. Rather, their HBCUs prepared them for this work.
Predominantly white institutions should continuously work toward inclusive campus environments because it is the right thing to do. This is tough work, and will require genuine leadership from the top (hint- hiring a chief diversity officer is not an answer; the president IS the chief diversity officer).
But students of color must have reasonable expectations. Demanding a school in a rural town of a homogeneous state to have large numbers of black faculty and staff will never happen. Prospective employees look for communities suitable for their needs, which may include schools for their kids that offer ideal communities those places will never be able to provide.
It appears prospective students are doing likewise, and at least for a higher number this year, they’ve found that historically black colleges are the best fit. For black students, HBCUs continue to serve as the original safe spaces.