A Visit to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) of Arkansas

April 15, 2013

In April 2013, in a decision to take an assignment considerably beyond what most other students were doing, in a terribly lame course on Teaching People of Other Cultures, I decided to visit the three accredited historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Arkansas.  This post describes my preparation for and pursuit of that opportunity.  (Note also the accompanying video.)

I have opted to include the whole story in one post.  A more systematic study, appropriate for something more than the single class assignment underlying this investigation, would no doubt warrant a more comprehensive written treatment that might best be divided into several posts or chapters.

Note that criticisms presented here may differ from, but are not necessarily sharper than, criticisms of majority-white universities provided in other posts in this blog.  Nor should it be assumed, from such criticisms, that HBCUs are necessarily inferior to majority-white schools serving students of similar socioeconomic status.  In all cases, consistent with the purpose of this blog, one objective is to identify areas of potential improvement.  This post does differ from others, however, in seeking also to present a sort of travelogue, for readers who may lack personal access to HBCUs.


Not surprisingly, race was probably the first issue I had to think about, when considering this road trip.  I began with concerns born of the general environment of race relations in the U.S.  Over the years, I had developed a sense that it was risky to hold and express opinions, or even take a critical interest, regarding black people.  Various people and experiences had contributed to this concern.  For instance, a white professor of counseling psychology at the University of Missouri – Columbia, doubtless considering himself enlightened, had once shown his students (including me) a video of people discussing race.  The black guy was the only person in the video who failed to conduct himself reasonably.  The professor seemed to think that the black guy’s voicing of grievances justified his decision to scream at the white guy.  This would not be the only time, in my education, when self-appointed faculty defenders of the downtrodden would exhibit startling myopia.

It may seem that a person with an master’s of social work (MSW) degree from one of the nation’s highest-ranked schools of social work would be skilled in handling and exploring issues of race.  And I probably was, as long as I stuck to social work dogma and did not indulge my own potentially heterodox uncertainties.  The moment I strayed from the script, however, I was on my own.  You might say my education had taught me to memorize the right answer, not how to calculate it.  In the terms that one of my doctoral social work professors used to describe the comparable issue of male-female relations, race was a third-rail subject, one that many would prefer to avoid.  I was simply unsure how far I would be able to go, at these HBCUs, in terms of soliciting and expressing views on race relations:  there was a risk that I would violate academic protocol and position myself as an actual white guy, with potentially uncomfortable but sincere questions, rather than as a make-believe black guy, full of quasi-empathy and ersatz solidarity.  I phrase these matters tartly because it seemed to me that not many black people were buying the story:  despite extensive efforts to recruit black people, social work education, and the profession as a whole, remained overwhelmingly white.


The route I initially set up for this trip was focused on central and eastern Arkansas and western Mississippi.  There were three HBCUs in Little Rock alone (though I ultimatedly decided to skip Shorter College, which lost its accreditation in 1998 and has apparently made slight progress in recovering it), so it was convenient to treat Little Rock as an essential stop on the route.  A map suggested that most of the nation’s HBCUs lay in an arc running from Philadelphia to San Antonio, with concentrations from Virginia to South Carolina on the East Coast, and across the Deep South from Atlanta to Dallas.  The states with the largest numbers of HBCUs were Alabama (15), North Carolina (11), Georgia (10), Texas (9), and South Carolina (8), but a total of 22 states and territories had at least one.  I didn’t know whether there were geographical variations, such that the schools I would visit in or near the Mississippi Delta region might differ significantly from HBCUs elsewhere.  My route covered as many miles as I could manage, given the amount of time available for this project:  ultimately, I limited myself to just the three accredited HBCUs in Arkansas.

I came up with the idea to visit these schools at nearly the last moment.  I had an assignment to spend 20 hours observing a multicultural educational environment.  I was drawing a blank until I thought of the HBCUs.  Basically, I had only a few days to visit the schools and to do the driving between them.  I could not undertake a thorough investigation of any of them, much less all.  I planned to conduct an impressionistic survey and just see what, if anything, seemed most noticeable.

With more advance warning, I would probably have been able to arrange a more densely packed itinerary of visits to various classrooms throughout these schools.  Under the circumstances, I began with some pre-arranged opportunities to sit and observe classes, along with some situations where I would just have to show up and see what I could arrange on the fly.

The HBCU Concept

While a few blacks had previously attended institutions of higher education, in 1834 Oberlin College became the first to enroll blacks officially; in 1837 Cheyney University in Pennsylvania opened as the first institution of higher education intended specifically for blacks; and in 1856 Wilberforce University became the first such institution founded and run only by blacks (Williamson-Lott, Darling-Hammond, & Hyler, 2012, p. 589).  A federal report in 1915 concluded that, at that point, only three institutions were “college-grade”:  Howard University, Meharry Medical College, and Fisk University, though a total of 33 institutions were offering a mix of collegiate and high school courses (Hill, 1985, p. 5).  A second federal survey, in 1927, identified 77 institutions offering collegiate work (p. 6).  By 1936, the number of such institutions had climbed to 121 (p. 10).  As of 1954, Hill (p. 13) identifies 90 such institutions.  The leveling-off appears to be due to the elimination of sub-collegiate enrollment (that is, a sharper distinction between high schools and colleges), and perhaps also to changes wrought by the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar economy.

The concept of “traditionally black institutions of higher education” (Turner & Michael, 1978; Hill, 1985) largely gave way to that of the “historically black college or university,” starting with the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA).  That act provided funding to various higher education institutions and students.  The HBCUs (referred to as “part B institutions,” due to their treatment in Part B of that act) comprised one set of institutions targeted for such funding.  The official definition provided in HEA (codified at 20 USC 1061(2)) introduces more complexity than the simplified definition commonly used.  For most purposes, “HBCUs are institutions established prior to 1964, whose principal mission is the education of Black Americans” (Provasnik, 2004, p. 1).  In contrast to the HEA, this common definition does not require accreditation, though it appears that the vast majority of HBCUs are accredited.  Institutions that do not meet the criteria for an HBCU may nonetheless fall into the separate category of “predominantly black” if they provide a low-cost, accredited education to a needy student body that is at least 40% black.

