David Wilson is president of Morgan State University.
Recent demonstrations highlighting the lack of diversity and inclusion at many colleges have brought into focus the role of these institutions in ensuring that all students are truly part of a campus community. Many of the black students who have protested have indicated that they feel unwelcome on their campuses and that their universities are doing too little to promote a culture of inclusion. As one student wrote in November after portraits of African American faculty members were defaced at Harvard Law School: “We never have and still do not belong here.”
Student protests at the University of Missouri last semester led to the resignation of the president and chancellor. The presidents of Yale and Brown universities announced plans to invest $50 million and $100 million, respectively, to hire and promote more black faculty — and in Brown’s case, to create a “just and inclusive campus community.”
The focus on providing a nurturing environment to ensure student success is certainly not new to the United States’ historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These schools have a long, impressive history of developing black students into world-class leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. DuBois, Earl G. Graves and Oprah Winfrey. HBCUs have educated people endowed with confidence, who are culturally competent and who are well-prepared academically to shape a new society and a new world.
Given their rich history of educating such successful people, perhaps the HBCUs should develop some serious complementarity initiatives with institutions that are struggling to bend their cultures to be more inclusive. Perhaps it is time for us to begin, in a sense, dating each other.
Here is how such a relationship might work.
Imagine if Brown University partnered with Morgan State University to develop an exchange program allowing students and faculty from each institution to spend a semester on the other’s campus. Such an initiative would generate invaluable cultural experiences on both campuses, while underscoring a commitment to develop the whole student within environments that reflect the shifting demographics of the United States. After all, Morgan’s student body increasingly reflects the nation’s population more than the wealthy Ivy League institutions.
With such a partnership, the best of learning would occur, with successes to rival those of any global or international exchange. We could promote “study away,” not just “study abroad.” An upper-class white student’s “study away” experience on an HBCU campus, or a limited-resource, first-generation college student’s experience on an Ivy League campus, surely would be as transformational and educational as a semester spent in China or Europe.
Let’s face it: Across higher education, today’s black college students are rejecting efforts to sideline them. In our competitive society, such treatment is simply not acceptable. But the puritanical, centuries-old cultures that exist on many of these campuses cannot be modified by merely building a minority cultural center or recognizing a holiday. We must provide our students with prolonged exposure to cultures that are very different from their own. Doing so will give them a greater understanding of the American tapestry — and change our institutions themselves in ways that make students feel as though they truly are threads in the fabric. A partnership between HBCUs and the Ivy League could serve as a powerful example of what can be achieved in this way.
The Browns, Harvards and Yales of this country might find that those millions they’re setting aside to promote diversity can be used more effectively by supporting partnering experiences with institutions such as Morgan. Their students would be immeasurably more prepared for the world by having experiences beyond their own campuses that challenge their biases and cultural norms. We at Morgan are ready for those partnerships.
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