Blues for blacks at Bluefield State: African Americans awkwardly strive to regain a presence at the nation’s whitest HBCU – historically black colleges and universities

More than one hundred years after the founding of Bluefield State
College, the main campus remains poised high upon a hill above railroad
tracks and overlooking the town’s business district. For generations,
the children of Black families living largely in southern West Virginia
earned college degrees from this small teacher’s college.

However in the past three decades, the local Black community
together with middle-aged and elderly Black alumni have watched this
formerly all-Black residential college transform into a predominantly
White commuter school with community college offerings.

For Susie Guyton, a 1953 graduate of Bluefield State College, the
national alumni association meetings used to be a time for rekindling
ties with former classmates and other alumni. But last month when
members of the Bluefield State College national alumni association
returned to their alma mater, they found a campus that, for the first
time in its 103-year history, has no Black faculty members.

“I’m very disappointed with the way the school is turning out,” Guyton says.

Bluefield State offers what many believe to be the starkest example
of a public historically Black institution losing its original identity
to the demands of desegregation (see chart on pg. 18 for a listing of
The Ten Whitest HBCUs). Despite their traditional mission, several
public historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) around the
country have come under court orders or state legislative mandates to
become integrated institutions. Bluefield State, with an enrollment of
more than 2,500 students, had just 177 Black students this past school
year, making it the Whitest HBCU in the nation.

Changing the Course of History

Desegregation began at Bluefield State in the 1950s, when White
Korean War veterans started attending the school. The college is one of
two historically Black institutions in West Virginia. The other, West
Virginia State College (WVSC), located in Kanawha County, still has a
Black president and several Black faculty — but it too has become
predominantly White. Under state mandates, Bluefield State has grown
from less than a thousand students in the 1960s, when it was
predominantly Black, to more than 2,500 students now.

Years ago, Bluefield State College sat at the heart of the Black
community in this southern West Virginia coal mining community. Now,
there are few visible signs on campus that the school once served an
all-Black student population with a predominantly Black staff. Black
enrollment at Bluefield State has fallen to roughly 8 percent of the
school population. At West Virginia State, African Americans constitute
13 percent of the student population.

“My relatives tell me it was a completely different place when they
were younger,” says Andrea Mitchell, a twenty-one-year-old African
American senior at Bluefield. “My mother and my grandmother both went
to [the school]. They talk about how great it was when it was mostly
Black.”

Changes in student body composition have resulted from school
growth and demographic shifts in West Virginia. Over the past forty
years, a slumping economy, caused largely by a decline in West
Virginia’s coal mining industry, has led to a substantial decrease in
the African American population in West Virginia. Between 1950 and
1990, the state’s African American population fell 56 percent.
Currently, Blacks make up less than 3 percent of the state’s
population, and just 6 percent of Mercer County, which is where
Bluefield is located.

Given that, the institution receives more than $1 million annually
in federal funding because of its HBCU status. Black alumni and others
have questioned why Bluefield State administrators have allowed the
school to lose all its Black faculty. Some critics contend that school
administrators have systematically eliminated African Americans from
faculty positions and are deliberately attempting to whitewash the
cultural roots of the school.

On May 10, the day of Bluefield State’s spring graduation
ceremonies, Guyton and nearly fifty alumni gathered at a meeting to
demand answers from Dr. Robert E. Moore, president of Bluefield State,
about why the school has no Black faculty. The alumni also tried to get
an explanation about a reported controversy involving alleged racial
discrimination and harassment on the campus.

The alumni, several of whom were aware that the U.S. Department of
Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) had launched an inquiry into
a racial harassment and discrimination complaint by a White former
faculty member, had numerous questions for Moore. In response to the
federal inquiry of discrimination charges, Moore’s administration
recently agreed to develop a plan that would increase school efforts to
hire Black faculty. U.S. Department of Education officials will monitor
the college’s progress for a period of five years. Nevertheless,
several alumni came away from the meeting with Moore disappointed.

“I don’t feel that he answered us. He says the same thing every
year,” said Guyton, who is president of the local alumni chapter in the
Bluefield area.

With twenty-four years of service at the school, Moore is a veteran
administrator at Bluefield State. A tall, gray-bearded man with an
athletic build, he speaks proudly of belonging to the community of HBCU
presidents. To his knowledge, he is the only White president of an
HBCU, and counts fellow HBCU presidents as close colleagues.

Moore, who has just completed his fifth year as college president,
has successfully sought Title III funding which is earmarked under Part
B, “Strengthening lack Colleges and Universities” in the federal
government’s Higher Education ct. Since 1987, a period of eleven
academic years, the college has received early $11 million. Title III
funding in the past five years has totaled nearly $5.6 million. The
funds have largely supported formation technology and curriculum and
staff development, according to administration documents.

Since the 1960s, Bluefield State has shifted its curriculum and
programs away from teacher education to health and technology fields.
Previously, the college had on-campus dormitories, but after a
controversial campus bombing incident in 1968, they were closed
permanently. As a consequence, the school was transformed from a
residential college to a commuter school.

