Cambridge, Mass. — The numbers of black students, black faculty members, and black study programs on college campuses across the United States are shrinking. And observers warn that this could lead to growing protests.
Expressing their disenchantment with Harvard University, black students there recently revived the street tactics of the past - carried picket signs, invaded the dean's office with a list of demands, and shouted slogans - as they protested a ''shortage'' of blacks and women on the law school faculty.
Their actions symbolize a national black dissatisfaction with an apparently fading black presence on the nation's campuses. For example, the black studies movement, once the focus of activism on many campuses, is struggling. These programs are down to 600 (with only 300 offering a major leading to a degree) from a high of more than 1,000 in the mid-1970s, says Joseph J. Russell, director of the National Council of Black Studies. As a result, searches for black faculty or administrators have been curtailed at many schools.
Projected cutbacks in federal student aid are behind a decline in black students, says C. Eric Lincoln, a recruiter for black faculty and a professor of religion at Duke University. ''But the absence of role models, the failure to see a black presence on many campuses, also discourages many young people. . . .''
He says black student enrollment in graduate and professional schools is low, too, part of the reason for the Harvard demonstration.
In spite of these factors, ''all is not gloom and doom on campus,'' says Caroline L. Lattimore, assistant provost and dean of minority affairs at Duke University. ''Our enrollment of new black students increased to 99 for 1982-83, the highest number we've ever had.''
Others see progress for black students. Arnold Mitchem, executive director of the National Council of Educational Opportunity Associations, better known as Trio, says the federal government has raised his agency's appropriations to $154 .7 million, up by $5.4 million from 1982-83. Yet at Marquette University, where he heads an educational opportunity program, Mr. Mitchem says he sees a need for even more money. Due to inflation the number of black freshmen enrolled there through his program may drop from 75 to 57 next fall, he says.
At Duke Dr. Lattimore cautions that the number of blacks could drop there, too. ''Minority applicants are waiting until the last minute,'' she says. ''They are trying to unearth $11,000 to study at Duke for one year, while their families barely earn $12,000 a year. . . .''
As a Southern university, Duke is not the ''most attractive'' school to many blacks, but its trustees are committed to a program to improve black-white relations on campus, Dr. Lattimore says. Her office's current project is the construction of a new Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture to open in September. The Black Student Alliance is working with the student government to make the center a basic student campus activity, she says.
Another person who foresees progress is Clarence E. Williams, a special assistant to the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Black administrators at white universities - nearly 600 of whom met at a conference at MIT last June - plan to return there in June 1984 to become a formal organization, he says. Paul E. Gray, MIT's president, told the first conference that colleges should be committed to enroll more black students. MIT has 35 black administrators, including Kenneth I. Wadleigh, dean of the Graduate School.
''Few universities are taking more than token steps to remedy the black shortages,'' Duke's Dr. Lincoln says. He proposes a ''Lincoln plan'' for hiring blacks - employ ''bright young professors'' coming out of graduate schools rather than seek ''superstars,'' make the newcomers instructors, and observe them for two or three years. They become ''visible role models'' for black students and ''potential scholars and tenured professors, the best of the crop, '' for universities.
Black studies programs, the backbone of a visible black presence of faculty and students at many colleges, are not doing well at all, Dr. Lincoln says. They have not been accepted by the academic mainstream. To many white educators this field is ''synonymous with inferior, ineffective, and irrelevant education,'' Dr. Lincoln explains.
''Under the intense pressure of militant students, some colleges . . . created professors, deans, and whatever of black studies. They made a mockery of the academic process,'' he says. ''And as black fervor on campus cooled, the typical college dismantled its Afro department quietly.''
''We anticipated this trend,'' Dr. Russell says. ''Black studies will survive. . . . They must attain academic credibility.''
The black studies council has formed a special commission to establish ''our own criteria'' for accredited study, he says. ''Our research and scholarship standards will be compatible, and our credits will be acceptable to other approved college disciplines,'' he promises. ''Our graduates will qualify for advanced study, and . . . be employable, too.''
Nevertheless, the black attrition rate has increased - even at predominantly black schools. The United Negro College Fund recently reported that its 42 member schools have suffered a 4 percent drop in total enrollment and a 12 percent drop in freshmen this school year, compared with a 1 percent loss of students overall and 4 percent loss in freshmen in all colleges.
Economic woes are shoving blacks into two-year colleges - where more than 50 percent of the nation's 1.2 million black students are currently enrolled - with their minimum requirements and low costs, but high attrition rates.