I read with great interest Jason Riley’s commentary on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) [“Black Colleges Need a New Mission,” Sept. 28, 2010] in which he refers to Black colleges as “academically inferior.” Mr. Riley uses data convenient to his case that HBCUs should be shuttered by citing the number of Blacks that now attend these schools and rankings comparing them with some of America’s most elite colleges and universities. His data are cited without context and neither paint a clear picture of HBCUs, nor acknowledge the basis for their continued existence.
HBCUs continue to graduate a disproportionate share of African Americans in this country. If he took the time to adequately research his topic, Mr. Riley would find that the majority of today’s leaders of color, including many members of Congress, entrepreneurs, bankers and, indeed, college presidents, are graduates of HBCUs. Despite their small number, these schools still account for nearly 25 percent of all degrees conferred to African Americans, according to Hale, a recognized expert in higher education. In addition, they have been the launching pads for three-fourths of African Americans who hold doctorate degrees, three-fourths of Black officers in the military, and four-fifths of African-American federal judges. In fact, what Mr. Riley fails to tell his readers is that 50 percent of African-American faculty in predominantly White research universities received their bachelor’s degrees at an HBCU (Hale, 2006).
I have attended and worked at a number of traditionally White institutions (TWIs) and can testify to the fact that little stands between them and HBCUs, save that which a large endowment will buy. I have found HBCUs, such as Morgan State University in Baltimore where I am now president, to be quality rich institutions, leading their states and, in some cases, the country in many fields. For example, Morgan is ranked second in Maryland in the percentage of its students who graduate and go on to graduate school – and that is ahead of the state’s flagship institution, the University of Maryland. Morgan also is a national leader in the number of Fulbright Scholars it produces. This does not sound like an institution that should be closed. And, I am absolutely certain that our 35,000 alumni, many of whom would not have received a college education without a Morgan State University, would concur.
I challenge Mr. Riley to compare HBCUs with other schools of their size and nature, and not just to the most elite of colleges and universities in the country. If he is going to compare HBCUs to the Harvards and MITs of the world, then he also must compare those schools with the smaller, less well-endowed, traditionally White institutions. As a member of President Obama’s Board of Advisors on historically Black colleges and universities, I know that what the president is really trying to do is give HBCUs access to that which will help them compete in today’s marketplace – better marketing, management assistance, fundraising expertise and more. President Obama understands what Mr. Riley clearly does not; that is, without every genre of higher education seeking ways to educate more Americans, our nation will continue to fall farther behind the rest of the world.
Dr. David Wilson is president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md.