HBCU Enrollments, Indicators, and Outcomes

At the time of this study, although there are divergent lists, the general consensus seemed to be that there were 105 HBCUs.  These varied in numerous regards, including location (see above); age (with dates of establishment ranging from 1837 to 1975 – the latter having previously been a part of another HBCU); and public or private status and, if private, their church or other affiliation.  According to Wikipedia, 83 offered bachelor’s degrees, 52 offered master’s degrees, and 27 offered doctoral degrees – in other words, some HBCUs offered only associate’s degrees (and those accounted for 10% of all HBCU students in 2001).  Only about four HBCUs enrolled more than 10,000 students each.  The percentage of black college students who went to HBCUs dropped from nearly all, in the old days, to 13% in 2001 (Provasnik, 2004, p. 2) to 9% in 2010.  The percentage of HBCU students who were black dropped slightly, from 85% in 1976 to 82% in 2001.  But while nonblacks thus accounted for 18% of all HBCU students in 2001, up from 15% in 1976, total HBCU enrollment had risen by 30% in that same period (Provasnik, p. 11).  Beasley (2012a) stated that, as of 2010, total HBCU enrollment had risen again, to 338,498, of which 74,362 (22%) were nonblack.  So there was a larger absolute number of black students enrolled, even as the campuses became somewhat less black.  Wikipedia indicated that few HBCUs were currently less than 70% black; the two extreme exceptions were Bluefield State College (13% black) and West Virginia State University (17% black), and blacks were reportedly in the minority at only seven HBCUs.  On the other hand, Hinrichs (2012, p. 14) identified Lane College as entirely black, and says, “The median HBCU in 2009 was 97.1% black.”  Consistent with that, a table provided by Lundy-Wagner and Gasman (2011, p. 953) suggested that, at least among the 40 HBCUs with the best bachelor’s degree graduation rates, a number of schools were at least 95% black, while others ranged down as far as 64% black.  Finally, as of 2001, women accounted for 61% of HBCU enrollment (Provasnik, p. 2).

UNCF indicated that HBCUs made a disproportionately positive impact, producing more than 50% of black professionals, including >50% of black public school teachers, >70% of black dentists, and at least one-third of black natural scientists and mathematicians, and that black graduation rates from many HBCUs exceeded average graduation rates from non-HBCUs.  Beasley (2012b) contended that HBCUs were still vital because mainstream institutions persistently failed to close black-nonblack achievement gaps.  Lundy-Wagner and Gasman found a number of intriguing observations in the literature:  for instance, Xavier University had “low admission criteria” and yet produced “a significant proportion of competitive Black medical school matriculants each year” (p. 936); black males “have been significantly outpaced by Black women in the past 30 years at HBCUs both in enrollment and completion” (p. 937); and HBCUs’ effectiveness is often attributed to such factors as “nurturing learning environments” and “small class sizes and low student-teacher ratios” (pp. 937, 946).  Clewell, de Cohen, and Tsui (2010, p. 1) noted that HBCUs outperformed TWIs (traditionally white institutions) in educating black students for science, engineering, and business, and were also more likely to reach students from lower-socioeconomic status families.

HBCUs appeared to vary widely in quality and/or prestige.  At the upper end, various celebrities (e.g., Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison) were alumni of certain HBCUs.  U.S. News & World Report produced a list of what it considered top HBCUs:

1.  Spelman College (SAT 1562, 35% acceptance)
2.  Howard University (SAT 1655, 54% acceptance)
3.  Morehouse College (SAT 1545, 68% acceptance)
4.  Hampton University (SAT 1442, 37% acceptance)
5.  Fisk University (SAT 1364, 64% acceptance)
5.  Xavier University (SAT 1425, 35% acceptance)
7.  Tuskegee University (SAT 1325, 59% acceptance)
8.  Claflin University (SAT 1343, 36% acceptance)
9.  Dillard University (SAT 1310, 48% acceptance)
10.  Florida A&M University (SAT 1358, 62% acceptance)
11.  North Carolina A&T State University (SAT 1340, 58% acceptance)
12.  North Carolina Central University (SAT 1255, 70% acceptance)
13.  Delaware State University (SAT 1305, 37% acceptance)
14.  South Carolina State University 15.  Bennett College
15.  Clark Atlanta University (SAT 1318, 71% acceptance)
15.  Johnson C. Smith University (SAT 1270, 26% acceptance)
15.  Tougaloo College (SAT 1527, 32% acceptance)
19.  Tennessee State University
20.  Elizabeth City State University
20.  Morgan State University (SAT 1338, 43% acceptance)
22.  Alabama A&M University (SAT 1290, 47% acceptance)
22.  Winston-Salem State University (SAT 1280, 54% acceptance)
24.  Oakwood University (SAT 1341, 51% acceptance)
25.  Lincoln University
26.  Kentucky State University
27.  Alcorn State University (SAT 1284, 40% acceptance)
27.  Bowie State University (SAT 1300, 49% acceptance)
27.  Fayetteville State University (SAT 1260, 65% acceptance)
27.  Fort Valley State University
27.  Jackson State University (SAT 1350, 62% acceptance)
32.  Albany State University (SAT 1318, 30% acceptance)
33.  University of Maryland – Eastern Shore
33.  Virginia State University (SAT 1290, 67% acceptance)
35.  Prairie View A&M University

See also:

Bluefield State College (SAT 1408, 83% acceptance)
Philander Smith College (SAT 1355, 69% acceptance)
Huston-Tillotson University (SAT 1289, 48% acceptance)
Coppin State University (SAT 1283, 43% acceptance)
Bethune-Cookman University (SAT 1280, 69% acceptance)
Grambling State University (SAT 1274, 33% acceptance)

Grant (2010) ranked schools by SAT scores, and thus provided the average SAT scores and acceptance rates (shown above) for some schools in the U.S. News list, as well as for the schools in the “see also” list.  His list changed somewhat in the following year.  A few of the values shown above are from that following year.  The absence of SAT and acceptance figures indicates that the school in question did not appear on Grant’s list in either of those two years.  These SAT scores compare against a maximum possible score of 2400 (i.e., 800 on each of the three components – reading, match, and writing – on the SAT).  For perspective, one source indicates that even the 25th percentile of SAT scores at Ivy League schools would tend to be at least 1900.

