HBCU Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities


Louis Bolling

The story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) began before the Civil War and influenced the course of our nation, yet remains one of America’s most important untold stories. Both celebrated and misunderstood, HBCUs continue to spark fierce debates about the relevance of the schools today.

Led by one of the foremost chroniclers of the African American experience working in nonfiction film today, Stanley Nelson, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is the first and only feature documentary and multi-platform project to research, gather, and share a rich mosaic of stories that relay the history of HBCUs.

“Thoroughly examining the history of HBCUs not only allowed me to highlight their importance within black communities,” Nelson and his team share a vivid mosaic of stories from HBCU students, faculty, staff, and alumni that illustrate the ideals of democracy, equality, and pursuit of the American Dream.

“I set out to tell a story of Americans who refused to be denied a higher education and—in their resistance—created a set of institutions that would influence and shape the landscape of the country for centuries to come,” Nelson writes in his director’s statement.

A self-described “storyteller, filmmaker and teacher,” Nelson is a recipient of numerous honors over the course of his career, including five Primetime Emmy Awards and the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts Sciences. In 2013, the director, writer and producer of documentaries received the National Medal in the Humanities from President Barack Obama.

Known for such films including The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2016), Freedom Summer (2014) and Freedom Riders (2010), Nelson’s recent creation, Tell Them We Are Rising, is an unprecedented two-hour PBS documentary film and interactive platform that captures the vibrant, moving and complex 150-year history of HBCUs.

“It was essential that this film highlight authentic, personal accounts alongside archival footage, letters, diaries, photographs, and even home movies of the people who have lived the HBCU experience.”

“The legacy of these institutions is not marked only by milestones and achievements; it is encapsulated by the minds and lives of the people who walked those storied halls,” said Nelson, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow who was awarded an individual Peabody for his body of work last year.

Special thank you to @CPBmedia for their support in the #HBCURising Campus Tour along w/ the #HBCUs & public stations hosting screenings

Co-Founder, with his wife Marcia Smith, and Executive Director of Firelight Media, a non-profit provider of technical education and professional support to emerging documentarians, Nelson is also Co-Founder of the for-profit documentary production company, Firelight Films.

Next week, Firelight Media will launch the #HBCURising Campus Tour featuring screenings of Tell Them We Are Rising and panel discussions with Nelson, university leaders, prominent alumni, and special guests that will address issues explored in the documentary.

“We felt it was very important to showcase the film to students on HBCU campuses because this is a vital part of our African-American and American history,” said Nelson.

The tour is a major part of HBCU Rising, the year-long multi-platform engagement project designed to drive dialogue sparked by the film among a variety of audiences. The film is the centerpiece of the effort, #HBCURising, which highlights partnerships with national organizations, high-profile events, StoryCorps audio stories, video shorts, and an all-generation, all-school HBCU Digital Yearbook.

“Many students and even alumni are not aware of the deep history of how and why HBCUs were created and the foundation for success they provided for African Americans. We appreciate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s support and the partnership on the ground with local public television and radio stations to make this tour possible.”

Major funding for the film and associated events has been provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as part of the public media initiative, American Graduate. The 90-minute film will air nationally on the acclaimed PBS series Independent Lens on Monday, February 19, 2018, 9 pm – 10:30 pm ET.

Reprinted with permission from Huffington Post.

Louis Bolling serves the University of Pennsylvania community as an Interfaith Fellow to the Athletics & Recreation Community with the Office of the Chaplain. He holds a BS in Physical Education with a concentration in Sports Administration from Morgan State University. He is a freelance writer with The Philadelphia Tribune and Huffington Post. His interests include athletic administration at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, sport for development and peace, Olympism, university-assisted community schools and community-based sports issues. 

Dispelling the Myth of the Black Ivy League: A Conversation


History of the Term and Background

In 1967, the Harvard Educational Review published an article written by Harvard professors Christopher Jencks and David Riesman, titled “The American Negro College.” In the article, Jencks and Riesman used the term, “Negro Ivy League” to describe what they defined as academically rigorous Black colleges such as Fisk, Spelman, and Morehouse. In contrast, they categorized the historically Black institutions that were not as ‘strong’ as “academic disaster areas.” Jencks and Riesman used the term “Negro Ivy League” to relegate “non-Black Ivy” Black colleges to the status of dropout factories with unqualified faculty and staff and makeshift academic facilities.

Nearly two decades later, in 1984, Jacqueline Fleming, author of Blacks in College, used the term “Black Ivy” to differentiate ‘stronger’ Black colleges from others in her comparison of Black students’ experiences at historically White institutions and Black colleges. Such distinction has created an elite category among HBCUs that is troubling as it calls into question the credibility of other HBCUs and is based on anecdote and not data.

Use of the Term Black Ivy and Connection to the Black Elites

The term Black elite refers to the highly educated and affluent sector of Black communities. These individuals are granted opportunities for generating wealth, attending top-tier schools, and have access to elite spaces. The Black elite can be seen on television in families such as the Huxtables on The Cosby Show, the Banks on the Fresh Prince of Belair, and the Johnson’s on Blackish. In his book, Our Kind of People (1999), Lawrence Otis Graham categorizes the Black Ivy League based on their significance to the Black elite, with this significance stemming from the institution’s alumni reputation and support amongst Whites.

Graham claims “Black Ivy” institutions such as Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse “will continue to attract the smartest children from elite families.” Graham claimed that because they are schools that are well respected in the White corporate and professional community, the graduates of these schools will continue to have access to good jobs and graduate schools. For these reasons, members of the Black elite will continue to embrace these three schools for their children” (1999, p. 82). 

Our Conversation

Aisha: Jenks and Riesman named Fisk, Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, Hampton, Tuskegee, and Dillard as the “Negro Ivy League” (p 44). They deemed these institutions as academically exceptional among HBCUs.

Aisha: The term “Negro Ivy League” is an implicit comparison between HBCUs and Ivy League institutions. By placing the term “Negro” in front of “Ivy League,” Ivy League schools become the standard and “Negro Ivy Leagues” are a lesser branch of that standard. The seven “Negro Ivy League” schools were known as the top tier Black institutions.