“We have an excellent track record of using the [HBCU] dollars and being accountable.” Moore says.

With the curriculum changes and school growth, Title III funding
has become a critical component of the school’s $16 million annual
budget, according to Moore. The funding is also helping the school to
develop distance learning capabilities.

Faculty Whiteout Sparks Protests

Moore explains that over the years many African American faculty
members retired from departments that were being downsized. He also
maintains that administrators have had a difficult time recruiting
Black faculty to positions at newer departments.

“[The curriculum shift] has put some stress on our traditional faculty,” Moore says.

Bluefield State has been under pressure to reduce the number of
both state-funded and federal-funded positions. Administrative
documents reveal that the college has reduced its workforce by
approximately thirty positions since May of 1994. This past year, the
school employed 198 people, seventy-seven of whom are faculty.

More recently, the 1996 decision by three African American faculty
members to participate voluntarily in a severance plan led directly to
the complete disappearance of Black faculty, according to Moore.

Alarmed members of the campus community, however, cited the
decision to eliminate the faculty position of Linville Hawthorne, an
associate professor of criminal justice, as the lowest point of the
Moore administration. Hawthorne was the campus’s last Black faculty
member.

Hawthorne had taught at Bluefield State for seven years prior to
his dismissal. He says school officials informed him in 1996 that he
and other criminal justice teaching staff faced the possibility of
dismissal because of low funding. Yet Hawthorne assumed he would be
spared because he worked at satellite campuses where expansion was
taking place. To his chagrin, Hawthorne was given a part-time teaching
position during the fall.

Last fall, several Black alumni, Black and White students, and
White faculty members deemed the faculty situation intolerable and took
a dramatic stand at a public meeting on campus. Both Black and White
speakers took turns criticizing the Moore administration for its
alleged insensitivity to Black faculty members and alleged efforts to
rid the school of historic Black history books and paintings of former
Black administrators.

Twenty-eight-year-old Lesli Rucker is a second generation Black
student who felt compelled at last fall’s public hearing to complain
about conditions at the college.

“It was frustrating to see the school fail at retaining Black
faculty,” Rucker says, adding that she considered quitting Bluefield
State because of the campus controversy, but decided against it. “If it
had gotten worse, I would have left.”

Dr. Garrett Olmsted, a White sociologist and the former faculty
member whose complaint led to the OCR investigation, was among the
protest leaders. He and others believed the administration unfairly
singled out Hawthorne for dismissal while continuing to employ a White
faculty member in his department with reportedly less teaching
experience. So, the Harvard-trained Olmsted began organizing people to
speak out about Hawthorne’s dilemma and the administration’s treatment
of Black faculty.

“Some twenty Black staffers were terminated over the past twelve years. That didn’t happen by accident,” Olmsted says.

At the meeting where speakers criticized the Moore administration,
several West Virginia state officials attended because the public
hearing was organized as part of the state’s five-year review of Moore.
Criticism of the Moore administration attracted local, state, and
national news media coverage.

Rucker contends that White students defending the Moore
administration acted with hostility by berating students who ad
criticized the administration.

“I had a confrontation with some of [the Moore administration defenders], but they backed off,” Rucker says.

Olmsted says the controversy also motivated some White students to
target him for intimidation. He alleges that students threatened him
with violence for siding with Blacks and that one White student went as
far as trying to run him over with a car.

In response to the criticism, Moore established a fourteen-member
task force last November to advise the school on the recruitment and
retention of minority students and faculty. Moore describes the group
as composed of “respected and knowledgeable African American leaders
from our service area … [who will] further investigate minority
recruitment strategies employed elsewhere.”

“I was extremely offended by the fact that as an HBCU [Bluefield
State] had no Black faculty and few Black students,” says J. Franklin
Long, an African American attorney and an alumni of the college who was
appointed to the task force. He says the black community was outraged
at what is occurring at the university.

“For a long period of time, you had no Black faculty being hired by
the college. When Black faculty members left, they were replaced by
Whites,” Long says.

In early December, Olmsted lodged a formal complaint with OCR,
charging that the college discriminated against Black faculty on the
basis of race. He also charged that he had been threatened and harassed
because of his efforts to protest discrimination. He had stopped going
to the Bluefield campus out of fear for his safety, and early that next
semester, he was fired from his tenured teaching position. Olmsted has
filed grievances against Bluefield State College for its actions, which
are being considered by a local court.

In response to charges that the school has a hostile environment
toward minorities or Whites who sided with Blacks over the Hawthorne
dismissal, Moore says, “I don’t see it.”

Moore attributes the Black faculty loss, in part, to “a decision on
the part of fifteen employees, including three African American
faculty, to participate voluntarily in a severance plan introduced at
Bluefield State in 1996.” Recruiting new African American faculty has
proven difficult, he says, because the school has been unable to pay
competitive enough salaries.