I was not able to determine the criteria by which UNCF chose its member colleges; apparently they were predominantly those who were involved in UNCF’s creation.  Its list did not entirely coincide with the foregoing.  Most of the schools listed above did not rank highly on the various U.S. News rankings.  A check of the first five put Spelman at No. 68, Morehouse at No. 124, and Fisk at No. 145 on the list of National Liberal Arts Colleges; Howard at No. 120 on the list of National Universities; and Hampton at No. 27 on the list of Regional Universities.  The U.S. News rankings appear to differ considerably from a ranking provided by Washington Monthly.  In any event, I guessed that many black students with high SAT scores and other competitive credentials would be tempted, for better or worse, to opt for more widely recognized national universities.

The Three HBCUs I Visited

I visited the three HBCUs in Arkansas that were accredited as of April 2013.  I spent not quite three full days on this trip, plus an estimated 30 hours making preliminary inquiries and figuring out the plan, plus three or four days writing this post and preparing the accompanying video.  When I got down to the point of specifying schools and figuring out an itinerary, I saw that it was not going to be possible to include any schools in Mississippi, as I had originally hoped to do.  The following paragraphs provide brief writeups of the three Arkansas schools I visited, reflecting what people might infer from publicly available and readily accessible sources.  Those sources include the schools’ own websites, which tend to provide much more information than could be summarized in a brief space.  The following treatment thus offers highlights rather than a comprehensive discussion.

University of Arkansas – Pine Bluff (UAPB).   Founded in 1873.  Moved to its current location in 1929.  Operated under different names, not becoming a full part of the University of Arkansas system (due to segregation) until 1972.  The central part of the campus fills the equivalent of perhaps 15 city blocks, but sprawls outward into a variety of buildings and spaces including a stadium and various agricultural areas.  The campus reportedly has about 160 faculty members – it is not clear (for any of these three schools) how many are full-time – along with about 3,300 undergraduate and perhaps 150 graduate students.  About 94% of students are black; about one-third of students live on campus.  The university’s website boasts a 20:1 student-teacher ratio, as well as more than 30 degree programs (although it seems those can be subdivided into many more fields of study) and 90 student organizations (including a choir, bands, debate and theater departments, and an “accomplished athletic program”).  Pine Bluff ranks as one of America’s most dangerous and impoverished cities.  Within this branch of the University of Arkansas, there have been recurrent problems of financial mismanagement by chancellors – specifically, with Dr. Charles Walker, who resigned in 1991, and more recently with his replacement, Dr. Lawrence A. Davis, Jr., who resigned in May 2012 when the University of Arkansas accused him of financial abuse, financial misconduct, and fraud, following the discovery that more than $700,000 was unaccounted for.

Arkansas Baptist College.  Located in central Little Rock, just a few blocks from Central High School, which was the scene of the famous desegregation case known as Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  Arkansas Baptist was founded in 1884 and is described as seeking to be “a voice for the underrepresented [i.e., disadvantaged] student.”  Its website offers “a small, cohesive student environment with an open enrolment policy, accepting all eligible students with a high school diploma or GED equivalent,” with a commitment to “academic scholarship, the liberal arts tradition, social responsibility, Christian development and preparation for employment in a global community.”  The school’s Student Life webpage offers student organizations, student government, and Greek Life (two national sororities and one national fraternity; five Greek chapters altogether).  Arkansas Baptist’s board of trustees includes a former dean of students at the University of Arkansas – Little Rock, a former Arkansas Court of Appeals judge, and several other educators, pastors, and corporate figures.  The neighborhoods in which Arkansas Baptist and Philander Smith are located appear to be among the most dangerous in Little Rock, which overall has a violent crime rate nearly three times higher than the national average.  There have been some community initiatives, as in the college’s “Auto-Baptism” car wash and its fresh produce store.  Perhaps typical of its outreach orientation, Arkansas Baptist’s enrollment is 63% male, 37% female, and 93% black.  I was not able to access the school’s catalog, and therefore had to piece together an impression of its offerings from multiple sources.  The faculty/staff directory seems to suggest particular foci on business, fine arts, athletics, and religious studies, along with general studies and liberal arts, urban community leadership, and other programs (e.g., Kiddie Kollege, Upward Bound).  The school has schools of arts & sciences, business, and religious studies, and offers bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice, business administration, human services, and theology.  (The Encyclopedia of Arkansas names bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice, human services, religious studies, business administration, and public administration, as well as several associate’s degrees.)  One source indicates that there are about 23 faculty members.  The campus map identifies 22 buildings in an area that (with parking lots) covers the equivalent of perhaps four or five square blocks.  After military service and a Bronze Star during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Arkansas Baptist’s current president, Fitzgerald (“Fitz”) Hill, earned a doctorate in education from the University of Arkansas (1997), with a dissertation on black college football coaches, and was himself a college football coach before joining Arkansas Baptist in 2006.  Enrollment has tripled since his arrival, and the budget has risen from $2 million to $20 million.  That said, Arkansas Baptist is apparently feeling budgetary pressures.  The Encyclopedia of Arkansas indicates that the college had its largest graduating class in 2007, with 47 graduates, and had nearly 1,200 students enrolled in fall 2011, of whom a substantial majority were evidently part-time commuters.  A brief look through the school’s website did not clarify whether the number of graduates had increased along with enrollment since 2007.