David: Both Jencks and Riesman were White men and Harvard professors at the time the article was written. Jacqueline Fleming, albeit a Black woman, never attended, taught, or worked at an HBCU prior to writing Blacks in College. Despite the researcher’s lack of experience at HBCUs, their work helped set the academic foundation for HBCU hierarchy based on Whiteness as the standard.

Aisha: In addition to Riesman, Jenks, and Fleming’s problematic statements, we must also recognize the division Otis-Graham created among HBCUs with his statement that only the certain HBCUs matter. By making this statement, Otis-Graham negated the rich history and upward movement that Blacks from the other hundred HBCUs in this country have contributed to the progress of Black people.

David: If we use Otis-Graham’s logic, we would think that only HBCUs who attracted the “Black elite” truly mattered—Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse. With this logic, we would also then discard everything individuals did who attended HBCUs other than those who attracted the “Black elite” because they “didn’t matter”. For example, Shaw University students founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—a key organization in the Civil Rights Movement. Also, Medgar Evers, Alcorn State University alum, was integral in Black liberation. Should we overlook these individuals because they didn’t go to a “Negro Ivy League” school? When these terms are given to us by people who are not from HBCU culture (those who never taught, worked at, attended, nor invested time in HBCUs), they seem to do more damage than good.

David: Thus, this is an example of the dangers of using an oppressive hegemonic mindset to judge Black institutions; this mindset is used by both Blacks and Whites. If you take on the dominant society’s view of your own culture’s institutions, you can run the risk of negating your own strength.

David: So, why is the term is offensive? How does it impact the HBCU brand?

Aisha: One reason why the term is offensive is because it figuratively says that HBCUs cannot be an independent entity with our own strength, power, and resources. We have to be compared to a White framework of education in order to be something that is worth mentioning and worth crediting as a good institution. This ideology is completely the opposite of what a lot of HBCUs, dare I say all of them, were founded on. Schools like Howard, Morehouse, Bethune-Cookman, FAMU, and North Carolina A&T—most HBCUs— pride themselves on training and educating Black professionals in various fields of study. HBCUs teach diasporan Black people from a framework that empowers and affirms Black intellect, experience, and power. And when you take on a persona of comparison to a White institution, you’re taking away this Black framework.

David: The next question is why should we get rid of these terms? And why should Black people, specifically, not use these terms?

David: The first reason why we should get rid of this term is because the people who created the term “Black Ivy” created it with the centering of Whiteness and not Blackness. When a lens of Whiteness is placed on a Black college it’s problematic because it takes away from the purpose of HBCUs. They were created to train educated, productive and gainfully employed Black people in all areas of society; this was done through a Black diaspora-centered perspective. Secondly, this term also puts a hierarchy on HBCUs that we—people of the African Diaspora who are connected to HBCUs—didn’t place upon ourselves.

David: Traditional White values privilege competition over communal uplift. When we try to divide HBCUs and begin to think, “My school is better than another school because I’m part of “Black Ivy,” you are literally undermining everything that our ancestors went through to have those institutions built. When Black students continue using the term, we perpetuate this ideology and psychology of separatism between our institutions. White people, if uneducated about HBCUs, are going to look at them like they are all the same. We need to come together to strengthen all HBCUs—not put our noses in the air and say we went to a “Black Ivy.”

Aisha: In fact, the term actually isn’t legitimate because its foundation—historically White institutions—and HBCUs—historically Black institutions— are different. The “Ivy League” was originally an athletic league that included Harvard Yale, Cornell, Columbia, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth. Since it’s inception, the term has taken on a White elite meaning. The terms Public Ivy and Southern Ivy are also readily used to describe elite public institutions and elite institutions in the South.

We should put a stop to this term and start a communal conversation about what an HBCU education looks like, the diversity within it, noting that one HBCU education doesn’t have to be better than another.

Whether one is a Black student at a historically White institution, a Black student at a “Black Ivy” (coined by the aforementioned authors), or a Black student at an HBCU not under the problematic “Black Ivy” school list, the education Black students receive at each school is equally important. We need to think more about how the words we use undermine our efforts to collectively uplift HBCUs.

David: Will getting rid of the term “Black Ivy” dismantle the elitist mindset amongst HBCU alumni?

David: While I do not know that answer for sure, I do know it’s a good step in the right direction. Anytime you can remove White supremacy-laced language among your own people, you take a good step in the right direction.

David: Is there a difference between elitism amongst HBCUs and pride in one’s HBCU?

David: I believe there’s a fine line between having an elitist mindset and having pride in your institution. As a graduate of Morehouse College, where many alumni are considered arrogant, I can say first hand it can be dangerous to walk that line. It is dangerous because you don’t want to be seen as elitist in a community of educated individuals who value communal uplift. As an advocate for HBCUs, I believe every person who attends an HBCU should feel like theirs is the best because your ancestors created it specifically for you. HBCUs did and still do what no historically White institution did at their creation—educate descendants of slaves with minimal resources.

David: And for our last question, how can HBCU students, alumni, and supporters help in dismantling this term? Should we use a different term instead?

David: I think we need to stop using it. Period. There’s no benefit in creating a caste system amongst HBCUs, so we shouldn’t replace it with anything either. We must educate people about where this term comes from through dialogue. Aisha and I talked about how while I was at Morehouse and while she was at Howard, we never heard any professor, administrator, or other students use the term. However, we do recognize that this is our personal experience and the term might have been used at our own HBCU, other institutions, or with other alumni. People who generally know little about HBCUs also use the term. Many think they are giving you a compliment by saying, “Oh yeah, you went to one of those Black Ivy Schools.”

Dialogue is important because many people don’t know where the term came from, who created it, or why they created it. And that is the purpose of this Unplugged post—to explain how the term was created and question its meaning and impact. Now, knowing the term’s history, would you still use the term? It’s like a backhanded compliment. HBCU’s are academic disaster areas…but then there’s the Black Ivy…well, which one is it?

