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What Can HBCUs Teach all Colleges and Universities?


Note: This blog post is co-authored with Dorsey Spencer Jr., who serves as assistant director of campus activities and programs at Bucknell University.  

Harvard and Howard. Smith and Spelman. Wabash and Morehouse. Columbia Law and North Carolina Central Law. One could say that these institutions of higher education are not comparable. In these pairs, one institution can learn from the other and it may not be the one you are thinking.  Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) could learn to create more positive campus climates for Black students from their historically Black counterparts. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) employ strategies that would be -beneficial if implemented on the campuses of most PWIs. Implementing these strategies is particularly important because African-Americans at PWIs have reported less than positive campus experiences.

The concept of “othermothering” should be fully incorporated on the campuses of PWIs to help improve the campus climate and experiences of Black students. “Othermothering” is a concept, drawn from African-American feminist literature, in which the community takes care of a child in the absence of the mother. According to a study by Hirt, Amelink, McFeeters and Strayhorn (2008), “othermothering” is the foundation of the interactions and relationships that students at HBCUs have with faculty and staff. There are three components of “othermothering”:  ethic of care, cultural advancement, and institutional guardianship. PWIs may arguably focus on an ethic of care but generally they do not promote the other two components of “othermothering.” Cultural advancement can take the form of promoting and showcasing Black history and culture. This act positively influences pride and self esteem, which then increases retention and degree attainment. Institutional guardianship is when a college or university acknowledges that it has an important role in producing the next generation of graduates for the African-American community.

Though the concept of “othermothering” comes from Black culture and theory it can be applied at a PWI. At a Predominately White Institution, “othermothering” may look slightly different but accomplish similar results. Meaning instead of just focusing solely on Black people, the institution may have to take on a broader approach and look at all students in this light. The application of “othermothering should be both academic and co-curricular in nature. Some examples of ways to incorporate this concept are bringing in speakers and guests from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, university wide celebrations of all cultures, equal funding for university cultural offices, centers, and student organizations that address cultural needs, as well as hiring and retaining faculty and administrators of color.

The next aspect of HBCU culture and climate that should be studied and adopted by PWIs is comprehensive social and academic integration.  Generally, PWIs focus considerably more on the academic integration of a student. HBCUs have produced an environment that allows for a strong academic as well as social integration.  This means that students at HBCUs excel inside and outside of the classroom. Research shows that HBCU students are more engaged in campus-related activities and organizations, more likely to obtain advanced degrees, have better faculty and staff interactions and report a more satisfying overall collegiate experience than African-Americans at PWIs.

HBCUs have educated African-American students regardless of how well they were academically prepared, their socioeconomic status, or their standardized test scores. Many PWIs have not had as much luck in this area. PWIs tend to provide minimal support for those who are less academically prepared, if these students are admitted at all. Once enrolled these student are often expected to hit the ground running.  In the best-case scenario, these students progress through classes to graduation, but in others they fail courses or leave college all together. There are often times no remedial classes to help students in need and tutoring is offered when it is too late.

In order to effectively educate African-American students, PWIs should adopt strategies from HBCUs. They should incorporate all three components of “othermothering.” These institutions should maintain an adequate balance of academic and social integration, increasing the quality and quantity of on campus resources that provide academic assistance and foster the engagement of Black students in programs and organizations outside of the classroom. In an era in which HBCUs are under constant scrutiny, it is important to understand the need for and purpose of such institutions and acknowledge the lessons they can teach all of higher education.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of “Understanding Minority Serving Institutions” (SUNY Press, 2008).

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