Part 2: Recent Graduates Respond
The May/June 2009 issue of Diversity & the Bar explored the ongoing debate of whether historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) should be merged with traditionally white colleges. Despite a recent push‚ based mainly on economic need, experts in the fields of law and education cited a multitude of reasons in support of the ongoing relevance of these institutions‚ including opportunity‚ affordability‚ and tradition.
For this article‚ MCCA asked recent graduates for their thoughts on this debate. The response was overwhelming. Even in a climate of increasing diversity‚ they offer strong support for HBCUs. The reasons are similar‚ but they add an additional dimension to the debate—passion. Many are so grateful for the experiences they had at these institutions that they have become even stronger advocates than alumni who are already fixtures in the practice of law.
Access and Opportunity
In addition to concerns about costs and economic efficiency‚ the argument in favor of consolidation rests on the organic merging that has occurred at many colleges and universities. College administrators and economists note that an undeniable trend toward increased diversity‚ as noted in last issue’s article. Nevertheless‚ recent graduates are quick to respond that this phenomenon does not negate the need for HBCUs.
For many‚ particularly African Americans‚ HBCUs offer opportunities that would not exist in their absence. Chevazz G. Brown‚ an associate at Jackson Walker LLP and summa cum laude graduate of Thurgood Marshall School of Law’s class of 2007‚ asserts that‚ if it weren’t for this predominantly black law school‚ he would likely not be a practicing attorney today. “Thurgood Marshall consistently leads the nation in creating opportunities for minorities who wish to enter the legal profession. For many‚ including myself‚ that opportunity is the only opportunity,” he claims.
Brown posits that HBCUs often are more flexible in their admission practices‚ thereby increasing opportunities for students that do not meet traditional criteria. “[Thurgood Marshall] is sensitive to admission requirements‚ taking a view that one’s potential cannot be defined alone by LSATs or GPAs‚” he explains. Brown views the debate as a simple matter of providing ongoing opportunities for young people of all backgrounds.
Kamilah Jolly‚ of Jolly Esquire PLLC‚ in Orlando‚ Fl.‚ agrees. “I know lots of brilliant individuals who‚ if not accepted to an HBCU‚ would not have had the opportunity to attend college at all‚” she states. “The push to merge these institutions with traditionally white schools does not seem to be in the best interest of all the students that attend HBCUs. Often [the argument] only takes into account the students who are able to meet the traditional admission requirements‚ and not all of the students who attend the HBCUs meet those requirements.”
A Multitude of Reasons
Creating and expanding access is a compelling reason to maintain the existence of HBCUs‚ but it is not the only argument in favor of the HBCU experience. Even students that have access to a variety of colleges and universities frequently choose to attend an HBCU.
“The decision that an African American student makes to attend an HBCU is not made lightly‚” Jolly asserts. “Most students who attend HBCUs do so because the opportunity to experience an environment where every aspect of their culture is celebrated outweighs the negatives that are associated with attending an HBCU. For some students‚ attending an HBCU is the only way to fulfill their lifelong dream of going to college. For others‚ an HBCU might offer the most acclaimed and nationally recognized program for a specific degree. And others attend because it will be the only period in their lives that they would ever be surrounded by an intelligent‚ political‚ and diverse body of African Americans.”
Many recent graduates cite the importance of maintaining one’s heritage and identity, and others emphasize the continued need to make positive changes in today’s business world. They maintain that HBCUs are especially effective in paving the way toward a richer and more-diverse society.
Willie White‚ a Microsoft Corporation Fellow in MCCA’s Lloyd M. Johnson‚ Jr.‚ Scholarship Program and a 2009 graduate of North Carolina Central University’s School of Law‚ explains that he “chose to attend an HBCU because the classes are smaller‚ the faculty is more diverse‚ and the school has more of a focus on providing guidance and direction to the students. The experience helped me develop in multiple ways; academic‚ social‚ and professional.” White plans to build on his collegiate experiences as a first-year associate at Perkins Coie’s Seattle, Wash.‚ office this fall.
Cedric Sparks‚ executive director of the Division of Youth Services for the City of Birmingham (Ala.)‚ believes that maintaining one’s roots is made easier through an HBCU education. “I think HBCUs remain relevant because the appreciation for one’s cultural identity‚ especially when they are a minority in a majority-dominated society‚ is important‚” explains Sparks‚ who attended the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa as an undergraduate‚ and then went on to Miles Law School. “They provide a forum for honest dialogue and solid training for the reality of life. Their existence is vital to creating an America where the history of all cultures is taught and appreciated.”
Sparks adds that HBCUs offer something many “mainstream” colleges and universities do not—a nurturing environment with smaller student/teacher ratios and more-personalized instruction. “As a product of a traditionally white school and an HBCU‚” he notes‚ “I have personally benefited from having the ‘village’ mindset that an HBCU law school provides. I believe the cultural sensitivity I received from Miles Law School is key to my own success‚ and it also aids my appreciation and respect for others’ success.”
White seconds this assertion: “HBCUs tend to be smaller and focus on assisting students with reaching their goals‚ whereas predominately white institutions focus more on research and scholarship.”
This unique style of community attracts not only black students‚ but white students as well. Joshua Packwood‚ who made news last year for becoming the first white valedictorian at traditionally black Morehouse College‚ notes that the cultural experience of attending an HBCU was invaluable. “I’ve been forced to see the world in a different perspective that I don’t think I could’ve gotten anywhere else‚” he told The Associated Press in 2008. “None of the ‘Ivies‚’ no matter how large their enrollment is‚ no matter how many Nobel laureates they have on their faculty, none of them could’ve provided me with the perspective I have now.”1
Success Through Specialization
Similar to the experience of HBCUs‚ other specialty schools—like all-women’s colleges and schools for the deaf—continue to thrive in today’s more-inclusive academic environment. Advocates of such schools cite a more-nurturing learning environment as critical to the success of their students. The ability to provide that environment is the primary reason they continue to be viewed as vital resources.
Many of these schools have roots similar to those of HBCUs. “Many women’s colleges were founded in the 1800s‚ when women did not have access to most institutions of higher education‚” explains Susan E. Lennon‚ president of the Women’s College Coalition. Today‚ in spite of unprecedented access (women have been the majority on college campuses for more than two decades)‚ women continue to be underrepresented in many fields. Additionally‚ a debate continues with regard to whether women have equitable educational experiences at coeducational colleges. Lennon asserts that the distinctive pedagogy‚ curriculum, and environment of women’s colleges are deliberately and intentionally designed to support women’s ways of learning.
Similarly‚ Gallaudet University in Washington‚ D.C.‚ offers deaf and hard-of-hearing students a learning environment that is uniquely accommodating. “Only at Gallaudet‚ a bi-lingual university [English and American Sign Language]‚ where all communication is visual—in sign language or a mix of sign language and spoken English via assistive devices—can deaf students focus on the subject at hand rather than on the communication process‚” explains a Gallaudet spokesperson. And‚ like black students at HBCUs‚ many deaf and hard-of-hearing students find the experience of being among people with whom they share similar experiences essential.
Strong Support from the Trenches
Practicing attorneys, economists, and politicians will likely continue to debate the pros and cons of merging HBCUs with mainstream institutions. But many of those who have most recently taken advantage of an HBCU education seem to share a resounding conviction that HBCUs remain—and will likely continue to be—a vital and invaluable part of the American academic spectrum. DB
Kara Mayer Robinson is a freelance writer based near New York City.
1 Errin Haines‚ 2008 valedictorian is different kind of “Morehouse Man‚” AP‚ May 11‚ 2008.
From the July/August 2009 issue of Diversity & The Bar®