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Perspectives: Boosting Criminal Justice Education at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Since the founding of the first Historically Black Colleges (HBCU) at Cheney State in 1837, HBCUs have consistently had a significant role in the education of African Americans. Despite insurmountable odds, including racism, limited financial resources, and negative labels, HBCUs have educated their students who have gone on to “uplift the race” as productive citizens in diverse occupations related to government, business, and the non-profit sector. Perhaps there is no greater challenge for HBCUs today than the current state of African American involvement in the criminal justice system. The dismal numbers include:

v                  One in three African American males is predicted to go to prison in their lifetime.

v                  African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, yet make up 27 percent of the arrest.

v                  African Americans make up about 45 percent of the prison population

Yet, HBCUs:

v                  Educate one out of eight African American undergraduate students

v                  Account for more than one-quarter of all baccalaureate degrees conferred to African American students

v                  Enroll 13 percent of all African American undergraduate students;

v                  Award 23 percent of all African American baccalaureate degrees.

In criminal justice, African Americans are also involved in all areas of the profession including professors, administrators, police, probation, parole and other front line criminal justice system employees. Being academically prepared for these careers involves college and university preparation. HBCUs have shown tremendous progress in educating their students in criminal justice. A recent study we completed revealed that HBCUs are producing criminal justice graduates from the associate degree through the Ph.D.

The first attempt to gauge the number of programs and students in criminal justice programs at HBCUs was conducted by Julius Debro in 1981.  Following his early work, in 1999, we surveyed HBCUs to determine the extent and nature of their justice-related programs. Our research found thriving justice-related programs at HBCUs. We learned that the first criminal justice program at an HBCU was launched in 1968 at Coppin State College (now University) and, in the same year, at West Virginia State College (now University). Graduate programs at HBCUs began in 1976 at Coppin State University. The first justice-related Ph.D. program at an HBCU was developed and initiated, in 2001, at Prairie View A&M Univesity in the field of juvenile justice. Recently, Texas Southern University has also announced plans to start a Ph.D. program in administration of justice in 2008.

We have recently returned to the topic and, in our recent article, “Criminal Justice Education at HBCUs: Three Decades of Progress,” in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of Criminal Justice Education. Our more recent findings revealed that some 73 out of the 97 programs surveyed (75 percent) offer some type of program in criminal justice. Many of the programs pointed to expansion as their most significant plan.  In addition, many of the programs planned to increase enrollment, develop a graduate program, and hire more faculty. Ironically, the most significant problem facing criminal justice programs at HBCUs was funding. As one administrator stated:

“Our school uses criminal justice as a “cash cow. There is very little done to improve building equipment, computers, visual aids… We must borrow from others. We are not treated fairly even though we are the largest major on campus.”

According to the Directory of Minority Ph.D. Criminologists there are less than 200 minorities (African American, Asian, Latino, Native American and “other minorities”) holding a Ph.D. in the field. By placing minority students in a nurturing environment often found at HBCUs, we should see significant gains in the number of minorities holding a Ph.D. in criminology or closely related field.

We feel that increasing the number of minority faculty with doctorates in criminology and criminal justice will benefit criminal justice programs at HBCUs and majority institutions, where the bulk of minority students now attend. HBCUs have a wonderful opportunity to create some of the most vibrant programs in the field. To do so, they need to mirror some of the directions being taken at majority institutions regarding the allocation of significant resources to create endowed/distinguished professorships and stand-alone departments and schools of criminology and criminal justice.

While the social justice emphasis at HBCUs might differ from what one might find at majority institutions, there is no reason for them not to make the commitment to making their justice-related programs signature programs on their campuses.    


 Everette B. Penn is an assistant professor at the  University of Houston-Clear Lake and chair of the Division on People of Color and Crime of the American Society of Criminology.  Shaun L. Gabbidon is an associate professor of Criminal Justice at Penn State Harrisburg and the author of “W.E.B. Du Bois on Crime and Justice: Laying the Foundations of Sociological Criminology” (2007; Ashgate).  Both authors have previously served as administrators in justice-related programs at HBCUs.


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