Black Cultural Centers: Standing On Shaky Ground?
As college campuses become more diverse, many find the future of Black cultural centers in question.
By David Hefner
Ask most anyone on a college campus about the value of cultural centers, and most will quickly tout a number of virtues. They help retain students of color, many through graduation, help ensure a diversity of ideas and help sustain the integrity of the academic experience.
Despite their value, there is widespread debate today over the future of cultural centers on predominantly White college campuses. In an increasingly racially diverse nation, the questions being asked are: Whom should cultural centers serve? And how? What should they be called? Add in culture and costs, and the next question to arise is, should there be a cultural center for every sizeable ethnic group on campus?
The questions may sound like the basis for the kind of political turf war that only a faculty senate could appreciate. Yet the outcome of this debate could have significant implications — possibly dire ones — for Black cultural centers, the facilities that emerged on scores of predominantly White campuses in the 1960s and 1970s to appeal to and appease Black students.
Black, Latino and Asian college students are enrolling in college in relatively higher numbers than their White counterparts, according to recent reports. However, they still represent a small segment of students on predominantly White campuses. These facts increase the need for cultural centers on college campuses, both for students and administrators. Conventional thinking, backed by anecdotal and some hard evidence, suggests that cultural centers not only offer needed support for students of color, they also help recruit and retain them.
Accordingly, administrators have been pouring millions of dollars into cultural centers. Many directors of Black cultural centers believe this new push is quietly undermining their historical role. In fact, they are worried that Black centers either will be pushed to compromise their African-centered foundations in order to appeal to other ethnic groups or, more ominously, drop the “Black” title all together and become “Multicultural” centers. Either way, many directors are putting on their battle armor because they feel “under attack.”
“The state of Black cultural centers is a tenuous one,” says Dr. Francis Dorsey, an associate professor in Pan-African Studies at Kent State University in Ohio and president of the Association of Black Culture Centers (ABCC), a national organization made up primarily of Black cultural center directors. (See story on page 28.) “As the new code words of diversity and multiculturalism have allegedly embraced this nation, it has done so at the expense of Black cultural centers. Resources have been found to create or develop multicultural centers, but at the expense of undermining and/or totally eliminating Black cultural centers.”
Dorsey’s concerns are widespread among Black cultural center directors, although there are few signs supporting the total elimination of Black centers. There are examples, however, of attempts to redefine the mission of centers, which could arguably be the precursor to “total elimination.”
The African American Cultural Center at North Carolina State University has been placed under a microscope and may soon become a “multicultural center” in mission if not in name. The Raleigh, N.C., campus has 30,000 students, of whom 10 percent are Black and about 10 percent more are of other ethnic groups. After an external committee reviewed the 11-year-old cultural center headed by M. Iyailu Moses, the university’s vice provost was reported to have suggested that the center move in “a new direction.”
“The intent was to change the mission,” Moses says, although she declined to elaborate.
The vice provost for diversity and African American affairs, Dr. Rupert Nacoste, who was not available to be interviewed, reportedly reversed his stance after students, alumni and the Raleigh community waged a protest.
“Those new ideas were questioned by the students, the alumni association and members of the community, as well as some faculty and staff,” Moses says. “As a response of that, an internal review has been established that is going to be much more extensive than the previous external review. And out of that we expect to get a clearer picture.” Moses says the internal review could be complete as early as Feb. 28.
Dr. Fred Hord, founder and executive director of the ABCC, who served on the external committee that reviewed N.C. State’s Black cultural center, was blunt. “They’re trying to mess with it,” he said of administrators at N.C. State.
Hord and others interviewed offered several other examples of their concerns, although the specifics could not be confirmed directly with the schools involved in each case.
n In one case, Ohio State University’s Black cultural center was under some pressures, albeit different in nature. As a consultant to the formation of Ohio State’s new multicultural center, Hord says he found considerable tension between Blacks and other ethnic groups. The other ethnic groups didn’t think the university’s Black cultural center needed any representation in the new multicultural center, Hord says. This tension has apparently been simmering for years because until now the only cultural center Ohio State had was the Black center, and other ethnic groups felt inadequately represented. Larry Williamson, director of Ohio State’s Frank W. Hale Jr. Black Cultural Center, did not respond to a request for an interview.
“There was really some tension when I visited that campus,” says Hord, chairman of the Black Studies department at Knox College in Illinois, where ABCC is headquartered.
“The sentiment was that ‘Blacks already got theirs.’ “
n The Multicultural Center at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville was conceived to be a Black cultural center, sources say. However, when it was established in the early 1990s it was designated a multicultural center. The university also has a Multicultural Student Services office. Last month, the cultural center moved into a new location, after being without one for two years, says Dr. Lonnie R. Williams, the center’s director and assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at UAF.
