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HBCUs Challenged to Address LGBT, Diversity Issues

ATLANTA — Historically Black colleges and universities have to do a much better job in tending to the needs of their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students, according to the head of one of the nation’s largest civil rights organizations, whose mission is to eliminate racism and homophobia.

Sharon H. Lettman-Hicks, executive director and chief executive officer for the National Black Justice Coalition (NJBC), challenged HBCU college presidents to be more proactive in helping to eliminate bias against the LGBT community on their campuses.

“The public eye is on HBCUs,” she said during a keynote address at the 2014 HBCU Student Success Summit sponsored by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU). “We have to stop otherizing our LGBT community.”

Lettman-Hicks said that the 2011 hazing death of Robert Champion, a gay 26-year-old Florida A&M (FAMU) marching band drum major, forced a public spotlight on a spate of recent incidents that point to a “hostile” environment for gay and lesbian students on HBCU campuses.

“Black LGBT are Black people, too,” she said. “But within Black spaces, they are often regulated to second-class citizenry.”

As national public acceptance of the LGBT community has increasingly become normalized, HBCUs—which have often operated conservatively when it comes to social issues—are now being challenged to become more inclusive when it comes to this growing demographic at their schools.

And while Lettman-Hicks received a warm response from those who gathered at the Summit, it’s clear that there is no consensus among HBCU leaders on how best to holistically address this issue.

“To be quite frank—and I know this is not the politically correct thing to say—this is not a topic that our faculty, staff or Board of Trustees want to talk about,” said a longtime HBCU dean who asked not to be identified. “For all sorts of reasons, including the obvious issue of religion, I don’t suspect that you will see a major campaign among HBCUs to tackle this issue head-on. Many people, myself included, really believe that we have other issues that have to be urgently addressed.”

But Lettman-Hicks acknowledged that there has been some progress. She pointed to HBCUs like Bowie State University and Alcorn State University that have created safe zones and resource centers for their gay students. But she also pointed to the public harassment that Aaron McCorkle, a student at Winston-Salem State University, faced earlier this year after opponents of his campaign for Mr. Winston-Salem State University released a photo of him on twitter dressed in drag.

“This is not about smacking your hands,” Lettman-Hicks told the HBCU leaders. “This is an opportunity to expand within.”

Dr. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, said that his university did the right thing and “saw an educational moment” when it placed the campus fraternity chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi on probation until 2015 and barred it from participating in university events or hosting its own. Last year, the fraternity was found to have “violated certain university regulations, procedures and policies” when it denied membership to Brian Stewart, a gay student from Annapolis, Md.

“We have an environment at the university that is non-discriminatory, period,” said Wilson, who appeared on a panel focused on how to make HBCUs more inclusive with Dr. Juliette Bell, president of the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore (UMES), and Dr. Penny Smith, president and chief executive officer of Alegria Technologies, LLC.

“Statistically it’s impossible for HBCUs to grow to the level we want to be, by attracting just Black students,” said Bell, who also chairs APLU’s Council of 1890 Universities. She said that, over the past six years, the Black student population at UMES has dropped from 77 to 67 percent, while the White population has increased from 12 to 15 percent. She said that about 9 percent of the student population currently self-identify as multi-racial.

“What that means for us is that society is changing, and we too must change,” she said. “It’s no longer just Black and White. There are 50 shades of gray on our campus.”

But convincing Black alumni who are steeped in tradition and concerned about the whitening of Black college campuses remains a challenge for many HBCU presidents, said Bell, who added that UMES is often criticized because its women’s bowling team is made up of all White players.

“These are our students,” said Bell, who dismisses the criticism. “They’re in our classes, taking our courses and graduating.”

At Morgan, where there are 425 students from 60 countries, administrators have launched a populist program called I-PAL, where international students are paired with domestic students for a semester. He said that the experience has been beneficial.

And while HBCUs will look to boost their numbers by attracting non-Blacks to their campuses, Wilson said that it’s important to recognize the differences that already exist among African-American students.

“I caution the group to not look at Black students as a monolith,” he said, adding that socioeconomic, geographic and sexual orientation offers “much diversity within that population.”

APLU officials said that the three-day conference was organized to focus on topics like improving retention and graduation rates and is part of the organization’s ongoing efforts to increase college degree completion by working in partnership with national and regional leaders on strategies to improve student outcomes at all institutions, including historically Black schools, which serve a large number of underrepresented students.

Jamal Watson can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on twitter @jamalericwatson

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