Philander Smith College.  Likewise in central Little Rock, not far from Arkansas Baptist; affiliated with the United Methodist Church.  “Philander,” commonly used nowadays to refer to womanizing, was a recognized given name in the 19th century; it comes from the Greek meaning “friend of man.”  The school began as a seminary for freed slaves in 1877 and has been accredited since 1943.  Wikipedia says it currently enrolls about 850, of whom 70% are full-time.  According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Philander Smith enrolled 732 students in fall 2011 (91% black), of whom perhaps a majority live on campus; the school reportedly has about 90 faculty members.  That enrollment, notably less than Arkansas Baptist in total numbers but presumably involving more full-time students, is spread out over an area of approximately 11 square blocks, of which two blocks are devoted to dorms, one to the “state-of-the-art library and technology center,” one to the science and health mission center, and so forth.  (I wondered about potential overreaching in the apparent claim that the campus holds “the Arkansas Memorial to Dr. M.L. King.”)  Major fields of study include business, education, arts and humanities, natural and physical sciences, and social sciences, with multiple possible majors in each (e.g., within social sciences, there are political science, psychology, sociology, and social work).  Funding resources appear to be deeper than those of Arkansas Baptist; for instance, the library was built with a $7.8 million grant.  To my eye, Philander Smith is the only one of these three schools to have a nationally prominent graduate, in the person of former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jocelyn Elders.  The school boasts one Fulbright Scholar and several other relatively successful graduates (e.g., one who went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania).  Philander appears to have a tradition of encouraging political activism consistent with its mission statement and its location near the statehouse:  among other things, students were active in nonviolent resistance against segregation during the civil rights movement.  The college offers a variety of student activities, including a student leadership development program, student government, a student activities programming board, a Miss Philander Smith competition, and Greek life.  I did not attempt to read the Student Handbook in any detail:  it runs to 100 pages, and includes such accoutrements as a school song, a school coat of arms, and a list of four fraternities and four sororities, of which the newest were established in 1947.  Of these three HBCUs, Philander’s website conveyed perhaps the strongest impression of a well-rounded and developed traditional college experience.  The previous president, Walter M. Kimbrough, was appointed in 2004 at age 37.  His replacement as of 2012, Johnny Moore, has apparently not made a great beginning.

Regarding Administrators

An administrator at an institution of higher education, contemplating a visit from someone like me, could have a variety of reactions.  S/he might consider me and my inquiries insignificant, or might see me as a potential threat or troublemaker, or might perceive an opportunity to promote his/her school to some unknown individual, such as myself, who might wind up writing blog posts or producing YouTube videos.  Such reactions would presumably depend upon the administrator’s own attitudes and experiences as well as the ambiance of the institution.

Before making the trip, I made efforts to contact what appeared to be the appropriate offices at the schools I was considering – the three in Arkansas, plus two in Mississippi.  My contacts were by email where possible, with follow-ups by phone to a limited extent, using contact information that I found on the schools’ websites.  This effort was frustrated in the case of UAPB, whose website’s Visitors section led to an Information & Welcome Center webpage, copyright 2010, that simply said, “Coming soon!”  Generally, I began with the administrator or office whose purpose seemed most closely related to my inquiry, and invited redirection to others that might be more helpful.  In my contacts, I provided a brief explanation of the purpose of my visit.

This was not a thorough, scientific investigation of the responsiveness of any school’s administrative structure.  Some administrators, or their receptionists, indicated that they were out on business – at a conference, for example, or at a meeting.  Nonetheless, the net results were noteworthy.  I did attempt to make arrangements with administrators at all five campuses, and yet, for whatever reason(s) – my own failings, the imperfection of the website, short staffing, or whatever – Mississippi Valley State University was the only one that had an administrator who actually succeeded in making contact with me that would have been sufficient to set up prior arrangements on short notice.  (The others also failed to get back to me later, after the fact.)  In other words, I arrived on the Arkansas campuses without the benefit of administrative preparation.

It may have been just as well that my visits were impromptu.  For one thing, this tended to prevent staging of unrealistic or unrepresentative encounters for my benefit.  This effect was perhaps most provocative in the case of the administrators themselves.  When I arrived on campus and asked whom I should speak with, and sought out those individuals (who were not necessarily the ones I had attempted to contact previously), again I received indications that they were in meetings or at conferences.  These seemed to be credible reports; the assistants who gave me that information seemed to be helpful and willing to talk; they did not seem to be trying to get rid of me.  But I did wonder just where one administrator was.  Repeat visits over a period of several hours demonstrated that she was not there at the moment, and also was not there later, when she was supposed to have returned from her unspecified alternate location – and when the assistant put me on the phone to her in my last visit, there was no explanation of where she was, or where she had been, and no effort to engage me on the subject of my visit.

I present these thoughts about administrators for several reasons.  For one thing, the topic of administration is easiest to discuss first, and get out of the way, because I had so little interaction with administration.  In addition, the instances of chancellor malfeasance at UAPB evidently involved others in addition to the chancellor; that is, it did seem appropriate to question developments, during my visit, that did not immediately promote an image of sound management.  Generally, as a critic of higher education, I consider it appropriate to make note of apparent contrasts between administrators who make their institutions better places and those who tend to be dead weight, evincing limited commitment either to their institutions or to the students.

In retrospect, it might have produced more interesting results if I had focused directly upon administrators themselves, rather than treating them as just one set of participants in a larger process.  I was especially struck by the experience of speaking to a dean at UAPB.  If she had presented herself as something other than a formidable, confident individual, I might have wondered whether I had somehow intimidated her.  But that was decidedly not the situation.  If anything, it was the opposite:  she came across as a rather bullying individual, secure in her ability to push people around.  Her behavior was vastly different from what I had encountered in the real educators that I had spoken with so far.  In particular, I was surprised at her response to my very first question, a soft-pitch inquiry about challenges and opportunities facing students at a historically black school.  Instead of just answering the question and moving things along, she chose to ask me repeatedly who I was, why I was here, which professors and students I had spoken with, and so forth.  I did repeat my name; I did repeat that I was there on a class assignment; and, needless to say, I was not about to betray my sources to her.  When I balked at that last question, she explained that she was “just following protocol”; and yet, when I said that I had looked unsuccessfully for exactly that protocol, and asked her to direct me to it, she changed the subject.  I do understand that an administrator might be concerned about potential ramifications of unguarded comments; but for that very reason, it seemed like borderline incompetence to engage in such obvious stonewalling in response to an easy query about students’ challenges and opportunities.  As this paragraph demonstrates, her approach did draw attention to the dean and to the question.  Is there something about her, and/or about challenges and opportunities facing students on the Pine Bluff campus, that is more politically fraught than I had realized?  Does the administration of that campus not want to seize opportunities to tell its story in its own terms — do they seriously prefer to leave people like me to make up our own versions, based on whatever we can gather from other sources?

