Commentary

Wilson: State, UNC system must re-examine HBCUs’ role

CorrespondentFebruary 7, 2014 

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Reading Jane Stancill’s excellent N&O report last week on what lies ahead for North Carolina’s five historically black universities, my thoughts focused on a common phrase, “bright future.”

I’m not so convinced that the HBCUs have much of a future, bright or otherwise, under that rubric.

These schools – Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, N.C. A&T, Winston-Salem State and N.C. Central – are nearing the end of their historic mission as ports of last resort for minority students.

The world they were designed for, a world of social and government-mandated inferiority, has upended faster than the institutions could adapt.

None of the five state universities has an average SAT level above 1,000. Their six-year graduation rates are embarrassingly low. That’s not nearly good enough for turning out graduates equipped to compete in the global knowledge economy.

And, as Stancill points out, ambitious, well-prepared high school graduates self-select for universities such as UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State. For too many HBCUs, overall academic quality remains on the level of a junior college or, to be totally frank about it, a good urban high school.

Few people in North Carolina discuss this sort of heresy in public, and for good reason: the odor of racism attends it.

Curiously, most HBCUs in the South are the products of white supremacy, which broke loose with a vengeance after Reconstruction ended in 1877. Although African-Americans could have their own schools, they would be separate and unequal, never strong enough to threaten Jim Crow.

Two threads of thought competed to determine which direction HBCUs would take. One thread promoted by George Washington Carver was predicated on giving blacks practical education, mostly agricultural – the N.C. A&T model.

The other thread, advocated by W.E.B. Du Bois, won. Du Bois argued that blacks could triumph by adopting the same higher-education aspirations as the white establishment. That would be N.C. Central University.

Now, in the 21st century, these and other HBCUs find themselves searching for a new rationale for their very existence. Some HBCUs, for example, are more white than black, and all have substantial white enrollment.

Meanwhile, many of North Carolina’s best black (and increasingly, Latino) students opt for the state’s top private and public universities as their springboards into the professions.

These two developments augur ill for the future of HBCUs, threatening to mire them in a mediocrity difficult to surmount.

But not impossible. There is a way forward. As SAT scores rise and HBCU enrollments shrink, the UNC system should once again consider reducing the number of state-supported universities from 16 to as few as 12.

Why keep a school such as Elizabeth City State University, arguably the weakest of the HBCU sisters, hanging by a thread? Why not consolidate Winston-Salem State and N.C. A&T? Could majority-white UNC-Charlotte return to private status?

It takes facing unpleasant facts and enormous political will to downsize and reform a university system with 16 constituencies and a legacy of discrimination from the white-supremacy era. Many North Carolina blacks justifiably fear losing “their” universities.

Actually, all 16 are “our” universities, and whatever the number settles into, they must attract the best students and do their best for them. Slowly but surely the minority is becoming the majority, and when that happens a hundred years from now, let us hope that curious students will ask, “What was an HBCU?”

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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