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HBCUs, Trump, and Student Development: The Band Played On

As a professor in the field of higher education and a student affairs administration, understanding how college students learn, grow and develop is foundational to my scholarly and professional agenda. While a focus on the development of all college student populations has been central to my formal training, development of diverse student populations has been the primary driver of my research engagements.

Dr. Fred A. Bonner IIDr. Fred A. Bonner II

Thus, whenever an opportunity avails itself to speak to moving the needle in the positive direction of diverse student engagement, I find it critical to engage in dialogue with colleagues, family, friends, and students to problematize and deconstruct the true lesson behind whatever developmental critical issue is being presented.

Perhaps one of the most salient topics that serve as grist for the college student development mill is the current situation with the Talladega College band — whether this group of students should participate in the inauguration ceremony for President-elect Donald Trump.

According to the Talladega College website, the institution is a private, four-year, coeducational, liberal arts institution located in an historic district of the city of Talladega, Alabama. The history of Talladega College began on November 20, 1865, when two former slaves, William Savery and Thomas Tarrant, met with a group of new freedmen in Mobile, Alabama. The mission of the college is to equip its graduates for the global community through academic excellence, moral values, community service, and professional development.”

With the recent announcement by Talladega College President Billy C. Hawkins that his institution’s band would participate in the inauguration ceremony for President-Elect Donald J. Trump, Hawkins was thrusted into a reality that presented both criticism and praise from alumni, board members, and various other external and internal agents.

Whether we feel that the Talladega College band should or should not participate in the inauguration ceremony is an argument that is intimately bound by individual beliefs, experiences,  perceptions, and motivations — one that I will not attempt to disabuse or support. What is critical now is to use this situation as a teachable moment along their developmental trajectories.

  • Share with them that mattering is operationalized in multiple contexts (ethnic, political, racial, and socioeconomic); to ignore any one area enhances the chance of marginalization in another.
  • Encourage them to be well versed in the strategic planning that led to both the triumphs and pitfalls of contemporary and past political/social movements.
  • Explore with them that identity is multiple, competing and context (people-, place-, situation-) dependent, and will require them to make choices of which identities to foreground.
  • Promote to them the importance of critical thinking to develop clear and concise arguments that are data and empirically driven rather than polemics based on assumption and hyperbole.
  • Inspire them to simultaneously engage objective facts and embrace subjective realities — revealing to them that their own unique “voices” and emic experiences are valued and just as relevant as the models, theories, and frameworks advanced by learned scholars and researchers.
  • Engage in discussions with them about choice and the requisite impact of their choices on key outcomes — whether intended or unintended.
  • Challenge them to take action, but assure them that, with this challenge, you will provide them with a commensurate level of support.

So, instead of focusing on President Hawkins and the band members’ decision to participate in the inauguration ceremony, we need to seize this opportunity and make it a teachable moment — not only for these college students, but also for those of us who have lived beyond our undergraduate years. What is critical for all parties to consider is how we can use this experience as foundational to our own growth and development along a cognitive, social, and psychosocial continuum.

The ultimate goal of the complex thinking that we should encourage for our students and for ourselves should move us to a higher state of reasoning that will allow us to make choices that fall between what self believes and society expects.

If we choose to avoid engaging these students in this teachable moment, that will require them to reflect beyond their decision to participate in the inauguration ceremony, we rob them of the rich opportunity to think seriously about their own development. Time has told the story — and the band will play on.

Dr. Fred A. Bonner II is the Whitlowe R. Green College of Education Professor and Endowed Chair in the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling at Prairie View A&M University.

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