“I went through a phase where I had to justify the center and distinguish it between Multicultural Services or why they should not be one unit,” says Williams, just days after the dedication ceremony of the new facility. “So far, I’ve managed to survive that.”
n The Black cultural center at Triton Community College, among the largest community colleges in Chicago, was also designated a multicultural center in the 1990s.
Fortresses on Campus
Black cultural centers are the fruits of the civil rights and Black nationalist movements. Their counterparts are Black Studies departments. Both sprang up in earnest around 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
However, many say the formation of Black cultural centers goes back to the early 1900s, when small numbers of Blacks were selected to attend White institutions.
“They came together on a regular basis to study and just to be around each other,” says Dr. Pamela Hill, director of the Student Ethnic Enrichment Center at the University of North Texas.
In the early years, Black cultural centers were at times the launching place for social and political protest on campus, a place where African American students could feel secure in a world still outwardly hostile toward them. The social ethos was a constant reminder of the need for Black pride and solidarity.
“I’ve been dealing with cultural centers since spring 1971,” says Hord, author of several books, including Black Cultural Centers:
Politics of Survival and Identity.
“These centers have really served as almost fortresses. And that’s one of the values of these centers. Historically, these centers were places where students could go to counter the resistance” to Blacks on White campuses.
In the 1980s, as the enrollment of other groups of color increased and multiculturalism began to take form, administrators at predominantly White institutions began to examine ways of addressing the concerns of Latino and Asian students, who, following the example of Black cultural centers, had begun demanding their own such facilities. Some universities simply tried to expand the mission of the existing Black cultural center or create multicultural centers. Other universities, like Rutgers University in New Jersey and Indiana University in Bloomington, created separate centers for these emerging new ethnic groups, a model that many directors embrace.
“There’s no reason in the world why you can’t have multiple cultural centers,” says Dr. Katherine Bankole, director of the Center for Black Culture and Research at West Virginia University. “We just get caught up in a zero-sum game because they think resources are scarce.”
Says Hord: “Tensions have occurred essentially on campuses where there is only one center — and it’s multicultural — and different ethnic groups of students are fighting for a bigger piece of the pie.”
At Penn State and Purdue universities, the historically Black cultural centers remain the only ethnic center on campus, yet they continue to receive broad-based administrative and student support with little to no outcry.
Dr. Charlie Nelms, vice president for student development and diversity at Indiana University, says his institution decided to construct separate centers both out of respect for the legacy of its 30-year-old Black cultural center and out of respect for the difference of each ethnic group. IU, whose 37,963 students are 4 percent Black and 5 percent Latino and Asian, just moved its Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, named after the first Black male and female graduates of IU, into a new $26 million theatre and drama building.
“We had the Black cultural center first,” Nelms says. “Another reason (for building three separate centers) is the respect and recognition of each group. They’re really different. There’s really no such thing as a minority. It’s sort of a term of convenience by the media. Separate centers recognize the unique contributions and needs of each ethnic group.” It costs IU about $350,000 a year to operate all three centers, Nelms says.
As universities began responding to the concerns of other ethnic groups in the 1980s amid relative racial calm, many Black cultural centers began to stray from their historical path. And even Black students and faculty members began questioning the relevance of Black cultural centers.
Today, the role of Black centers varies. Though some are called cultural centers, they do little in the way of teaching or promoting African and African American culture. Some focus on sponsoring programs, such as campus lectures by well-known Black speakers, but do little else. Others focus on the academic success of students, offering tutoring classes at their centers. Some are heavily research-oriented and African-centered, teaching African and African American students how to research information about their African culture and other school-related topics. Some are a mixture of all of the above.
“Many centers have become what many on the campus see them as — a hangout for the Black students,” says Hill of the University of North Texas. “Soap operas are always playing in the TV room. The study room becomes the game room. And you can always find a good spades game. The director wants to be accepted by his or her White peers and follows their lead. Pretty soon the word is out: If you need to study, don’t go the Black cultural center. If you need help with tutoring, don’t go there. …Social functions should not and cannot be the primary function of Black cultural centers.”
A lack of funding is among Black cultural centers’ biggest problems, followed by lack of staffing and inadequate support. Most centers are funded through an institution’s student services or student affairs department, though some come under an academic administrator or department. One study suggests that the average annual budget of Black cultural centers is $70,000, according to a 2001 survey of 70 of the 200 Black cultural centers on college campuses.