As will become evident, later in this post, there was a remarkable contrast between these sorts of administrative attitudes and the openness of instructors.  Not one instructor with whom I spoke expressed the slightest hesitation to allow me, an unknown, to sit in on his/her class, even if I did resemble a potentially troublesome white guy with a clipboard (especially on the first day, when I was dressed up for the occasion).  I have returned the favor, to the extent feasible, by minimizing identifying information.  Where I offer criticisms, I assume that students have probably made similar remarks in course evaluations and/or in online professor evaluation websites.  Needless to say, I welcome comments and will make corrections as appropriate.  It may also be apparent that I probably would have identified comparable concerns if I had visited entirely different institutions.  The focus should be, not on the particular instructor, but rather on the administrators who do not appear to be on top of the issues I have noted.

A proper administratively oriented inquiry would easily have consumed an entire road trip all by itself.  There do seem to be some questions there.  But for present purposes, it seemed sufficient to engage administrative concerns to this extent, but to focus primarily on education – that is, on actual teaching and learning, rather than the accompanying bureaucracy.

The Campuses and Their Resources

Physical characteristics were probably the first thing that a person would notice, at these three HBCUs.  As introduced above, UAPB was several times larger than the others, with the kinds of resources that one would expect from a state university:  a large recreation complex, multiple substantial classroom buildings, big open spaces.  But it also had a number of old buildings, including a few whose chained doors matched the general appearance of being nearly ready to fall down.  Philander, though much smaller in terms of enrollment, sprawled prettily across a relatively large space and felt, generally, like a much larger school than Arkansas Baptist.  Its buildings and surrounding areas were spacious and well maintained.  Arkansas Baptist did have several nice buildings, notably its renovated Old Main classroom building and its new dorm, but it might never compete with Philander in terms of appearances.  It simply did not have the real estate nor, apparently, the financial resources.

Some of those contrasts may be attributable to differences in church affiliation.  In my impression, Baptists tend to value higher education according to its contribution to the priority of saving lost souls.  This precommitment inevitably clashes with the educational priorities of people who value free expression, learning for its own sake, and other common values in higher education.  The liberal United Methodist Church seems to have a more visible commitment to higher education.  Of course, the relatively secular state government also tends toward a commitment to education.

Security was one noticeable aspect of the physical layout.  All three campuses are located in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in their relatively dangerous cities.  Given that, it is worth recognizing that both UAPB and Arkansas Baptist are essentially open to outsiders who might walk or drive through.  I saw one sign at UAPB warning motorists that they were being observed, presumably on video, presumably by someone seated in the smallish police station.  I don’t know whether that station houses enough people to monitor video feeds from all over campus, and also to dispatch officers to intercept any suspicious individuals.  They did not question me about the purpose of my visit, require me to register, or otherwise gather any information when I asked, at that office, where I could park; they told me I could park right there at the station.  I was glad they did not harass me when they saw me, with my white skin, wandering all over an empty campus, in and out of unlocked buildings and classrooms (at least one containing apparently valuable electronic equipment, set out on workbenches) at around 7:30 AM one day, shooting video (including video of the police station itself) – if, indeed, I was being monitored as the sign warned.  Philander Smith, by contrast, is surrounded by a scaleable but at least psychologically divisional fence, and permits vehicle entry only through a checkpoint – “manned,” when I arrived, by a white woman.  I did not feel unsafe on any of the campuses, though perhaps I should have:  the coach at Arkansas Baptist, with whom I went on a walk (below), advised me to return to campus by a route different than the one he and I had taken.  Consistent with its seeming wish to provide a college experience similar to that given to white kids on their suburban campuses, I did feel that Philander Smith had (at the very least) an appearance of safety that the others did not match.

One question that arose, during my wanderings, had to do with underutilization of capacity.  Despite the hundreds if not thousands of students ostensibly enrolled in these places, I saw a lot of empty and half-empty classrooms.  My general plan was to arrive at a classroom shortly before the starting time of a class, and ask the professor if I could sit in and observe.  That strategy worked at UAPB; there seemed to be at least some places where I could see students arriving in the parking lots, and follow them to their classroom, for most of the hours between 8 AM and 6 PM (for the start of evening classes).  It also worked well enough at Philander.  It did not work so well at Arkansas Baptist.  Some of that was perhaps due to my arrival in early afternoon, my stay of only a couple of hours, and my return early the next morning.  But a thousand students, enrolled on a relatively tiny campus, would surely tend to form visible masses, moving among classrooms, during ordinary business hours.  When, at around 2 PM, I asked knowledgeable administrative assistants (in the absence of available administrators) to recommend a professor whom I might approach, the only option I was able to line up was an 8 AM class the next day.

No doubt absenteeism explained some of the half-filled classrooms that I saw on all three campuses.  In one class at UAPB where the professor called roll, I counted 25 students present, from about 40 on the roster.  But absenteeism did not explain the proliferation of completely empty, dark classrooms, especially at the two schools in Little Rock.  The answer was probably not some deep mystery; it is just that I did not see what I would have expected to see in the daytime, on a campus with dorm buildings and a sizeable enrollment.  This state of affairs, coupled with various construction projects, suggested a question as to whether administrators at some of these campuses were prudently developing their schools’ facilities apace of actual need.

While most of my capacity utilization focus arose from classroom observation, there also seemed to be some risk of misallocation of resources in other campus facilities – in, for example, such potentially expensive items as libraries and gymnasiums.  At 7:30 AM on a weekday, the large new UAPB recreation complex was completely empty.  Not only did I not see or hear a single soul, during the entire 15 minutes that I spent wandering through it, using its bathroom, and shooting video; I could not even find the light switch for the squash courts, in case anyone did want to use them.  Likewise, one guy arrived with a basketball while I was visiting the otherwise empty Philander Smith gym in midafternoon.  Both of these situations differed markedly from what I have encountered on (admittedly much larger) majority-white university campuses, where I would invariably find many people using a wide variety of facilities at virtually any hour when the structure is open.