Aisha: We must start a conversation around HBCU academic performance. It is no secret that there are HBCUs that perform at higher rates or perhaps have more access to resources. Thus, what can we do as students, alumni, and community members to uplift HBCUs that aren’t performing at the high levels?

In closing, the use of the term “Black Ivy” is a myth because it creates a comparison between elite historically White institutions and HBCUs that should not exist. The term also creates elitism and separatism amongst HBCUs, which are values that don’t empower and affirm Black intellect, experience, and power.

Aisha Bowen serves as a Research Assistant for the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She is also a first-year Master’s Student in the Penn Graduate School of Education studying International Education Development. She is native of Richmond, Indiana, and holds a B.A. in English from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

David C. Hughes is a Research Associate for the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions and a pre-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a proud Morehouse College and Prairie View A&M University alumnus.

How Universities Fail Native American Victims of Sexual Assault


Annita Lucchesi

I am 20, and a senior in college. Nine of my classmates listened to me being raped by a classmate who repeatedly called me Pocahontas the night before (even though I have fair skin and curly hair). They did nothing and said nothing. I tried to throw away my bloody bedsheets, but my landlady—who lived in the apartment below ours—pulled them from me, saying it was a waste of pretty satin sheets, and that she would wash them and keep them for herself.

It was easier to laugh it off and be the fun party girl than the sad rape girl, so that is what I did. I dressed myself up, went to parties, drank myself to oblivion, woke up with new strangers’ handprints on a body that did not even feel real anymore, cried, and did it all over again. A classmate living in another apartment below me let himself into mine when I was home alone one afternoon…he had already violated boundaries before. My roommate walked in to find us in a standoff in the kitchen…I have very few memories from that year of my life, but I cannot forget the glimmer of the kitchen knife in my shaking hand.

By the following semester, I was barely leaving my apartment at all. A professor for whom I was working as a research assistant repeatedly shut me in his office, and would ask me out on dates, make comments with sexual innuendo, and behave in a variety of other inappropriate ways. The day the department secretary came to save me was the last day I was able to go to campus. I had anxiety and panic attacks every time I tried to walk myself to class, and soon I was flunking all my classes. I was assigned weekly meetings with a university-appointed social worker so that I could drop the classes I had with that professor. Waiting for her in the special office they have for sexual assault victims was more depressing than trying to go to school; there was always at least one person crying. I felt as though we were the reject students the university wanted to dispose of. I found out that was true, when the FBI started investigating the school for mishandling sexual assault cases a few years later. When I turned in the paperwork to drop my classes, the woman working at the Registrar’s desk told me I should stop being such a slut and start caring more about school. I did not tell her I was an honors student before I was raped.

Now, I am 26. A caring faculty mentor helped to ensure that I graduated with highest honors that semester. I went on to earn my MA, though it took me four years to complete because of the impact of repeated and ongoing violence. I was sexually assaulted six more times—two times were by classmates, during a time period when the campus was plagued with repeated sexual assaults targeting woman of color students. I survived a year of life-threatening domestic violence. And, I faced extreme racialized and gendered harassment at my new university. Examples include: seeing the only other Native person in the department brutally beaten and put into a coma; being told in class that “if Native women do not want to get raped they need to leave their reservations;” being dropped from a class by a professor because I disagreed with him that “colonialism is so passé;” and, being told by a classmate that I “should just go back to the reservation,” because I did not belong there. Though I tried a myriad of services aimed at supporting victims, it was not until I joined a traditional cultural program through a Native health clinic that I found any healing.

One in three American Indian women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, and one in four college students are sexually assaulted during their 4 years at school. The statistic we do not know is how much overlap there is between the two. Anecdotally, I can say that almost every indigenous woman I know in academia has been harassed, abused, or assaulted at one point in their lives. That is not to say it happens to everyone—just me, my friends, my sisters in on-campus organizations, and the professors who have taken me under their wings as mentors and aunties. And yet, despite the overwhelming gendered, sexual, racial, and colonial violence that I see surrounding us, I see very few services that are even trained to be culturally competent when supporting indigenous college student victims of sexual assault, much less services that are designed with our unique needs and experiences in mind.

I have never had a therapist who could even place my tribe on a map, let alone understand that when I was raped it triggered intergenerational trauma from when one of my great-grandmothers was kidnapped and raped by a settler man. Both universities quarantined me in quiet, sanitized waiting rooms, rather than hold my colleagues accountable for the violence they perpetrated, or provide me with culture-based services that could have actually helped me heal. What I needed was a community that could fill the aching hole that intense homesickness created, and cultural practices that could remedy the numb feelings of worthlessness and constant victimhood that I carried. Instead, both universities wrote me a prescription for anti-depressants I had no interest in taking, shuffled me through bureaucratic offices where I had to tell my story over and over, and repeatedly tried to push me to drop out.

Universities need indigenous mental health professionals, or at the very least, woman of color mental health professionals who have cultural competency training to work with indigenous students. Universities need indigenous-designed and led cultural competency trainings among all levels of staff. Universities need partnerships with indigenous healthcare centers. Universities need support programming for indigenous woman students, including appropriate faculty and staff mentors, adequate academic resources relevant to their home communities, funds for student organizations, a commitment to bringing indigenous speakers and performers to campus, safe study spaces, safe community spaces, a commitment to raising awareness of indigenous cultures among all students and staff, and culture-based physical and mental wellness programs. Lastly, universities need to stop pretending that their “rape problem” isn’t also a “race problem.”

Annita Lucchesi is Southern Cheyenne, and her ancestors’ traditional home territory is in northeastern Colorado and southern Wyoming. She is a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge, in the Cultural, Social, & Political Thought program. She graduated with her BA from the University of California, Berkeley in 2012, and earned her MA from Washington State University in 2016.