“With the high cost of most of the national speakers or national productions, one speaker or production can do large damage to a budget,” says Williams of the University of Arkansas. “So that means that the number of speakers of color to appear on campus will remain small compared to the majority speakers that all of the other programming units or lecture series will bring in.”
Kent State’s Francis Dorsey says the rise of diversity and multiculturalism marked a pivotal downturn for Black cultural centers. He isn’t at all sure if Black centers will find their momentum again.
“This debate to embrace diversity and/or multiculturalism began in the ’80s but gained momentum in the ’90s,” Dorsey says. “Those who have fought for the undermining and/or elimination of Black cultural centers have failed to realize that BCCs have always been ‘multicultural’ in the true sense of the African Diaspora.”
A Recruiting Tool
Economic demands and good old-
fashioned competition have sparked the recent influx of new or renovated cultural centers. Cultural centers are a critical part of recruiting and retaining students of color at White colleges and universities.
“It costs less to retain a student than it does to recruit a student,” says Dr. William B. Harvey, vice president and director of the American Council on Education’s Office of Minorities in Higher Education. “It’s to the institution’s advantage to try to retain a student, because once they leave, then you have a real diminution.”
Says Hord, ABCC executive director: “It’s obvious that these universities think that it’s in their best interest to build cultural centers. There’s always some self-interest motives, and in this case it’s competition.”
Today, there are about 400 Black and multicultural centers on college campuses, according to the ABCC. Recently, several institutions have poured millions of dollars into either establishing cultural centers or renovating existing ones.
In 1999, Penn State moved its Paul Robeson Cultural Center into a new $10 million facility. That same year, Purdue University constructed a $3 million facility for its Black cultural center. Wabash College, an all-male private school in Indiana, spent $2 million on a new facility for its Malcolm X Institute for Black Studies. Among the other institutions that have or are doing similar things are: Rutgers University, Indiana University at Bloomington, and the universities of Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas.
“It’s my belief that many (Black) parents send their son or daughter to Penn State because of our (Paul Robeson Cultural Center),” says William Asbury, Penn State’s vice president for student affairs. “I don’t think there’s any question that it helps in retention.”
Kenneth Gray, vice president of student affairs at West Virginia University, agrees that centers are important. “(Our center) plays a very significant role in recruiting,” he says.
Marshawn Wolley, president of the Black Student Union at IU, says he couldn’t imagine student life without that campus’ Black cultural center.
“If there were no Black cultural center, that could raise some problems as far as students having a place to go,” says Wolley, a 20-year-old junior from Indianapolis. “The center is important because it provides a place for students of all nationalities to learn about Black culture.”
Though economic concerns may be opening the doors for more cultural centers, the future of Black cultural centers depend heavily on the vision of their directors, the strength of their students and faculty, and the involvement of their surrounding communities.
“The surest way to sustain a center is to keep a conscious director who is steeped in Black history and culture, maintains strong cadres of students with high levels of consciousness and develops a mutually beneficial relationship with the community,” Hord says.
Often, Black cultural center directors have degrees in areas unrelated to Black studies. Increasingly, directors are being hired at younger ages from fields more related to student services. Critics believe directors such as these lack the cultural awareness and conviction necessary to run progressive centers and, when necessary, speak out against racism on campus.
And this comes at a time when strong directors are needed most to fight off what many believe is an assault on Black cultural centers.
“Who will be there to carry this on?” asks Hill. “That’s my concern. This is certainly not a stress-free career. We are often expected to defend, justify and explain our existence, constantly under attack and under suspicion.”
At Penn State and Purdue, two Big 10 schools whose cultural centers were established in 1972 and 1969 respectively, directors Lawrence W. Young and Renee A. Thomas have managed to pull off what most would consider a remarkable feat. Their centers are the only ethnic centers on their hugely diverse campuses, yet their missions haven’t been changed, their administrations are supportive and there’s no evidence that other ethnic groups feel inadequately represented.
“I think that both Purdue and Penn State are model institutions as well,” says Thomas, director of Purdue’s Black Cultural Center. “We are some of the premier centers, so we have garnered institutional support from our campus. And the quality of our programs attract such a diverse audience, everyone feels ownership regardless of their ethnic background.”
Says Penn State’s Young: “Paul Robeson considered himself related to all of humanity, and the choice of the center’s name reflected a desire for the center to carry forward that concept.”
By all accounts, it isn’t that easy for everyone. Success depends in part on the leadership of the institution and the vision and strength of the director.
But one thing’s for sure: This debate will continue. Certainly, all students of color should find comfort and ownership at predominantly White institutions. Many say it would be tragic if that comes at a cost to Black cultural centers, which have paved the way for others.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com