WASHINGTON — The scene is typical for a college campus late on a gray Saturday morning: Students - mostly freshmen and sophomores - stream into the cafeteria, pile their plates with pancakes awash in syrup, and plop down at a table to chat with friends. What's not so typical is a random sampling of students that produces unanimous enthusiasm for their school.
"I am so glad I came here," says Mark Williams, a freshman from Texas who was offered scholarships to Cornell University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Houston. Instead, he chose Howard University in Washington. "I think I lost my mind temporarily," he jokes.
But there's not a whiff of regret for choosing this predominantly black institution. "The biggest advantage," he says, "is that you learn that you don't have to live according to the standards others put on you. You learn to be the person you want to be."
Despite this kind of enthusiasm, the climate for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) has never been more threatening. Rollbacks in affirmative-action programs make them an attractive option for black students. But at the same time, publicly funded HBCUs in Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, North Carolina, and elsewhere are wooing students of other races with race-based scholarships in order to comply with court-ordered desegregation. And traditionally white, private institutions continue to recruit top black students to satisfy their own diversity goals.
Yet according to Komanduri Murty, co-author of "Historically Black Colleges & Universities: Their Place in American Higher Education" (Greenwood, 1993), the country's more than 110 HBCUs "still have a critical role to play."
Even those actively involved in desegregating public institutions agree. Alabama's commissioner for education, Henry Hector, believes in the educational value of an integrated campus, but given the attacks on affirmative action, he maintains that "it is way too early to say that we can see the demise of the historically black college." And, he adds, it would cause "grave damage" if such schools were to disappear from the educational landscape.
Small numbers, big influence
Many HBCUs were established in the mid- and late 1800s to provide African-Americans the education that enslavement and prejudice denied them. Today, their ranks include private four-year colleges and two-year public community colleges, most of which tend to be small and underfunded.
Some offer extensive remedial programs for disadvantaged students, while others are nationally recognized for high academic standards.
Although HBCUs enroll less than 20 percent of all African-American students, they award one-third of the bachelor's degrees and a significant number of all advanced degrees earned by African-Americans, according to a 1995 study.
Judging from US Department of Education statistics, these numbers will continue to rise. HBCUs attract only a modest proportion of all African-American students: Of all black students enrolled in college, about 16 percent attended black colleges in 1994, a slight decline from 1976. But overall enrollments at these schools rose by 26 percent in the same period, with the bulk of that increase occurring since 1985.
Dr. Murty, who is also chairman of the criminal-justice department at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, attributes that in part to a stronger curriculum.
Murty studied HBCUs in the early 1990s and found that "the quality of programs was improving." These range from remedial programs that shepherd disadvantaged students along the path to a baccalaureate, to offerings that meet social needs, such as Clark Atlanta University's successful jail-diversion program, which helps nonviolent offenders to redirect their lives.
Purely academic programs have also been blossoming. A prime example is Tuskegee (Ala.) University, which has created five colleges - including a school of veterinary medicine and a business school - and expanded its graduate program to include a PhD program in material sciences and engineering. It has also established a ground-breaking Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care, scheduled to open next fall.
What about multiculturalism?
If there is a question about the viability of HBCUs, it centers on their racial composition rather than on their performance. Critics charge that, as predominantly black institutions, these schools violate the country's commitment to diversity and multiculturalism.
Furthermore, some say that students in racially homogeneous environments are not prepared for the real off-campus world.
But supporters dismiss that argument. "No university is racially neutral," counters Benjamin Payton, president of Tuskegee. "The assumption that some are is fallacious."
He points to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., as embodying a New England Yankee culture; Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., as building on a Jewish legacy; and Georgetown University in Washington, which maintains its Roman Catholic, Jesuit moorings.
"This is a pluralistic society," he says, adding that a country is well served by listening to the voices of all its constituents. "HBCUs represent a part of the great promise of democracy that [the voices of] cultural and political pluralism can be heard."
Indeed, were it not for HBCUs, the country would have lost much of the black contribution to our visual arts. The first American institutions to collect systematically the works of African-American artists, "HBCUs today are the repositories of the most important works that African-Americans produced from the 1700s until the 1970s," says art historian Debra Spencer, who curated a 1997 show, culled from the collections of HBCUs, at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, N.Y.
Even now that black museums have sprung up around the country, HBCUs "play a remarkable role in the development of African-American culture and society," she adds.
They do this in a variety of ways, not the least of which is by exposing young African-Americans to black professors, professionals, and fellow students in leadership positions, as well as by providing a nurturing, supportive atmosphere.
"We know now that learning occurs in an environment where people feel safe and comfortable," says Margaret Miller, president of the Washington-based American Association for Higher Education. For some, she adds, this means attending a small, predominantly black institution, whether it is to pursue a degree or take advantage of a social program.
"To be in the majority," she says, "leads to a level of comfort where you can take your own qualities for granted."
This is more than theoretical. When David Peavy attended a predominantly white and Asian high school in San Diego, "there was a certain way I was supposed to be, and I fell right into that and began to act the way they thought I should act."
Now a freshman at Howard University in Washington, he thrives on being away from racial tensions and in an environment he feels "can bring out the best in me."
Just a glance through the school paper confirms this emphasis on individuality. No two reactions were alike to the recent resignation of a Washington, D.C., official who came under fire for using the word "niggardly." One editorial argued that the official should have been more sensitive, given the similarity of the word to a racial slur; another countered that the official should not be punished because someone did not know what the word meant. Still others enunciated middle-of- the-road positions.
A varied student body
In fact, if the Howard experience held one surprise in store for sophomore Amy Olson, it was precisely this variety.
"Back home," she says, referring to Minneapolis, "you were either a ghetto black or black prep. Here, I've never seen so much variety among black people."
Student Li Sumpter tells a similar tale.
Having experienced incidents of racial discrimination in a Philadelphia suburban high school, she chose to enroll at Spelman College, a highly regarded, historically black women's college in Atlanta.
"What I got and was hoping for," she says, "was an inspiring and supportive atmosphere for me to grow as a person."
But there was more. Miss Sumpter soon learned that sisterhood "is only there if you make it," and that "people are people and intraracially there is also conflict, and I learned very quickly that there is going to be prejudice."
Here, the differentiations were based on such things as shades of skin color, speech patterns, and dress, teaching Sumpter a lesson she might have missed had she been fighting a white majority.
"You have to look at the individual," she says, "and give everyone a chance."