No One is Coming to Save Us


Dr. Carey Yazeed

It’s amazing how individuals in administrative positions can easily turn a blind eye to a disaster waiting to happen. Since the infamous photo-op in the Oval Office and with many alumni screaming, “What were you thinking?” we sat back and watched as the presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) continued to stand their ground and appear hopeful that the Trump administration would show mercy to their institutions by providing financial support; assistance that is desperately needed to maintain the upkeep and repair of buildings, in addition to funding to continue their operations as places of higher learning. But on May 5, 2017, Trump confirmed what the rest of us already knew, that the education of minorities was not a priority for him or his administration. So now what? Reality is starting to set in and in no unspoken terms the leaders of HBCUs now clearly see that no one is coming to save them.

So how do HBCUs begin to tackle the pink elephant in the room? You know, the recurring issue of inadequate funding. Black institutions can take several active steps that could possibly resuscitate them from the catastrophic photo-op and their ongoing financial crisis:

  • Start by developing a team, one that will be transparent and honest with administration, to carefully review all of the institutions financial records. Identify where the financial gaps are when it comes to funding, donations, grants and tuition.
  • Secondly, based on the data retrieved from financial audits, devise a strategic action plan that outlines clear steps regarding what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and a deadline for each task to be completed. Actions may include allowing tenured faculty to retire and bringing in young, vibrant professors and administrative staff at lower salaries, increasing marketing efforts to non-Black and non-traditional students and fully utilizing online learning that will allow students to receive an education from a distance, regardless where they reside in the world.
  • Third, generate a cash flow immediately. Sure, they can increase tuition, but many HBCUs do not utilize their Office of Development or Institutional Advancement, which focuses on fundraising efforts specifically for the institution. Instead, Black institutions will channel fundraising efforts through their alumni affairs offices, which only focuses on one particular sector of donors, while missing corporate sponsors and major grant opportunities.
  • Lastly, HBCUs need to take an honest look at their leadership. Effective leadership entails looking at the university as an academic enterprise, an institution that is in the business of educating others. HBCU leaders must focus their efforts on generating and managing money and stop waiting on the federal government to come in and rescue them.

Yes, HBCUs have obstacles to overcome, with the biggest being limited financial resources. But insanity is doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results. It is time for the HBCU leaders to wake up and realize that the rules of the game have evolved and will continue to change. And if they intend to survive, they cannot continue to do business as it has been done in the past. They must stop waiting around for a hand out from the federal government that will never come.

Dr. Carey Yazeed is a Career Strategist and the author of Worth Fighting For: Revitalization of Social Work Education at Black Colleges.

Effective STEM Education Programs: Cultivating Success Among Underrepresented Minority Students

Q Clark Professional 2016

Quintana M. Clark

Effective characteristics of STEM education programs for underrepresented minorities (URMs) lie at the intersection of student-centeredness, community building, and collaborative partnerships, all of which help URM STEM graduate students navigate through roadblocks to degree persistence. STEM education programs have been around since the 1970s. These programs have emerged on many college campuses in a concerted effort to address the historical underrepresentation of minority students in the STEM disciplines at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). STEM education program initiatives range from living learning communities, summer research programs, pre-college programs, bridge/transition programs, visitation programs, and first-year experience programs. Notably, a few successful programs include Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), McNair Program, and Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Typically, such programs offer a variety of contextualized support including mentoring, tutoring, academic advising, research opportunities, professional development, networking opportunities, research grants, travel grants, and more.

The structure of STEM education programs can mean the difference between degree persistence or attrition. This is especially true for African American students who are completing an undergraduate degree and are considering transitioning into a STEM graduate program. However, STEM education programs are not all equal. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Step-Up Program conducted several studies that examined the design, implementation, and impact of STEM education programs. One of its recent studies found that more than 50 administrators of STEM education programs indicated that the success of their program to recruit and retain URMs was largely due to three themes: student-centeredness (building relationships with students both academically and personally), community building (building academic and social support communities on- and off-campus), and collaborative partnerships (cross-campus-departments, institutions, and industry).

One example of a STEM education program that has effectively integrated these three themes is the Mentoring@Purdue Program. M@P program components are aligned with the tenets of student-centeredness, community building, and collaborative partnerships. The M@P program was designed to increase persistence of women and URMs pursuing agricultural life science STEM-based post-baccalaureate degrees in the College of Agriculture at Purdue University. A major goal of M@P is to cultivate an inclusive and diverse culture and climate of academic and social integration, knowledge and skill development, academic achievement and motivation, and advisement activities through its on- and off-campus program components. The on-campus component provides monthly seminars, workshops, peer-to-peer mentoring, and mentoring resources. The M@P quarterly newsletter contains information on mentoring resources, applying to and attending graduate school, highlights the accomplishments of STEM scholars, and connects both STEM students and STEM faculty members. The M@P Summer Scholars Program (SSP) provides students with a scholarship to visit Purdue’s campus for a three-day real-world immersion experience. Through mutually beneficial collaborative partnerships between Purdue and industry organizations, such as John Deere, CHS, and DuPont Pioneer, students have an opportunity to engage with faculty and professionals, explore research opportunities, and attend interactive workshops. M@P is also an official partner of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

In addition to strengthening the agriculture STEM pipeline between Purdue University and HBCUs, M@P impacts the Purdue community at-large through its workshops, seminars, and programs for students, faculty, and staff. Since its inception, M@P has engaged over 500 students, faculty, and staff at Purdue and more than 1,100 faculty, staff, and students on HBCU partner campuses. The program has conducted more than 26 workshops on issues of diversity and mentoring. It presented research findings at several national conferences, producing more than 30 scholarly products. Through its Annual Invited Lecture Series, M@P has hosted five national mentoring experts including Dr. Renetta Tull, Dr. Angela Byars-Winston, and Dr. Erika Camacho, whose workshops have provided research insights on how to best serve minority students.

With a foundation of student-centeredness, community building, and collaborative partnerships, STEM education programs such as M@P play a significant role in the success of URM undergraduate and graduate students. Not only do programs such as M@P provide quality research and mentoring experiences for minority students, they also expose students to strategies on how to navigate the barriers they will face on PWI campuses. Simply, STEM education programs are critical to help foster a sustained commitment to inclusion and diversity, encourage collaboration between HBCUs and PWIs, and increase the number of URMs pursuing advanced STEM education degrees.

