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LASTWORD: Tending to Diversity at an HBCU

Diversity acquires a new meaning and perspective at historically Black colleges and universities, where African- Americans are the majority and others are in the minority. Placed at a unique juncture of the past, present and future, HBCUs can be the diversity drivers of the 21st century. Challenging questions that can arise include: How do African-Americans at HBCUs relate to, interact with and treat their schools’ minorities? Are there signs of noninclusiveness of other minorities at HBCUs? How do minorities at HBCUs relate to, treat and interact with African- Americans and other minorities that are similar or dissimilar to them? Do minorities at HBCUs adopt superiority or inferiority complexes? What means can be employed so that diverse communities at HBCUs benefi t personally and can transfer those benefi ts into institutional growth and development?

HBCUs by their missions have as their focus higher education primarily for African- Americans, and other students, particularly those of color, have been drawn to these campuses. That mission and history of service to African-Americans cannot be forgotten or changed. Identity and roots are vital to understanding oneself and others. HBCUs serve a student demographic concentration of African-Americans at times as high as 85 to 95 percent. The rest comprise international or domestic students: American Caucasians, non-American Caucasians, Hispanics, Asians, South Asians, Southeast Asians, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, African, Native American and so forth.

This diversity is often either overlooked or not addressed. Of course, African- Americans are not monolithic and should not be grouped under the generic term — Black. Further, people of color do not necessarily think alike. Therefore, the challenges the myriad diversities at HBCUs bring are numerous with so many minorities attempting to comprehend and appreciate that while they are all minorities, yet within an HBCU, African-Americans are the majority. The resultant diversity dynamic can be challenging and valuable.

One of the biggest challenges might be the essentiality to enlarge the experiences for African-American and non-African- American students at HBCUs. Indeed, HBCUs have long been arenas of diversity incorporation, being among the first to admit students from Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as hire faculty and staff from these areas. However, “…these campuses are no panacea,” says sociologist Dr. Joseph O. Jewell. Dr. Beverly Guy- Sheftall, founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center and the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman College, says, “Students at Black colleges also need to be prepared for the multicultural world of the future. They must learn how to deal with difference — in the larger world and within their own backyards…”

HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions cannot grow in a vacuum. Simply having students, faculty or staff who are non-African-American in and of itself will not bring creativity or prepare HBCU students for the multicultural world. It might spark new ideas, programs and ways of looking at old programs and policies. However, if not managed well or encouraged, these can either lay dormant, be forgotten or people who suggest those ideas can become uninspired and the real benefits from such a situation can go unexploited.

“When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas,” says entrepreneur and innovation consultant Frans Johansson. “If managed right they will, in fact, generate exponentially more new and unique idea combinations.”

Effective management can include such practices as appointing a chief diversity officer to provide cohesiveness to all diversity ventures on the campus, creating avenues for multicultural and diverse co-curricular activities, steadily recruiting non-African-American students, appointing non-African-Americans to faculty, staff and leadership positions, creating an environment of academic progressiveness and scholarly creativity, and integrating study abroad opportunities/foreign languages/ global studies courses into the core curricula.

Ultimately the challenges and values of racial and ethnic diversity at an HBCU require due attention if these institutions are to thrive in a multicultural, multiracial and multiethnic world. In the process HBCUs can become the catalyst for a deeper comprehension, appreciation and encouragement of diversity in the 21st century. D

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