Optimistic New Leadership

In February, Bluefield State officials hired Dr. Ronando Holland as
the school’s first director of multicultural affairs. The position was
established after school officials had consulted with presidents of
three regional higher education institutions, according to Moore.
Holland, an African American native of the Bluefield area, has a Ph.D.
in political science from Duke University and is a graduate of Marshall
University in West Virginia

A soft-spoken man, Holland is determined to recruit Black faculty
and Black students to Bluefield State. The task of luring more Black
students to the campus has prompted him to develop a broad array of
outreach efforts that seek to link the college with Black churches and
area public schools. Holland believes that building relationships
between the college and Blacks in southern West Virginia will help
entice a steady stream of Black students to the school.

“We’re going to prepare minority students to get a college
education and to do better in the schools. We think we can help,” he
says.

This past spring, Holland helped launch college outreach programs
that target Black youths in junior and senior high school for tutoring,
expanded college recruiting efforts to reach more Blacks in the
Bluefield area, and created a summer remedial program designed to lure
young Black males. A network of churches have pledged to play host to
the tutoring programs for Black students, according to Holland.

Holland believes his strategy of recruiting from the southern part
of the state will make it possible to dramatically increase the numbers
of Black students at Bluefield State. Even though some alumni have
become reluctant to send their children to the college, Holland
believes that dozens of area Black teenagers whose families don’t have
ties to the school could benefit from attending the school.

By setting an ambitious goal of taking Black enrollment from 177 to
250 students by this fall, Holland hopes to make use of Bluefield
State’s newly hired Black counselor. The task of increasing Black
enrollment to 250 means that the number of incoming Black freshmen
would need to balloon from last year’s level of roughly forty-five to
at least 110.

Yet, attracting more Black students to the campus is not, in
Holland’s opinion, the biggest challenge. He is working even harder to
make sure they stick around. Although he has not experienced racial
tension on the campus firsthand, Holland has taken measures to improve
student life for Blacks and other minorities, which include a
significant contingent of Arab students.

One such initiative is Minorities on the Move, a predominantly
Black student organization devoted to improving the social life of
minority students on campus.

Torrance Ray, president of Minorities on the Move, a tall
twenty-six-year-old Black junior, says he believes the administration
is seriously committed to increasing the numbers of Black students on
campus.

“They want to see more Black students. They’ve been very supportive
of our organization because we were also trying to increase the numbers
of Blacks on campus,” he says.

But the recruitment and retention of Black students is, in
Holland’s opinion, one of Bluefield’s easier tasks. He cites faculty
recruitment as a much greater challenge.

“This is not going to be one of the most attractive places for Black [faculty] to come,” he says.

Nevertheless, it’s possible that the college will hire two Black scholars whom Holland helped to identify.

“I think we’re going to get at least a couple of Black faculty members,” Holland predicts.

Feds Are Watching Bluefield

As part of the agreement reached between Bluefield State and the
ED’s Office for Civil Rights, the college will be monitored for a
period of five years. Faculty hiring will come under particular
scrutiny during the monitoring period.

“The report will provide detailed information about each faculty
vacancy which occurred during the year including, but not limited to,
all search and recruitment activities, participation of Black staff in
the process, the number of applicants and offers by race, reasons for
not hiring minority applicants, and any other actions taken to achieve
the plan objectives,” according to the agreement.

College officials say they were pleased the agreement required little time and no visits by federal authorities.

“It was gratifying to the president and to the college that OCR did
not seek a site-based investigation,” college spokesman Jim Nelson said.

Ergie Smith, who is chairman of the task force committee on
minority recruitment, says he believes it’s possible that Bluefield
State can regain credibility within the Black community in southern
West Virginia and with its Black alumni, but is cautious. “I’m
guardedly optimistic,” he says.

RELATED ARTICLE: What Is An HBCU?

In 1965 the U.S. Congress formally designated at Historically Black
Colleges and Universities those institutions that were founded before
1964 whose principal mission was the education of Black Americans.

Most of those colleges were founded either immediately before the
Civil War on in the decades afterward by churches, many of them funded
through the Freedman’s Bureau and private philanthropy.

Today, according to the Department of Education, there are 114
federally designated HBCUs — including graduate institutions — which
are eligible to receive federal money through Title III of the Higher
Education Act.

BI
THE NUMBERS

The Ten Whitest HBCUs

RANK INSTITUTION STATE BLACK AS A
PERCENTAGE OF
TOTAL ENROLLMENT

1993- 1997-
1994(*) 1998(**)

1 Bluefield State College W.V. 8 8
2 West Virginia State College W.V. 13 13
3 Lincoln University Mo. 26 26
4 J.F. Drake State Technical
College Ala. 45 45
5 Kentucky State University Ky. 49 51
6 Bishop State Community College Ala. 52 54
7 Langston University Okla. 51 51
8 Tennessee State University Tenn. 59 60
9 Delaware State University Del. 62 62
10 Fayetteville State University N.C. 64 64

Source:

(*) 1993-1994 figures provided by National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education

(**) 1997-1998 figures provided by CollegeView

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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