Quintana M. Clark is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Youth Development and Agricultural Education at Purdue University. Under the advisement of Dr. Levon T. Esters, she currently serves as a Graduate Research Assistant for a National Science Foundation project entitled Modeling Agri-Life Sciences through STEM-Integration, Graduate Research Assistant for the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), an initiative used to significantly increase the number of underrepresented minority students persisting to the professoriate; and she serves as the Coordinator of Research Initiatives for Mentoring@Purdue, an initiative aimed at enhancing the quality of graduate education for underrepresented minority students through fostering mentoring relationships between faculty, and underrepresented minority students pursuing graduate degrees in the Purdue University, College of Agriculture.

Marcus Johnson, Blues Alley and Education


Karen Gross

Recently, I went to hear the remarkable musician Marcus Johnson at DC’s oldest jazz and supper Club, Blues Alley. To be sure, I went to listen to this prolific and well-known musician and to enjoy the club’s warm and welcoming atmosphere. So far, so good.

But, to my surprise, the highlight of the evening had everything to do with education — one of the many poignant and powerful stories Marcus shared with the audience. This particular recounted story is still haunting me – days later.

Marcus described visiting a professor’s office as an undergraduate student (at an HBCU) and mentioning that he wanted to go to law school; the professor responded tartly, “Where are you going? Cracker Jack Law School?” The Blues Alley audience gasped loudly. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, in describing the same incident in his recent book, For the Love of Flo, Marcus asserts that the professor refers to the hypothetical law school as “Captain Crunch” university, not exactly an improvement given that that term is used to described debasing sexual acts and drugs.

As an educator (including ironically 30 plus years combined as a law school professor and a college president at an institution that served almost 70% first generation students), the story stunned me. What professor on this planet would actually think that, let alone say it? Where have I been living – in some fake civility bubble? And, what professor would be so crass as to use the multi-meaning and often deemed offensive and racist word “crackerjack?” And, how could this have happened at an HBCU, a grouping of institutions dedicated to supporting minority students and fostering and facilitating their success in the workplace?

What happened next in the story was Marcus’ stunning response to the professor. Marcus went off to Georgetown Law School (he got an MBA too) and had a business card made while still a student, which he dropped off at the offending professor’s office. In addition to identifying Marcus as a law student, Marcus wrote something to this effect to the professor on the card’s back: “Don’t ever treat a student that way again. You never know which student you teach today will be a leader tomorrow, following his or her dreams. Who are you to quash dreams?

With the audience listening as raptly as they would to his music (well, this story and the others are a sort of musical poetry), Marcus then said: “Professors shouldn’t do this kind of thing to students. They are the keepers of the future and that carries with it an enormous obligation. As a professor myself now, I know that.” And, then Marcus composed an album after this whole incident titled perfectly: Poetically Justified. He played a piece right then from the album.

This isn’t, sadly, an isolated incident, right? This isn’t the only undergraduate professor who demeans students. If we add K-12 teachers into the discussion and graduate school professors, the number of offenses increases exponentially. I still remember the viral video of the teacher who sent a first grader to the corner for making a small math error – demeaning and embarrassing her before her classmates. That incident received lots of public attention, and I wrote about the fact that it was the teacher, not the student, who needed to be sent into the corner for a prolonged time out.

That these incidents happen is bad enough. That they happen to vulnerable students makes it feel worse for me as the comments can not only be taken to heart but worse, they oft-times cannot be dispelled at home or in one’s community.

The harder question is what can we do to address and curb these instances. Surely we must have some workable strategies beyond public humiliation of the instructor through social media. And by the by, these occurrences are not infrequent; I am pretty sure many of them roll under the radar screen, internalized by students but never brought to the attention of principals, deans or college/university presidents.

Yes, Marcus has responded in three remarkable and highly unusual ways. He went back to the professor and “dissed” him royally. And, he shared and continues to share the story with audiences as a sort of shock therapy for those of us who get complacent about the power and possibility of education. And he composed art in response.

But, while both impressive and important, these responses are not enough. I remember asking the faculty at the institution I led, “Would you send your own child here to this college (assuming the fit was right)? Are all the professors ones from whom you would want your children to learn? And, if the answer is not yes, find ways to make the institution and those within it better. Change institutional culture – no small task for sure.

More recently, I have been reflecting on the distinction between teaching and teachers. There is a growing literature suggesting that the focus on teachers is misplaced and lacking in utility if we are seeking wide scale educational improvement. Instead, we need to pay attention to the process of teaching to achieve systemic reform. Perhaps but that excuses behavior like that just described.

Bottom line: the “crackerjack”/ “Captain Crunch” comment is likely not unique; stopping it is difficult if not impossible, and we live in a world in which teachers/professors — the launchers of the future — quash hope and belief in self.

It’s a rare student – who is also a rare musician – who can fight back with such conviction and commitment to self. In the absence of a more doable and realistic solution, my answer to this problem (with only a touch of sarcasm) is that Marcus Johnson needs to be cloned — literally and figuratively.

Note: Another thank-you to MW — who helps me see new things and enables me to grow and flourish every day we are together. What’s better than that when you are not a kid any more and there’s less ahead than behind in terms of time?

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

HBCU Schools of Education: at the Forefront of Teacher Education for a Diverse Teacher Workforce


Rann Miller

With the changing demographics of America’s student population, the teaching demographic in America’s schools must change with it. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, non-White teachers represent only 19% of the teaching workforce; Blacks make up 6.8% and Latinos only 7.8%. There is scholarship that articulates the critical need for more teachers of color in America’s classrooms. For example, a recent study examined the long-term impact of students taught by teachers of the same race. The study found that when a low-income Black student is taught by at least one Black teacher in elementary school, their chances for high school graduation significantly increases and for low-income Black males, the likelihood of them dropping out of school decreases.

