Charles Hamilton Houston, the Dean of Howard Law School born 118 years ago this past Tuesday, trained minds that transformed American jurisprudence with the attitude that a lawyer is “either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Howard and her sister HBCUs have approached a century and a half of teaching, research, and service with the same attitude. Having led in the fight to dissolve American Apartheid, HBCUs now face a broader opportunity to complete their journey to global relevance as social engineers in a post-integration, post-American world.
On Thursday, September 5, students, faculty, administrators, and alumni convene in Cramton Auditorium for the Third Annual Howard-Morehouse “More Than a Game” Symposium. The topic: The future of the country’s 105 historically Black Colleges and Universities. One hundred and seventy-six years after the Institute for Colored Youth (the forerunner of Cheyney University) opened its doors in South Philadelphia and 146 years after the founding of Howard and Morehouse, HBCUs face a higher education landscape that has often used Black students parasitically, to the incidental detriment of the very Black learning institutions that helped engineer America’s social transformation.
Integration had an unanticipated effect on HBCUs. Once-segregated HWCUs now exhibit dismal graduation rates for the Black students they admit. Surgical integration by a self-celebratory American polity, however, has allowed many of these schools to celebrate the “progress” symbolized by the presence of Black athletes judged by the content of their athletic skills and not the color of their skin. Black children trapped in public education undermined by encroaching privatization now dream of glory on the athletic fields of HWCUs that market semi-professional, rented Black players. Ironically—and predictably—the most successful of these schools are disproportionately found in the states of the old Confederacy, site of the most striking and tragic of the morality plays now safely sanitized for the cascade of fifty-year commemorations upon us.
A stream of Black gold, human fuel for a billion dollar college sports/entertainment industry, exacerbates and dramatizes the growing division between the haves and have-nots in higher education. Many American schools being pushed into lower tiers of resources increasingly struggle to reinvent themselves as places that produce scholarship and prepare students to engineer innovative economic, technological, political, and cultural landscapes. Through faculty and student bidding wars and strategic corporate, state, and federal partnerships, each school now searches for a “niche,” an education-as-corporate-marketing strategy tethered to the ambient catchphrases of the moment: STEM, globalization, cyber education, and the like.
HBCUs, still at the epicenter of Black education, continue to provide opportunities for determined students to realize their vast human potential, producing an outsized number of America’s graduates of African descent. They do so buoyed by alchemies of pride, determination, and expertise that consistently offset gaping inequalities in services, facilities, pay, student debt, and the erosion of morale that can flow therefrom. Evidence of continued successes to the contrary, the existence of HBCUs, the competence of their administrators, and the quality of their students and faculty are questioned more than ever. The Obama administration’s handling of the Parent PLUS Loan Program, its decrease in federal grants to HBCUs, and its recent feint toward a college quality rating system tied to federal funding makes the President’s occasional paeans to the importance of HBCUs ring hollow.
Thursday’s symposium offers an opportunity to identify the most important themes and strategies for the transformation of HBCUs. The time has come for a renewed generation of social engineers and transformative thinkers. Each of the college presidents participating in today’s symposium—from Howard, Tennessee State and Paul Quinn— have demonstrated leadership and innovation in several key areas. Over the course of several panels, faculty and students from Howard, Morehouse, Spelman and other HBCUs will outline, debate and articulate informed, grounded and at once improvisational and vital visions for these indispensable institutions. We must have that thinking, that accretive blend of contemplation, mastery, and action that does not surrender to sound-bite scholarship, stunt-laden rhetoric, or market-driven theatrics. We will not squander this opportunity to reset our agenda as social engineers.
Details on the day's symposium, as well as other events (such as the Mordecai Johnson-Benjamin Mays Debate between Howard and Morehouse's award-winning student debate teams on Friday, September 6) can be found below.