In these regards, the situation seemed more or less the opposite at Arkansas Baptist.  There, the gym looked rather decrepit from the outside, and was quite small inside; yet I got the impression that sports constituted a substantial part of the attraction for the school’s predominantly male student body.  I wondered whether the young men who were lounging around outside (during both of my visits), issuing what I perceived as genial if profane and (as I found) potentially disrespectful street chatter, would have moved indoors if offered better exercise facilities.

That possibility fed into a larger question regarding opportunities to share resources.  Regarding the gym, I wondered whether Arkansas Baptist might advisedly work out a cooperative deal with Philander Smith, permitting both to focus on their strengths and to offer improved facilities – to, say, those Arkansas Baptist students who persevered into upperclass status.  It seemed that sharing might have academic benefits as well.  Why offer duplicative courses, each half-filled, at the expense of not being able to afford capable instructors, if you could instead pool the courses under a more skilled teacher?  I guessed that the Baptists might not want to see their young converts transition to liberal Methodism.  A question for the future:  to what extent, if any, does the advent of online education facilitate or threaten business as usual at these campuses?

From a resource allocation perspective, the library at UAPB seemed to be the most appropriately sized of the three.  Its two floors were decently appointed and well used but not overwhelmed, in daytime and evenings alike.  I was surprised that its few computers were not grossly oversubscribed.  I am not sure whether computers were widely available elsewhere on campus.  I did notice that the language lab (or at least one language lab) still used antique cassette tape listening equipment, with cassettes still loaded.  Philander Smith’s library was new and relatively large – larger in terms of floor space, I think, and possibly in terms of holdings, than the one at the much larger UAPB campus – but, during my brief visit, was almost completely devoid of human beings.  The library at Arkansas Baptist was a library only in the most superficial sense.  It had two small racks of books and only a handful of periodicals.  The books it did have were not shelved in any logical order (indeed, were upside-down in some instances, as if someone had taken them from a box and just crammed them onto the shelves); many were old and/or were not of academic value.  The smallish building containing that library had a large amount of floor space which went unused except to accommodate classes with a large screen for the projector.  (I mentioned to someone that large libraries often throw out truckloads of books that might easily be redirected to beef up the Arkansas Baptist holdings, ideally being shelved in some logical order.)  The library appeared to function primarily as a computer lab; the 15 or so computers available there seemed to be oft-used.  I did not think to test the availability of wifi (wireless) computing networks at various locations around each campus, but to some extent that may have been moot anyway; few students seemed to have laptops.

I did not audit science lab usage.  While I did observe any number of classes in process within various classrooms, and while all three campuses did have such labs, I did not see any science labs actually being used by students.  That is mostly but not entirely due to an imbalance in my approach; my time was disproportionately skewed toward classrooms in which I felt likely to encounter subjects in which I would be somewhat knowledgeable.  While that skew was more or less intentional, it would have been better in retrospect to attempt at least one science classroom observation, along with interviews with science professors and with more science students.  I assume I would have heard additional confirmation of the occasionally stated view that, with the possible exception of Philander, much of the science equipment was inadequate and outdated.  I am not sure how much I would have been able to detect in terms of poor or atypical behaviors or priorities among science faculty or students, beyond the other remarks already provided here.

So far, I have been talking about physical and individual human resources.  There is another, amorphous kind of campus resource:  its social resources.  Student activities are part of the picture; the existence of dorms – of a captive group that tends to lounge around on campus, and give the place a sense of community – is another.  I wondered whether what I experienced as the unpleasant rowdiness of that group of young men hanging out in front of the gym at Arkansas Baptist was just that:  the rowdiness of young men, as distinct from young men and women.  The latter was what I observed at Philander Smith:  a mixed group, preoccupied with their own interactions, not bored enough to accost passers-by, contributing to the sense of a campus as distinct from a random street corner.  Given that there were females living on campus at both, I would guess that what Arkansas Baptist lacked in this regard was a place where young women would want to pass time outdoors.  That, in itself, could be as simple as a matter of minor construction or landscaping.  Again, these were sketchy observations, based upon brief impressions, though they did seem consistent with other facts about the respective campuses.  At UAPB, I was surprised that so few students used the benches in front of the library or the adjacent student union, which to my eye constituted the heart of campus.  Instead, people in that area seemed to be passing through, from the parking lots to the classrooms; and at night, that area was fairly deserted.  I did glimpse some people having fun outside, the next block over, on the street between the men’s and women’s dorm, but that was only a glimpse, as I drove past.  Overall, I would guess that either of the Little Rock schools would be more fun than UAPB, at least for some male students living on campus, but my impression is that commuters might find that UAPB offered a more familiar generic college commuting experience.

On all campuses, this being Arkansas, I found faculty and students very friendly, in terms of the frequency with which they would initiate a hello to a passing stranger, and also in various buildings and classrooms.  There were some really sweet people in these places.  Informality and sociability may have been enhanced by maturity; older (often euphemized as “nontraditional”) students seemed to be the majority in most if not all of the classes I visited.  On the faculty level, at UAPB, offices in some buildings were laid out in a somewhat circular manner, such that several instructors within a given department might be located in an arrangement conducive to interaction with their neighbors (as distinct from having isolated offices along sterile corridors).  That said, I found only one faculty lounge; it was in the business school, and in several visits I found nobody in it.  As seems typical of state universities, there did not seem to be either a place or a culture in which faculty would tend to enjoy regular social or intellectual interactions with one another.  At Philander, in my limited observation, some faculty offices seemed to be located in an office suite layout, presumably offering opportunities for departmental interaction, though I did not investigate how much of that sort of interaction might actually take place.  At Arkansas Baptist, the number of instructors seemed so small as to afford fairly close interaction, and I would guess that the insularity of a relatively intense religious commitment would also tend to promote collegiality.  I did see indications, at both UAPB and Arkansas Baptist, that faculty knew other faculty beyond their own departments.

