Daryl Michael Scott is a professor of history at Howard University.
Ron Stodghill’s exploration of the status of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) comes at a moment when our entire university system is imperiled. Since the rise of globalism, policymakers have insisted that the nation’s continued greatness depends on being the brains, rather than the brawn, of the world economy. Despite this, the federal government, reeling from war debt and the Great Recession, has joined states in limiting its investment in higher education. Increasingly, the justification for funding has shifted from the need for an educated citizenry to workforce development. We are witnessing the decline of the American research university and an existential threat to all but a handful of HBCUs.
A journalist and a professor at Johnson C. Smith University, an HBCU in Charlotte, Stodghill is committed to the future of HBCUs but calls on them to get their houses in order before it’s too late. While acknowledging that state policies and those of the Obama administration, especially changes in the Plus Loan Program, have created an economic hardship on HBCUs, Stodghill sides with reformers who, in general, believe in less dependence on government money, increased standards for admissions, merging and consolidating colleges, more accountability for administrators and boards of trustees, and constructing majors tailored to the marketplace. Unlike some of his interviewees, however, Stodghill believes in the standard justification for HBCUs: providing a more nurturing environment for students.
Unfortunately, Stodghill bases his case on historical myths. He holds the view that majority-white schools “poach” the best black students. (Who owns them?) He seems unaware that those deemed the best students often attended majority-white colleges even during the segregation era. Phi Beta Kappa keys from the Ivies and small Northern colleges were treated much like Olympic medals, while many HBCUs were considered a continuation of high school — which, given their inadequate funding, they often were. Without doubt, desegregation, along with new federal programs, brought better funding and transformed most HBCUs into viable colleges.
Stodghill also promotes the myth that once upon a time, dynamic, committed faculty members and administrators led HBCUs and pursued the path to progress. In this golden age, Howard’s Mordecai Johnson , Morehouse’s Benjamin Mays and Fisk’s committed faculty functioned with integrity and challenged backwardness. This leaves us with a false impression. Those reformers told of a different, more pervasive reality. According to progressive educators, the state HBCUs were run by sycophants who served the white supremacist governors loyally and ensured that black students would not get out of line. In religious schools funded by the American Missionary Association, the paternalism was often stultifying. Most black educational leaders, like our modern-day reformers, preached a gospel of make do with less. Back then, however, the black intelligentsia outright condemned that gospel as part of what Carter G. Woodson referred to as “the mis-education of the Negro.”
While Stodghill’s book has the feel of investigative journalism, the author’s greatest shortcoming is that he is often a captive to his sources, especially in his treatment of the financial crisis at Howard University, where I teach. Most major universities sold their hospitals decades ago to avoid financial devastation, but Howard hasn’t. In 2006, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams unilaterally rejected Howard President H. Patrick Swygert’s partnership proposal to build a second hospital and spin them both off under a separate corporate entity, which would have ended the university’s responsibility. Since 2013, the financial burden of the hospital has been a matter of public discussion as a result of a leaked memo written by Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, then a long-standing trustee. Based on an interview with her, Stodghill provides a salacious but largely irrelevant account of the dispute she had with then-Board of Trustees Chairman A. Barry Rand and never explores the larger question of whether the board has a viable plan to save the hospital without doing perhaps irreparable damage to the other colleges in the university. Given that the book focuses on the shortcomings of boards, we would have expected more investigation of the HBCU that is the best funded by far and considered the capstone of them all.
Stodghill does not ask what motivates trustees and what limits their ability to make the truly hard decisions. Even more than presidents, they sign on to do good and to virtually never do harm, or even risk it. This can paralyze or even prevent them from seeing, let alone making, the toughest decisions. No one joins to close programs that have been at the heart of a school’s mission, to do away with the things that gave meaning and purpose to their own lives. Who wants to close history and philosophy departments — fields at the heart of promoting democracy — in favor of criminal justice and medical records-keeping? What trustee wants to close or merge a university out of existence? And sometimes these issues are all too personal to be seen clearly. Higginbotham-Brooks credits Howard’s hospital and medical school with saving her life when she had breast cancer. It is easier to pass the problem along and hope for an intervention from without before death comes from within.
For the most part, Stodghill ignores any principled opposition to change. At Howard, Dillard and other HBCUs, the liberal arts tradition is in jeopardy. Ironically, Stodghill invokes the recent history in which protesters demand that HBCUs embrace the changes being mandated by our national obsession with science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM fields. As in the age of industrial education and Booker T. Washington, college is increasingly seen as a place for workforce development rather than intellectual growth and citizenship training. These Bookerites of STEM seem unaware that the fight to save and advance the humanities and social sciences at American universities stands in the age-old tradition of Thomas Jefferson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson and John Dewey. A nation reduced to a workforce will lack self-knowledge and will have trouble remaining a democracy. This old African American debate is the new American educational crisis.
By Ron Stodghill
Amistad. 258 pp. $26.99