There has been a recent push for urban and inner-city school districts to hire more Black teachers; in some locations, the push has been for more Black male teachers. In Philadelphia, The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice has a goal and a plan to facilitate the hiring of 1000 Black male teachers in the city by 2025. However once in the classroom, many Black teachers are confronted with challenges that lead to their burnout and departure from the profession. A 2016 report by the Education Trust revealed that Black teachers are frustrated that they are considered primarily to be disciplinarians of Black students and not strong classroom managers or content leaders. Black teachers are expected to “fix” what ails underperforming schools with high populations of Black students. They are expected to dispense “tough love” and tap cultural connections with their students to get them to (1) comply with the rules, (2) conform to Eurocentric norms of schooling, and (3) perform proficiently on standardized tests. However, it is not the job of Black teachers to “fix” the systemic racism found in the institution of the American public school. It is not up to Black teachers to counteract the inherit biases and racist anxieties of White educators that contribute to zero-tolerance policies, the criminalization of Black students, failure to hire more Black educators and continued misdiagnosing of Black students. To maintain this expectation of Black teachers is to continue the reality of their exodus from America’s classroom.

Much of the conversation on the need for Black teachers has focused on recruiting them. Equal focus must center on retaining them. To retain them, Black teachers must be supported. Supporting teachers is not exclusive to the work place. Supporting teachers includes preparing them for the challenges and opportunities they’ll approach on day one. Supporting teachers also means providing them with a network of peers and mentors that extend beyond where they teach. For prospective Black teachers, schools of education (SOEs) at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) do offer the support mechanisms to prevent their exodus of from the classroom. HBCUs support and prepare graduates for their professional and personal lives.[i] These institutions consistently strive to meet the needs of prospective Black educators; both undergrads and career changers. SOEs at HBCUs have met the challenges of revising their curricula and programs for the new millennium with initiatives that include advanced technology, innovative recruitment strategies, alternative routes to teaching, and national certification for experienced teachers of color.

For example, Howard University SOE responded to the challenge of producing highly qualified teachers of color by creating both a math, science and literacy rich bachelor’s degree program in elementary education and its Ready to Teach program for recent graduates and mid-career changers. For graduates of its SOE degree and alternate route programs, Howard University created the Community of Practice program; a virtual mentorship community, where graduates can remain connected with faculty to gain advice and manage the challenges they encounter in their first few years of teaching to prevent them from departing the profession. While PWIs do educate Black teacher candidates, they are not always best positioned to recruit, train and support Black teacher candidates. A strong body of research indicates that Black students at predominately White institutions (PWIs) experience alienation, adjustment issues, academic difficulty, and a lack of faculty relationships, while research also shows that HBCUs foster an environment that provides a positive experience for African Americans. SOEs at HBCUs may be one of many choices afforded to prospective Black teachers, however these Black institutions can offer a distinct and tailor-made program with the academic theory, applied practice and real-world supports to prevent them from leaving the teaching profession. In keeping with their historic mission, SOEs at HBCUs have a have a proven track record of producing new Black male educators. A 2013 study revealed that a greater percent of HBCU graduates were prepared for a teaching career and employed in a teaching field. The focus of the Black teacher conversation should be on how to position SOEs at HBCUs to the forefront of teacher education for a highly qualified and diverse workforce to meet the changing racial demographic needs of American public schools.

Rann Miller is director of the 21st Century Program; a federally funded after-school program for the Woodbury City Public Schools. He is a former classroom teacher of 6 years in charter schools located in Camden, New Jersey. He is the author of the Urban Education Mixtape Blog (http://urbanedmixtape.com). He can be followed on twitter at @UrbanEdDJ

[i] “A 2015 Gallop study revealed that Black graduates of HBCU’s are more likely than Black graduates of other institutions to be thriving – strong, consistent and progressing – in a number of areas of their lives, particularly in their financial and purpose well-being.” A 2017 Education Trust report revealed that HBCUs graduate more poor Black students than do predominately White institutions (PWIs).

Educating the Incarcerated Learner: How HBCUs Can Help


Erin S. Corbett

Minority Serving Institutions, for the most part, were founded for the purpose of providing a postsecondary education to historically excluded populations. In particular, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have a long history of service to their respective communities with missions focusing on individual and collective uplift and traditions steeped in social justice activism. These schools served as the primary institutions of higher learning for their African-American students relegated to living and learning within the context of segregation. Today, HBCUs enroll approximately 3% of the nation’s postsecondary population and, despite representing such a small portion of the overall college-going population, graduate 20% of the nation’s African-American college students. As such, the histories, missions, and trajectories of these institutions have consistently demonstrated a commitment to underserved citizens as part of the larger quest for equal educational access.

The success of HBCUs has occurred against the backdrop of our nation’s crisis of mass incarceration. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that 2.2 million persons were in the physical custody of either a state or federal correctional facility. The incarceration rate of the United States, according to Marie Gottschalk’s Caught, is approximately 730 people per 100,000. This rate dwarfs the incarceration rates of all other nations; the next highest incarceration rate is in Russia, at 568 per 100,000, followed by Georgia, at 547 people per 100,000.

The mass incarceration conversation is incomplete without addressing the ways in which race figures prominently in the composition of incarcerated persons. Indeed, as Gottschalk notes, African-Americans are overrepresented in national incarceration rates, being jailed at a rate of 2,285 per 100,000 people; in comparison, Whites are jailed at 400 per 100,000 people. To contextualize an egregiously high overall incarceration rate, she argues that even if African-Americans and Whites were jailed at the rates of Whites, the United States would still have an incarceration problem; this is an accurate assessment. However, the reality is that African-Americans continue to be incarcerated at rates that exceed not only their percentage of the total population but the rates of every other ethnic group. Even further, some research, done by Todd Clear and Devah Pager, suggests that post-release outcomes, like employment and recidivism, vary by race/ethnicity, influenced by the ways in which institutionalized racism manifests itself within communities.