It was interesting to observe the variant ways in which these schools implemented the concept that HBCUs may provide a sheltering or nurturing environment for black students generally or for lower-income blacks in particular.  UAPB seemed to be predominantly black, previously and at present, as a consequence of its location in a predominantly black area.  That is, the campus appeared to have developed as a putatively race-blind manifestation of state university concepts in a local venue.  In somewhat similar fashion, as just remarked, Philander Smith seemed interested in evoking a relatively suburban college milieu – again, that is, grafting an idea of college, developed elsewhere, onto local circumstances.  Arkansas Baptist varied markedly from these approaches.  It was a decidedly urban place – sometimes in ways that do it credit (below).

Classroom Interactions

Underutilization of human resources became obtrusive when I did sit in on classes.  At all three campuses, as a rule of thumb, that the number of students present in the classroom at the official start time of class (e.g., 9:00 AM) seemed to constitute about 50-75% of the students who would eventually arrive.  That is, many students were apparently in the habit of showing up late – sometimes 20 or 30 minutes late.  This may have varied with the instructor:  some whom I considered most capable seemed to have the least tardiness.

Likewise, some instructors were in the classroom and ready to begin class on time, but most seemed to start several minutes late.  The latest was an hourlong class that commenced 15 minutes after the scheduled start time.  It seemed to me that tolerating this sort of delay was a bad strategy:  it would discourage the timely students from showing up on time, if at all, and it would also not convey appropriate expectations for those who hoped to be trained to participate competently in the workforce.  One instructor took roll at the start of class, but was slow at it – requiring more than seven minutes to call perhaps 25 names – and he also allowed latecomers to remind him that they were in fact there.  So I am not sure he used roll effectively to enforce timeliness.

That instructor’s class was also remarkable for its early ending, at 27 minutes after the hour – that is, 18 minutes after he finished calling roll, and just six minutes after the last tardy arrival trickled in.  It was not clear why some students bothered making the trip.  In other classes, too, early endings were as common as late starts.  The worst was a three-hour evening class that ended after 57 minutes, and not for any special reason.  There seemed to be a general understanding, at all three campuses, that class could end at just any old time, and preferably sooner rather than later.  When I asked an instructor whether perhaps there was considerable student pressure to cut class short, she indicated that, no, that was not particularly the case, and she asked whether classes at my campus actually tended to run for the entire scheduled time.  (Although I said yes, that was not quite right; it varies by professor, and perhaps by department, at relatively noncompetitive majority-white campuses as well.)  The timeframe was not a reflection on that particular instructor’s abilities:  she brought positive energy to her class.  I would have liked to have her as an instructor.

On several points, I found a striking contrast in a young instructor in a Spanish language course.  This man, with only a master’s-level education, used the entire 50 minutes allotted for his class, and did so in a manner that made it seem entirely appropriate:  one got the sense that there was a lot to learn in his subject.  He did not seem to be just filling the hour with random noise or busywork, which has certainly been the case for many a class I have attended at white-majority institutions.  He seemed to be in tune with the seven students in attendance (a not unusually small number, among classes I observed), and they seemed to be trying, and succeeding, to learn what he was teaching.  This was also somewhat true for another instructor who used a combination of a study guide handout (with printed subtopics, followed by blank lines, to guide students to take organized notes during class) and an extra-credit quiz (given at the start of the next class, on which students could consult their hopefully filled-out study guides from the previous session).  I was puzzled that, despite the seeming maturity of these students, only three out of the nine who would ultimately arrive at that class (seven females, two males) bothered to do so within the ten minutes allocated for that quiz.  One interpretation, arising from my own working-class roots, was that the concept of an ongoing struggle to accumulate points or avoid demerits, maintained with some stamina throughout the endless span of a semester, might need to be explicitly developed in students who do not hail from the middle class.  Otherwise, the professor did seem to be succeeding in an effort to stimulate engagement and to bring out the intelligence of his students.  (Consistent with overall enrollment figures (above), the predominance of females was typical of most of the classes I visited.)

The Spanish instructor was, ironically enough, a white, possibly Hispanic Arkansan.  That was ironic, not only because Spanish was one area in which non-Arkansan and/or visibly nonwhite instructors would presumably be plentiful, but also because it seemed that the biggest complaint about faculty at UAPB – volunteered by students and professors alike – was that so many had such poor English language skills that students could not understand them.  He, himself, had no such accent, but elsewhere it seemed that the university felt compelled to bring in (Saharan or sub-Saharan) African PhDs, almost without regard to speaking or teaching skills.

Two of the instructors I observed at UAPB arguably fit that description.  One was semi-unintelligible:  his accent, his quiet voice, and his old-school scrawlings on the board, unaided by PowerPoint, left me able to make out only a fraction of what he was saying, and little sense of where he was going with his lecture — and I have a master’s degree in a field related to his.  It did not help that he seemed oblivious to the acoustics of the room, by which a considerable amount of noise came in from the hallway through the open doors.  Nonetheless, some students were following him to some degree; an estimated six out of 25 responded in some sense to one of his few questions.  The other such instructor (he of the 27-minute class session, above) had an accent exceeded by an attitude.  That is, I would attribute his potential misfit to cultural rather than linguistic inscrutability.  For example, while he was taking his interminable roll, several students were talking among themselves, in a manner that did not seem to interfere with the roll-call process; yet he abruptly threatened to expel them from the classroom and asked, “You know if I send you out of class you will not come back, right?”  He then proceeded to see, in a poem by Robert Frost, a basis for attack on the Christian beliefs expressed by one of the few students who bothered to voice a perspective.  That professor and I may share some views, but I did not entirely follow his interpretation of Frost, and in any case the anti-Christian emphasis appeared gratuitous, given the Pine Bluff region’s deep religiosity.  Why conflate education with irreligion?  On his behalf, however, it seemed to me that most of the students on his roll were present at some point; perhaps his strict if not harsh style did mesh with the needs of the situation in some regards.  Since I was able to understand this professor despite his accent, I wondered whether the complaints about thick accents were particularly focused on areas in which I visited few if any classes (e.g., sciences).  It is no secret that foreigners account for a disproportionate share of science PhDs in the U.S., though I was not sure how that would relate to the market for science professors at this level.

