Battle to keep colleges black

August 9, 1996

Supporters of black colleges and universities in the United States have leapt to their defence after a series of scandals and financial mishaps hit their credibility.

Black colleges were once the only hope for African-Americans denied higher education by law. But since desegregation and the onset of affirmative action their role has been a subject of constant debate.

Luminaries such as film director Spike Lee, author Alice Walker, television host Oprah Winfrey as well as Martin Luther King are among their alumni. "These institutions have been around for a while and there is quite frankly a need to keep them around," said Robert Kronley, consultant for the Southern Education Foundation.

But the removal of accreditation from Selma University and Texas College earlier this year, an inquiry into alleged financial mismanagement at Texas Southern University, and problems at other campuses has brought pressure to raise admission standards and increase managerial oversight.

The "historically black" colleges and universities, as they are usually called, in fact opened their doors to other races well before the Supreme Court set new guidelines for integrating colleges in 1992.

But they stand out as places with majority black students and faculty, in some campuses accounting for 95 per cent of admissions, and in others more like two thirds. They give out about one third of the BAs earned by black students, and are located mostly in the south.

Supporters say that alumni have proved professionally more successful and better motivated. It is among the publicly funded black colleges - 39 of them in 19 states - that a number appear to be struggling. In some cases, they have suffered financially and academically from offering places to young people at the bottom of the economic and educational ladder, in the name of opening doors.

"These institutions have always been the stepchildren of the system," said Mr Kronley. "Some thrived under considerable adversity. They are underfunded and have a history of neglect and have been essentially stigmatised."

They suffer the problems affecting other higher education institutions writ large. Jackson State University, for example, has a multi-million dollar budget deficit and a 35 per cent drop in applications.

Its problems could worsen if students fail to qualify for a new state admissions policy. But the story of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a campus in Prince Anne, Maryland, provides a counterpoint. Along with Tennessee State University, and Florida A&M, it is a success story, beginning in the late 19th century as an all-black church school and becoming part of a segregated university system in 1946. Now about two-thirds of all students and about half the faculty are black.

With about 3,000 students, it is "the fastest growing institution, public or private, in the state of Maryland," said president William Hytche. It boasts having enrolled students from 51 countries, mostly in Asia and Africa, in part through overseas agricultural development programmess. "We are growing by leaps and bounds. We can't build the dormitories fast enough."

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