Education is one solution that has been found to decrease recidivism rates and increase employment rates of ex-offenders. Data suggest, much in line with similar data for non-incarcerated citizens and learners, that the more education an incarcerated learner can amass pre-release, the better the likelihood of securing employment and ultimately making the decision to not reoffend. Unfortunately, due to amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965 made as a result of the Violent Crimes Act of 1994, federal funding for prison postsecondary education programs was eliminated and the number of programs, as well as enrollment in the remaining programs, decreased. As a result, incarcerated persons were then, and remain now, largely unable to pursue postsecondary study; consequently, the educational attainment gap between incarcerated and non-incarcerated citizens continues to grow.

Given the histories and missions of HBCUs, it stands to reason that they could prove instrumental when thinking about the creation of “inside” programming. Prisons, at both the state and federal level, contain the population to which HBCUs remain committed; correctional facilities are filled, primarily, with under-resourced and disenfranchised African-Americans. But HBCUs do not serve solely African-American students; many have increased their enrollment of non African-American students, illustrating that while the empowerment of the African-American community is perhaps the most visible objective, educational opportunity for all is the driving factor. HBCUs could serve the educational needs of the non African-American individuals as well, providing a comprehensive educational experience that is fully mission aligned and transformative.

In many ways, the potential for HBCU programming for incarcerated learners represents a convergence of two populations often overlooked in traditional higher education discussions. HBCUs often find themselves having to justify their relevance and existence, at times amid accusations that they are racist and/or discriminatory in their admission practices. Incarcerated learners are simply invisible in all education conversations. Incarcerated learners enrolled in GED programming are never counted in secondary program enrollment numbers; they are routinely excluded from the higher education enrollment data upon which researchers rely to thoughtfully discuss policy. If HBCUs decided to extend their commitment to educate the community to one of the most vulnerable populations in our country, the possibilities of prison education reform could be endless and HBCUs could, once again, be at the forefront of educational activism, empowering those most in need of justice.

Erin S. Corbett is Chief Executive Officer at Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc., a leading nonprofit that provides academic refresher workshops to incarcerated learners in the state of Connecticut; she writes about her experiences teaching inside here. Corbett earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Education from Swarthmore, an MBA from Post University, and a doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania.

From HBCU to PWI: Embracing my career trajectory and story


Kaleb L. Briscoe

Recently, I attended the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA) National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland. In a session focused on providing support to African American and Hispanic students at Predominately White Institutions (PWIs), the presenter and students of color began to bash Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). Rhetoric such as MSIs are not competitive enough, PWIs offer more experiences, students of color only attend MSIs because they are unable to meet the acceptance criteria at other institutions, or the graduates of MSIs struggle with getting into graduate school at PWIs were common themes throughout the discussion. I began to reflect on my own personal experiences as a HBCU graduate and how these experiences played an influential role in my life.

As a second generation college student and graduate of Albany State University (ASU), I understand the importance of lifting MSIs. My mother, a graduate of Paine College and my father, a graduate of Morehouse College, attended HBCUs during a period when acceptance to PWIs was rare for African Americans in the South. Although there have been changes, we are reminded of the importance of MSIs when situations surrounding sociopolitical and campus racial climate arise. One of the most talked about occurrences this year has been is Education Secretary DeVos’s statement on HBCUs:

“Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”

When misrepresentation of HBCUs happen in Washington, there is no surprise of the rhetoric presented at National Conferences such as NACA. It is clear that DeVos and students at NACA missed the opportunity to speak to the factual history of African American Education in America. HBCUs are not the result of the system not working. They are robust responses to an educational system that was not created for minority students. HBCUs continue to focus on educating minority students because PWI’s offer minimal support for this population. Further, MSIs teach students dual citizenship and democracy; while not compromising cultural identity.

My experiences at ASU in organizations such as Student Government Association (SGA) and Student Activities Advisory Board (SAAB) sparked my interest in Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA). Further, my interactions with faculty in the classrooms and at internships gave me practical experience and soft skills. My college experience empowered me to work at a technical college, small PWI, and Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Using ASU as a catalyst, I quickly learned the importance of working with minorities. Minority students are often eager and motivated to create change. These students approach issues with creativity and use their experiences to build institutional traditions.

Listening to the above-mentioned views made me wonder why these students felt obstinately about MSIs. Had they heard disparaging stereotypes come from the media? Had they heard of a bad experience? What was driving these thoughts? Was it simply a lack of historical understanding? All institutions of higher learning face issues; therefore, we know that controversy knows no color.

My counter narrative to the aforementioned views of MSIs is grounded in my experience. MSIs reaffirm cultural identity and provide a supportive learning environment. Being challenged academically and socially, they prepare students for professional experiences while enriching their personal development. They welcome diverse populations and provide a fertile learning experience for all students that should never be mistaken for a second class education. Most graduates of MSIs build lifelong friendships, mentors and colleagues. What is most important to graduates of MSIs is the part they play in the legacy of their institution.

My connection with MSIs prepared me for my current doctoral studies at the University of Nebraska. As we seek to prepare students to be global educators, we should include MSIs in our conversations. Those who have attended an MSI understand the heritage and passion that graduates have for their institution. Students who choose other educational options should visit to create an unbiased and authentic opinion. MSIs have thrived on smaller budgets, minor resources and less staff yet produce an equal amount of successful minority graduates.

The question is what can you do to support these institutions? Share your talent and time with these schools. Encourage students to visit MSIs. Consider working with faculty of MSIs on academic projects. Extend opportunities to students at MSIs for mentoring, internship programs, scholarships, and research. There are so many opportunities to build bridges and enhance the educational landscape through partnerships and collaboration. By simply sharing your story with students, you will make a difference.

Kaleb L. Briscoe is a doctoral student in the Educational Leadership and Higher Education program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). She serves as a Graduate Research Assistant for the Department of Educational Administration. Prior to pursing her Ph.D., Kaleb served as the Associate Director of Student Life at the University of Houston-Victoria.

