Let him speak who has seen with his eyes.
It seems these days that everyone has an opinion about black colleges. An avalanche has come with the UNCF’s recent – and quite controversial – decision to accept a $25million gift from the ultra-conservative Koch brothers. At issue is whether this was the most appropriate action for UNCF, given the political and social inclinations of the donors.
It’s a curious debate in light of the fact that, since 1944, this organization has stood steadfastly at the forefront of uncompromising advocacy and support for private black colleges and the students who attend them. It’s also clear that this debate scantly considered the obvious beneficiaries of the $25 million, or the unrelenting challenge of raising money for black colleges and black students.
This is not about the Koch Brothers or their donation to UNCF. For me and others who have committed our lives to working for and on behalf of HBCUs, this issue cuts to the heart of something far more fundamental. This issue is about which scholars and leaders within the academy are best equipped to tell a deeper, richer and broader story about these institutions by providing the appropriate analysis to inform and shape public opinion, public policy and stirring advocacy.
Of course, anyone is perfectly free to offer an opinion about HBCUs – the space is not solely the province of black people, scholars or writers. All who care about these institutions are welcomed to lend their considerable talents and abilities in framing the probing questions for critical thinking, analysis and action. Indeed, much can be learned from the analysis of scholars with different cultural and experiential lens. The analysis should be presented, documented and understood from myriad perspectives.
Not surprisingly, the interest in black colleges is entirely understandable. These institutions represent a significant segment of American higher education and occupy a revered place in the cultural history of black Americans. They have, despite the challenges historically faced, successfully educated generations of African Americans. As such, they have become a source of great interest for scholars and writers of contemporary higher education especially those seeking to more astutely understand educating students traditionally under-represented and under-served by the nation’s non-HBCUs.
But as interest in these institutions swells, from the federal government to private foundations, I submit that these institutions are not well served by narrow ownership of the HBCU space by a select few scholars and writers with scant and unsustained experience at these institutions. The reality is that no matter how thorough and disciplined the research, how sympathetic and understanding the approach or how powerfully affirming the advocacy, the fullness of the black college experience can only be told by those who has worked at one or shared the collective racial and cultural narrative of their meaning to a people.
It is impossible, in my view, for scholars and researchers to sit ensconced comfortably at well-resourced predominantly white institutions and provide a true telling of any dimension of the black college experience. There will always be a perceptual space of experience and perspective that they can never access. Although scholars and researchers are well trained and equipped with methods of inquiry which assure a degree of objectivity and precision, their perceptual lens is shaped by their lived experience and those boundaries are difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
Those who truly have the best interests of black colleges at heart understand and acknowledge their limitations upfront. But, acknowledging limitations is not a preferred position easily assumed by accomplished scholars whose work is affirmed by their peers. What exists then is an unspoken tension between scholars and practitioners at HBCUs and their counterparts at PWIs who write about HBCUs often with greater access to research grants, publishing opportunities and foundation support. I submit that it is fundamentally unintelligent for African American scholars, writers and practitioners to abdicate to others responsibility for narrating the HBCU experience, advocating for their place in American higher education and defining their future. No other group would willingly assume such a position. Might we imagine, for example, female scholars or writers allowing a male scholar or writer to be the sole voice in defining the female experience no matter the strength of his credentials, passion or celebrity?
I readily acknowledge that HBCUs can benefit from well-intentioned research and analysis; the issues attendant to these institutions are complex and the space is large enough for all. What requires re-thinking, however, is the current myopic view that only one or two researchers are the go-to individuals for and about all things related to HBCUs. The space is replete with seasoned, thoughtful, insightful academicians who know these institutions intimately. It is time to widen the sphere of influence and knowledge and allow other voices to participate in telling the story of HBCUs and championing their future.