Building broader appeal is key to success for today's black colleges
Boston — "I see no reason why black colleges should close because they do not have landscaped campuses, updated research, and high-powered professors," says Gerald R. Durley, who is directing production of a film history of black colleges in America. "They prepare black youth, and they can help white youth, too -- young people who have no other place to go -- for life as responsible adults."
But Mr. Durley and others concerned about the future of the 105 black colleges and universities in the United States know that their institutions will not survive by allowing themselves to become second-rate schools or by living in the past, with exclusive access to black students.
"We probably have the most integrated college in the US," says Frederick S. Humphries, president of Tennessee State A & I University -- which has produced some of the nation's top track and field stars in recent decades. "We need a stronger budget, however. More than 50 percent of our students get financial aid. We hope the business community and foundations can help us here. We believe it is possible to offer quality education to all -- while retaining a black identity."
As president of the only black administration to head a court-ordered merger of two public colleges, Dr. Humphries seeks to blend white commuter students from the University of Tennessee at Nashville with black residential students of Tennessee State into one university.
A tour of 14 colleges and many telephone interviews with officials of other colleges and organizations representing black schools brought to this reporter's attention a number of steps, in addition to mergers with "white" institutions that these colleges and universities hope to take. Among them:
* Reverse black defection to other colleges, while at the same time attracting more white students.
But officials want to avoid having their systems taken over by white administrations. Blacks recall what happened in many Southern public school systems with the advent of desegregation; black administrators became assistants to whites.
* Emphasize career-oriented courses of study -- engineering, business administration, computer technology, pre-professional training (for law, medicine, dentistry, communications, and others), marketing, research sciences.
At the same time, the schools would cut back on the traditional courses in liberal arts and social work, areas that stereotype the typical black college graduate.
* Take radical steps to appeal to students who demand the best educational standards, by establishing special dual-degree programs with major universities as well as with other black colleges. The black student receives the benefit of the black campus, as well as the academic discipline of the major universities.
The new black college will be equipped for teaching white students as well as blacks, offering a greater ratio of hard-content courses to "softies," attracting students who can pay their way as well as those who seek financial aid, drawing students qualified to attend any college in addition to those leaning on the aid of tutors and remedial work.
These changes are expected to move graduates into the economic mainstream of the nation and break the stereotype of the black college graduate as a teacher, social worker, or affirmative action officer.
These improvements are expected to make black colleges good investments for foundations, corporations, federal and state governments, and other prospective donors.
Since 1979, however, three black colleges have closed their doors. Several are hanging on with 200 or less students. And a few "name" schools like Allen University in Columbia, S.C., and Meharry Medical College are living on brinkmanship. Meharry recently hired its first white president in its history in the hope that he may pull in the "college gift dollar."
Meanwhile, North Carolina Central University has been successful in luring whites to its campus -- in a state which 20 years ago segregated college students as black, white, or American Indian.
"We are enrolling 50 percent white in law and graduate library study, 30 percent in our new business school, 20 percent in Arts and Sciences," said David Witherspoon, director of the NCCU news bureau. The student body is 11.2 percent white, but the whites rarely linger on campus beyond class schedules.
But in the end, the black colleges' most appealing lure is their growing relationships with major universities around the nation through dual-degree programs.
Atlanta University undergraduate colleges offer such opportunities as a five-year dual-degree engineering program with students taking their final two years at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) or Boston University.
Howard University, the nation's largest black institution, has working agreements with black colleges and also with a consortium of universities in the District of Columbia area.
Other colleges have contacts with such institutions as the University of North Carolina, Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin.
Tennessee State, a black land-grant, residential college, is pushing to maintain a large white presence on its campus, in order to comply with a 1979 US District Court order to merge with the University of Tennessee at Nashville, a downtown commuters' campus.
"We have converted the modern downtown facility into an all-day operation that serves our black campus students as well as white commuters," says school public relations officer Mary Vowels. "The School of Business MBA [master of business administration] program is downtown. Undergraduate business courses are being transferred there. Our Graduate School will be downtown."
The 1981-82 school year is the year to watch, she says. The combined 8,000 -student university, down by 2,000 in combined enrollment, expects to stabilize its student body and iron out administrative flaws in the coming year.
Meanwhile, help for the ailing black colleges has come from Washington. Former President Jimmy Carter issued an executive order Aug. 8, 1980 with an eight-point program to help strengthen black colleges.
This order established a program to encourage every federal executive agency to involve black colleges in programs they sponsor. Each agency must design a program and report to the secretary of education, who in turn would report annually to the President.
It is doubtful that President Reagan will follow the Carter guidelines, but his approach could be "a blessing in disguise for black colleges," says Leonard Haynes, director of the office for Advancement of Public Negro Colleges, in Washington, D.C.
"Mr. Carter led us down the primrose path, and we got nothing," says Dr. Haynes, who maintains that blacks will work for themselves under the new administration.
"Bringing in whites alone will not make a black school better," he says."They can utilize their strengths to attract students of all races."
But survival is not enough, continues Haynes. "Black colleges can be as good as others let them be. The fundamental function of these schools is to uplift black people, but they can do more. They can be the cutting edge of edu cation."