President Obama declared this week Historically Black College and University Week. Along with this declaration came a three-day conference focused on Black colleges—their contributions to society as well as the challenges they face in the coming decades. The program was quite different than in years past, with a focus on graduation and retention, online degree programs, fundraising, teacher production, and the spurring of greater interest and degrees in the sciences.
One of the most attention-grabbing sessions during the event was the closing plenary, which featured Michele Martin, the host of National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More,” as moderator, as well as Lezli Baskerville of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, Johnny C. Taylor of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and Dr. Michael Lomax of the United Negro College Fund as panelists. In her typical fashion, Martin enlivened the conversation with provocative questions.
One aspect of the discussion that was most interesting was related to workforce development. Johnny Taylor introduced the topic with a telling anecdote. He talked about how he had recently taken some corporate leaders to an HBCU campus to meet with faculty about producing African-American graduates who could potentially work for the corporation. During the conversation, the corporate leaders described the skill set that they hoped to see in graduates. The faculty members were not pleased at all to have curriculum needs dictated by the corporate executives. Taylor was surprised at the faculty members’ reaction and was disappointed that the corporation decided to recruit from a nearby historically White institution as a result of the cold reception from faculty at the HBCU.
Although I am disappointed that the corporation went elsewhere to recruit African-American students, I’m not surprised that the faculty members were displeased with the idea of producing graduates for corporations. Because of the longstanding tradition of academic freedom enjoyed by college and university faculty—a freedom that has made possible the many advances in the rational inquiry tradition that undergirds our modern society—it is understandable that they chafe at the suggestion that corporate needs dictate curriculum.
Many faculty members, at both HBCUs and historically White institutions, are steadfast in the belief that a liberal arts education produces critical thinkers and therefore is the best type of education. Within the HBCU context, the idea of pushing a more practical curriculum often reminds people of the historic debates between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Too much emphasis on practical preparation over liberal arts study can limit intellectual opportunities.
Although I personally think there is nothing more valuable than a liberal arts education, some have questioned its practicality given enormous tuition costs and the relatively low salaries of many college graduates. It is not unreasonable for students to expect their degree to lead to real employment opportunities. Colleges and universities can provide students with skills that are desirable by corporations while also offering students a strong foundation in the liberal arts. And although it is never a good idea to allow corporations to dictate curriculum, conversations around desired job skills and college preparation should not be off limits among faculty. No one benefits from producing students who remain unemployed after graduation—especially HBCUs, which greatly need successful alumni who will support their alma maters.