A leading higher education trade journal, Inside Higher Ed, recently profiled Claflin University, one of eight historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in South Carolina. Under the leadership of former president Henry Tisdale from 1994 to 2018, Claflin successfully doubled enrollment, while increasing retainment and graduation rates. Inside Higher Ed observed that writing about Claflin’s success was a welcome break from the usual news it reports on HBCUs—stories of colleges going under, seeking mergers, as in the case of Bennett College, or sitting in the cross-hairs of accreditors for financial weaknesses.
The news about Claflin is wonderful, but lost in the dialogue on HBCUs is the very real academic advantages that they offer to students. Just about every liberal arts college and university in the nation could learn from the HBCU sector writ large.
Each year, my organization surveys general education requirements, also known as core curriculum requirements, across American higher education in our What Will They Learn? report. We assign grades from “A” to “F” based on whether colleges require foundational subjects: composition, literature, intermediate foreign language, U.S. history or government, economics, mathematics, and natural science. As a sector, HBCUs score far better than the rest of higher education.
Morehouse College is one of only 22 colleges nationwide that scored an “A.” Meanwhile, Tuskegee University, Claflin University, Fisk University, Dillard University, Tougaloo College, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, and Prairie View A&M University (to name a few examples) all earn a “B” rating—above the national average of a “C.” More HBCUs earn credit for U.S. history by requiring its study, often through the lens of the African-American experience.
At other institutions, the liberal arts core curriculum has largely dissolved in favor of “distribution requirements.” These milquetoast “requirements” favor choice within broad categories over coherence. There are large universities where students can fulfill their “core” by choosing a handful of classes from a vast cafeteria line of—with no exaggeration—more than 3,000 options. And there are some strange dishes in that cafeteria line, like “Horror Films in American Culture” or the offensively titled “Wops and Dons to Movers and Shakers,” both of which fulfill the University of Colorado–Boulder’s “American Experience” requirement. The liberal arts core could be an opportunity for the university to establish its values and ensure that all students share a common bond through their curriculum. That this is regularly happening at HBCUs is abundantly clear. What’s wrong with the rest of higher education?
HBCUs have maintained their positive institutional identities. They understand that to be well-educated means more than narrow vocational focus. Dr. James D. Anderson, dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and leading historian of HBCUs, told me that during his time at Stillman College, students were expected to master the literary arts regardless of their particular major. Likewise, regardless of academic focus, Stillman expected its students to be prepared for dynamic, active, and informed citizenship and engagement in their communities.
Former president of Prairie View A&M University, George C. Wright, put together a recommended reading list that can be thought of as Great Books for black students. Overall, these schools recognize the connection between a well-rounded education and cultivating intellectual and moral leaders. Unlike so much of higher education, HBCUs tend to understand that the purpose of higher education is not simply to prepare students for the workforce, but to provide them with the intellectual framework needed for a meaningful, reflective life.
The lifeblood of the liberal arts is the free exchange of ideas. Few of the failings of contemporary American higher education have so besmirched its reputation and degraded campus culture as shout-downs, disinvitations, trigger warnings, and the like. We have seen remarkable resistance to this trend, however, at HBCUs. What U.S. Congressman John Lewis said, “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the Civil Rights movement would have been a bird without wings,” has had a better run lately at HBCUs than at so many elite institutions.
Consider the contrast. On March 2, 2017, as is now notorious, Middlebury College students, few, if any of whom had bothered to read sociologist Charles Murray’s writings, nonetheless shouted him down on grounds of his alleged racism and “classism.” A mob of students and outsiders hurled distinguished professor of political science Allison Stanger to the ground, causing a brain concussion and a neck injury that took months to heal, for daring to hold a discussion with Dr. Murray. Yet not long before, on November 1, 2016, Dillard University, an HBCU founded in 1930, hosted the Louisiana senatorial candidates debate, and since former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke made it onto the ballot, he, too, qualified for the debate at Dillard. There were protests and arrests, but the event proceeded as planned.
Dillard is blessed with Walter Kimbrough as its president and a board that backed him in his decision to let the debate go forward. He had confidence that his institution could host an unwelcome participant, noting to the press, “I just believe that our brand and what we do on a day-to-day basis is bigger than that.” This was not new for him. As president of another HBCU, Philander Smith College, Mr. Kimbrough recounted, “At least once a year, I sought to invite someone who might make our campus uneasy, to make me uneasy. I feel that for leaders to grow, they need to seek out opinions that they fundamentally disagree with.”
What does this distinguished leader say about the sector as a whole? President Kimbrough noted to me that HBCUs have a special hurdle before them: “While HBCUs may not have always been on the forefront of providing for free speech, they have always had to show the most courage to do so.” While so many college presidents live in fear of student unrest over a controversial speaker or a faculty vote of no confidence over a new core curriculum, one finds at HBCUs stunning models of commitment to truly liberal education.