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Debate Over Relevance of HBCUs Opens 37th NAFEO Conference

WASHINGTON, D.C. The debate over the relevance of HBCUs got a fresh airing Tuesday when a panel discussion triggered an acrimonious exchange that moved some HBCU leaders to defend their institution’s very existence.

The paradoxical nature of the discussion at the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education’s 37th annual National Dialogue on Blacks in Higher Education was perhaps best summed up by Dr. John Silvanus Wilson, Jr., executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“It’s a bad time for another round of negative publicity for us,” he said, referring to an education report from the early 20th century that stated HBCUs needed to garner “dignified publicity” in order to tap into the philanthropic world for financial support.

At the same time, he said, “It’s about time we dealt with this, so we can put it to rest.”

Wilson made his remarks during a NAFEO panel discussion titled “HBCUs & PBIs: Fostering Access & Success; Fueling Innovation & Competitiveness.” With meetings scheduled at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center outside Washington and on Capitol Hill, the NAFEO conference got underway Tuesday at the National Press Club and will end Friday.

Several HBCU leaders said they feel the mission of HBCUs are under attack, yet they were hesitant to assume a defensive posture. Instead, many point to HBCUs’ track record of conferring more degrees to Blacks than other institutions, particularly in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Morgan State University President David Wilson used the occasion to announce that his institution had just secured a $28.5 million share of a $95.8 million, five-year grant from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to do research in support of NASA’s Earth and space science objectives.

The university has also claimed a five-year, $129 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which will be shared with Penn State University to fund research into increasing the energy efficiency of buildings. Wilson says the grants are evidence that the conversation about HBCU’s purpose is outdated.

“What these two grants basically speak to is that we have HBCUs in this country that are ready and able to carry the water for this nation,” he said. “For people to be having a discussion now around our relevance is passé.”

Wilson also said HBCUs will play a critical role in helping to meet the Obama administration’s goal of making the United States the most college-educated country in the world by 2020.

“We are futuristic. We are looking to the future,” he said. “We have HBCUs that are prepared to help this nation get there.”

Much of the discussion centered on what many HBCU leaders consider a flawed college-ranking system that often puts HBCUs in an unfavorable light.

Several panelists — and many in the audience — also trained their criticism on panelist Dr. Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability & Productivity. Vedder opined that HBCUs should rethink their association with race in order to remain viable in the future.

“As racial progress is made, some private philanthropists may find less compelling the need to support HBCUs than heretofore,” Vedder said. “I suspect economic necessity is going to force many of you to rethink what you do and how you do it. For some of you, that might mean mergers with other institutions.”

Vedder also noted that HBCUs don’t fare well in college rankings such as those devised by U.S. News & World Report.

Several speakers rebuked Vedder’s statement, arguing that college ranking systems fail to capture the nuanced educational experiences of HBCU students.

But not all college ranking guides peg HBCUs as under-performers.

Paul Glastris, editor of Washington Monthly, which also publishes annual college rankings, said his magazine found that three HBCUs – Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Tougaloo College– ranked first, eighth and 14th, respectively, in the magazine’s ranking of liberal arts colleges.

“There are other ways that you can judge colleges,” Glastris said, explaining that the magazine’s criteria included “social mobility,” or looking at the proportion of Pell grant students who graduate from the institution.   

Other HBCU and Predominantly Black Institution (PBI) leaders in the audience pointed out that many HBCU students ultimately graduate but don’t get counted as graduates because they are transfer students. In other cases, the students don’t graduate within the six-year span used to calculate graduation rates through the Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Chicago State University President Wayne D. Watson, for one, called IPEDs “broken” and “outdated.” He also accused Vedder of engaging in “voodoo mathematics” for asserting in a recent article that, based on graduation rates, it costs more to graduate a Chicago State University student than it does to graduate a Northwestern University Student.

“My students graduate in eight years,” Watson said. But those students are “not deemed valuable” by Vedder and others because they don’t graduate within the six-year timeframe.

“If we extend out, the number of graduates would be higher,” he said, adding that many of his students have to interrupt their education to deal with various situations that arise in their lives.

Watson also strongly suggested that Vedder believes in the inferiority of Black students.

“It really is my belief that you have a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution — three-fifths of a man,” Watson said. “If you apply the three-fifths of a man formula you come pretty close to the economic model that you have because you only count three-fifths of the students.”

Vedder, in response, called the accusations and criticism unjustified and uncivil.

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