It’s No Wonder We Can’t Fix Higher Education


Karen Gross

A recent article in the New York Times by Ron Lieber focuses on how private colleges are reaching “back” to students they accepted after the traditional May 1 deposit deadline to lure these students into enrolling by sweetening financial aid packages. OK, at first blush, this article appears to be yet another piece on the enrollment strains in higher education, acutely felt among smaller private institutions. Higher ed, the piece suggests, is changing.

I agree with the latter statement but not for the reasons provided. Sadly, the article reveals something vastly more and vastly different than what appears on the surface. Let me quote the first paragraph of this piece in its entirety so it can then be deconstructed and examined for its deeper and more devastating meaning. My blood is boiling.

The piece begins:

“In the minds of parents and teenagers going through the college application process, May 1 is the magic date. At that point, you’ve sent in a deposit, bought a sticker for your car window and posted your choice on social media.”  

Start with this, college is not on the minds of many parents, particularly the parents of first generation, low-income students. Sadly, and it is embarrassing for our nation, many low-income, first generation, minority students have not even applied to college. And if they did apply (and complete the Free Federal Financial Aid form), they often did it without parental involvement. Add in students from deeply entrenched white poverty to that group. And, if they applied, they often did not apply to America’s elite ranked private institutions; indeed, these institutions were not on their radar screen – the well-described issue of undermatching. Parents did not visit campuses with them; parents did not get them executive coaches to work on application preparation including college essay writing; parents did not know about deadlines for notification.

So, my first suggested edit: delete the words “parents” or add the modifier, “some percentage of….”

Next, there is an assumption, suggested above, that the May 1 deposit deadline is well known – as in common knowledge. Really? Among what population? For starters, it is not the deadline for many colleges with rolling admissions. Many less selective colleges have long ago abandoned the May 1 deadline. A host of colleges – many of which offer quality two or four year degrees – admit students right up to the day classes begin. Really. And, of course, for those in the know, there is early decision, which has a date for committing way before May 1. And, for the record, many students do not apply to 5 or 10 colleges, given the cost of applying (in time and money); they are not advised – assuming they are well advised at all – to apply to ranges of schools. Many low-income students apply to one or two schools. Period. Full stop.

So, my second suggested edit: delete the May 1 date.

Proceeding onward, the paragraph notes that students have sent in their full deposit by May 1. Well, in truth, many students today cannot afford the deposit. Some send in their acceptance but not the deposit and wait for the college to do something. Some ask for a deposit waiver (risky for institutions on several levels) or pay their deposits in installments. Yes, that happens. And, sometimes those installments are small — $50 at a time.

So, my third suggested edit: qualify the deposit statement by adding “for those able to deposit…”

Moving right along, the first paragraph provides that parents and deposited children then get a car bumper sticker. Another really? This assumes that parents and/or children have cars. For many inner city youth, they not only do not have cars, they do not have a license. Indeed, they have not taken drivers ed. Forget affording a car; they cannot afford insurance.

Indeed, one of the initiatives I considered but never got to launch when I was a college president at a non-selective rural institution was to provide drivers’ education to our many inner city kids – so they get a license which could serve not only to enable them to drive but to have a suitable piece of identification. Forget addressing the issue of parental car ownership among low-income families in urban environs.

Oh, and where exactly does one buy that bumper sticker? It is not in a corner bodega. To get one (unless the college sends it to you), you would get it from the campus store (which means you are ON campus) or through the web (assuming one knows to go there to get a bumper sticker – something that may not be self evident).

My fourth suggested edit: delete the whole discussion of bumper stickers.

Finally, the paragraph ends with a reference to posting choices for college on social media. Yet another really? Doesn’t that depend on whether going to college is seen as a plus and whether one wants to share one’s choice if many of one’s friends have not applied to college, are not interested in college or think you have lost your mind because you are going to college? Yes, a subgroup of students will post where they are going but hosts and hosts of students will not – first generation, low income, minority or ethnically diverse students.

My fifth suggested edit: delete the references to social media.

With all of these edits, one is left with little in that opening paragraph and for good reason. That paragraph applies to a very limited group of graduating high school seniors — those applying to and accepted at America’s more elite private colleges and universities. The paragraph and the article that follows it do not apply to the vast and growing number of first generation, low income, minority students who are or will be attending post-secondary education — many of whom apply to non-selective two and four year institutions. And, many of these students are non-trads (actually more traditional than ever before), returners, transfer students, veterans, parents of all ages. Many do not travel far from home to attend post-secondary education. Many plan on using public transportation (that’s why the Dallas Community College system provides free public transport). Many are working over the summer to see if they can even afford one or two classes in the fall.

This Ron Lieber article and its first paragraph ignores Minority Serving Institutions, such as Hispanic Servicing Institutions, HBCUs, in addition to non-selective public and private two and four year institutions. Add to that, the article ignores certificate and technical training programs. Basically, more is ignored than covered.

Let’s be very clear here. Most first generation, low income, minority, ethnically diverse high school graduates and white students who are the product of deeply entrenched white intergenerational poverty are not going to the institutions listed in the article in the New York Times. Sure, a few are. But, the number of Pell eligible students attending America’s elite colleges numbers is in the hundreds of thousands (being generous). More than 7 million “others” go to college and there is nothing in the first paragraph of this article or the article as a whole that applies to them. Full stop.

So, if our focus on higher educational reform is on the limited audience to which the Lieber article applies – and it is emblematic of many – we are working to fix a wee piece of the higher education pie. Might we be wiser –we would be wiser– to pay attention to broader issues that involves way more students – the students who will be enrolling today and into the future? Might we actually write about how to improve education for at risk students – regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, geographic locale?

Here is one thing I can assure you: the parents of low SES children are not helicoptering for the most part; May 1 is a fake deadline; there is no car to which to affix a bumper sticker and no social media hoopla and certainly for some, there is not even an application let alone a deposit. This Lieber article is why higher ed is not improving; we are not focused on the audience for whom it needs to be improved. That’s an indictment if ever there was one: we are focused on the wrong group of students.

Can we collectively say: Yipes?

Karen Gross serves as Senior Counsel at Widmeyer Communications and is the Former President of Southern Vermont College. Karen also serves as an affiliate of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.