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Why I Still Support HBCUs Even Though I Just Left One

Dr. Taharee JacksonDr. Taharee Jackson

I recently gave a guest lecture at the university I just left. As the double doors opened, and I caught a glimpse of the familiar University of Blank rug on the floor, I tensed up and said, “I hate this place!” Then I went upstairs, found my colleague’s students in a freshly remodeled classroom, and fell in love all over again. Not with the institution per se, but with its mission.

Prior to my guest lecture, I had driven across town from an ever growing, ever expanding, most-things-shiny-and-new Research 1 university where I am a new hire. I left an office where no fewer than seven students, colleagues, advisees and maintenance men stopped in to check on me while my office door was ajar. In some way, all of them offered to assist me in my newness to the university. My doctoral student and research assistant asked if there was anything they could do for my research agenda, to further the preparation of my one course next term, or if we could meet for Indian food off campus. I. Love. This. Place.

I used to love my old position. I had been invited, just after graduate school, to help build a center for urban education to recruit, prepare, and support the professional development of urban teachers in the nation’s neediest and most under-resourced schools. The job description read like a dream come true, and, before copious sobering realities set in, it was. I had a major hand in designing the curriculum for a master-level teacher education program and was even encouraged to design, from scratch, a world-class doctoral program in urban education.

For someone who had not quite finished her own doctorate, this opportunity was nothing short of miraculous. Many newly minted Ph.D.s pine for opportunities to simply join a college of education, a program, or department. In a sense, I got to design the fundamental elements of all three. When does one get to add that to her curriculum vitae?

For five solid years, I created courses, designed syllabi, and taught urban teacher candidates with empathy—not sympathy—for their experiences in severely underfunded public schools. The university I was employed by seemed to be imperiled on every side, just like my days in public P-12 settings. Our budget was too small and overspent, and we were under constant threat of losing municipal funding. Office supplies were scarce; you were given supreme side-eye if you were caught making too many copies, and I went a full two years with a printer whose toner could not afford to be replaced. There were times when paychecks were simply skipped, and I taught myriad summer and “overload” courses for which I was never properly compensated.

The experiences of my students were even worse. Scholarships were promised and unfortunately withdrawn. The public charter school with which the university sought to form a professional development school partnership was threatened with revocation. Students were frustrated with red tape; seemingly insurmountable bureaucracy; toxic, disgruntled, and beaten-down employees who seemed so unwilling to help; and with such simple tasks as the disbursement of financial aid awards or the fulfillment of transcript requests falling by the wayside. Course registration was a pain, waivers for an automatic-enroll health plan were misplaced, and frustration with every aspect of university logistics was a given. Nearly everything was arduous, laborious, and an expected struggle. It tired you. It wore you down. It discouraged faculty and students.

The historically Black community college and university I left is (just like) a public school. It is ill-funded, faces low monetary support, and is the frequent subject of flagrant news stories and damning reports. During my brief, 5-year stay, there were three university presidents. The institution was beleaguered by shifting leadership, financial mismanagement, a bitterly at-odds faculty and administration, and low morale. Many times, it was a miserable place to work

But I still love it.

Last night for my guest lecture, I walked into a room full of Black and brown faces. Unlike most teacher education programs—and even previous years in this program at an HBCU—which are heavily White, last night’s bunch contained six Black men, two Asian women, one White woman who was 65 years old, an openly gay student, a mother and son duo completing their master’s and doctorate degrees together, one woman wearing a hijab, one White woman with purple hair, and a host of Black women. To the average teacher educator who is accustomed to a 90 percent or more White class, this was, again, a dream come true.

The students were engaged and engaging. A 40-slide presentation titled “The Year in Memes: The Best and Worst of Isms in 2015,” which I anticipated would take a single hour, turned into a 2-hour interactive session full of energy, passion, and spirited debate. One man took me to task about wage inequality and posed questions about the relative value of men versus women in the workplace. Another woman challenged sexism with the bias she admits to showing the lone male teacher she is forced to leave her young daughter with each morning. Still another older, Black, second-career gentleman posed his question bluntly, “Do you think there has been any real progress with regard to racism, sexism, classism, and all the isms you just taught us about? And how do we know?”

These were fabulous students. These were magnificent questions. Instantly I remembered that, even though I was still at this relatively broke, highly scandalized, perpetually struggling, sometimes anti-intellectual HBCU, the mission of minority-serving institutions was firmly intact.

The little known history of HBCUs is that they have not only served African-Americans, but all others who were barred from White higher education institutions. These included poor Whites, Native Americans, and true to the HBCU I just left—women. Had it not been for this legacy of educating the people no one else would educate and accepting the students no one else would accept, we would not have the strong, proud history of generations of subjugated students who for many years (and even now) have received superior care and instruction in the wings of our beloved HBCUs.

I feel the same way about HBCUs as I do public schools. We continue to divest in them to prove their irrelevance, to devalue their worth, and to render their mission unimportant. Both institutions are financially starved, on purpose, so that market-based decisions can guide the opening up of public education at all levels to those who can afford to choose. Historically, and even contemporarily, students STILL do not experience full freedom to choose from among the admissions-based schools that pop up exponentially (such as charter options) and now, even for-profit colleges.

Higher education remains elusive based on cost-prohibitive tuition rates, which, at my former place of employment, were the lowest in one of the most expensive cities in the country. I continue to tout the incredible value of earning a master’s degree and initial certification in education for far less than the cost of a car.

My old institution was far from perfect, and it was cumbersome to stay. It was also, however, heart-wrenchingly difficult to leave. I may not support the practices of an institution that has learned to survive on nearly nothing, but neither do I denounce their purpose and function. Minority-serving institutions are as vital as public schools, and my hope is that we, finally, equitably fund both.

Dr. Taharee A. Jackson is an Assistant Professor in Minority Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park. 

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