I appreciated that the university might wish to provide same-race role models, yet I was nonplussed to discover that a black junior, majoring in science and seemingly committed to her education, had never heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I doubted, for instance, that a black African PhD teaching Robert Frost poorly and briefly would necessarily be better than a white M.A. teaching Toni Morrison or Frederick Douglass.  I was also not persuaded that boring students with a bad black instructor was the best or only way to provide role models.

In support of such thoughts, I cite the black instructor who used only 57 minutes of a three-hour class period (above).  He filled those minutes with a rambling lecture punctuated by references to a list of key terms he had written on the board.  Those terms, in his rendition, were as follows:  “Atypital, Flexibility, Circular Move [which, I eventually figured out, was intended to refer to the body’s blood circulation], Conditing, Strenght, Endurance, Proformance, Exceptional Mental Challenge.”  The only time when students laughed outright at this instructor, during those 57 minutes, was when he waxed eloquent on a description of a troubled individual, piling up DSM diagnoses without surcease:  the person in question, he said, might have been bipolar or attention deficit or depressed or maybe schizophrenic.  Students gleefully inferred, using terminology not repeated here, that we were talking about one messed-up human being.  The instructor did not appear to be a guest lecturer; I gathered that I was witnessing a representation of typical proceedings in that classroom.  The reader is left to develop his/her own surmises regarding this instructor’s effectiveness when he then turned to the research topics of validity and reliability, and of their relationship to Atypital.  (If you have no idea what I am talking about, you could take a course in research methods — but hopefully you would still be baffled, because I certainly was.)

Race became a topic of discussion in one social work class I visited, in a way that I did not anticipate.  The assigned text, written by faculty in the decidedly nonblack city of Fort Collins, Colorado, presented a number of negative statistics about African Americans.  From my years in social work education, I would guess that the authors’ intention was, in part, to display concern for various disadvantages experienced by black communities.  That, however, was not how these students took it.  They construed the text as an unnecessary disparagement of black people.  My interpretation was that the missing element might actually be socioeconomic status – that, in other words, the authors believed in the possibility of progress, and as such felt it was important (indeed, charitable) to highlight areas in which society was disserving black communities (e.g., teen pregnancy rates, literacy rates) – whereas the students might not have had much reason to visualize themselves as ever living somewhere significantly different from the down-and-out places evoked by the text, and might therefore be more sensitive to acceptance for who they are, not for what they could be.  I did not interrupt the class to shout out this insight, however, and thus cannot guarantee its accuracy.

Given my age, it was also interesting to hear those social work students express views about aging, retirement, and care for the elderly.  Few of them actually knew retired people, and it seemed that some of those retirees just sat around all day.  These students’ views on such subjects varied markedly from mine.  When I said so afterwards, the instructor – one of the more capable ones I encountered – said I should have felt free to speak up and join the discussion.  Despite (or possibly because of) the fact that she was not a social work PhD, she seemed more interested in promoting thought and discussion than in indoctrinating anyone.

Classroom discipline was rarely an issue.  In most classes, there seemed to be students who would play with their cellphones or otherwise fiddle around to pass the time.  But a substantial number of students in these schools were older and thus less inclined to the juvenile behavior sometimes found in classrooms on majority-white campuses.  I saw two students leave class, apparently to take phone calls, and stay absent for 10-15 minutes each; I saw one student, head on his desk, to whom the instructor suggested stepping out for a drink of water.  Aside from one or two brief bursts of understandable derision in the class taught by the noteworthy speller of “Atypital” (above), the only class where I observed (and where one student gave me advance warning of) misbehavior was the one taught by the unintelligible African PhD (above), and that seemed to emerge within the vacuum created by poor teaching.  Behavior seemed good regardless of whether a class was all female or majority male.  I had anticipated some “ghetto” dress and potentially intimidating behavior, but saw that sort of thing only with the group of young men lounging around outside the gym at Arkansas Baptist (above).  I did not know whether that should raise a question as to whether these students (especially at UAPB and Philander) were even approximately representative of today’s black college-age population.  With that exception at Arkansas Baptist, students were invariably quite respectful to me personally.

I was not unsympathetic to the concept that an HBCU could and perhaps should provide a nurturing environment.  For example, a white algebra teacher told me that high schools in the Mississippi Delta frequently declined to introduce their students to her subject.  She described herself as patient to a fault – to the point that some students might think attendance would suffice for a good grade.  She did indeed allow plenty of time – ten minutes – for a quiz that I finished in my head in perhaps 15 seconds.  I cannot say that her timing was inappropriate; several seemed to struggle with it.  When I saw the number of students who needed to speak to her about a makeup for an exam that they had missed, I had to wonder whether some white teachers (or white teachers of some subjects) in such an environment might experience, or perceive, extra pressure to go easy.  This was a hard call for me because I was also personally acquainted with math phobia in a classroom setting.  She was pretty clear in her teaching, and did not seem to be buffaloed; if anything, on one or two occasions I felt she might be pushing students to claim they understood something when perhaps they didn’t.  One student remarked, after class, that he had learned something in class that day, perhaps because I was sitting there; as I thought about it, I decided that might amount to flattery, inspired by his engaging interpersonal style.  Interestingly, the student in that math class who seemed to have the best grasp on the material was also the sole female.

That said, math phobia would probably not be the only reason for underperformance.  I was not confident that all students were making the most of their educational opportunity.  A science student with whom I spoke estimated that perhaps 60% of her classmates were serious about their educations.  (Another, older student offered the refinement, however, that students had changed – that students nowadays just seemed to want the degree, not the learning, and would jump through whatever hoops the instructor set up.)  The science student seemed to feel that there were two tracks through school:  either join up with a group of students who hung out together and tried to do well, or join the screwups and eventually drop out.

That seemed to characterize what I observed in another literature class, where the instructor wandered among discussion groups, repeating the question, “Have you read?” literally every two to three minutes for the entire class session.  In other words, a number of students were plainly not familiar with the assignment even though it involved reading rather than math.  This did not seem much different from what I have seen in innumerable white-majority classes.  What was different was that, here, some students made scant effort to conceal their disengagement, to such an extent that two nearly silent male members of one discussion group were actually seated in chairs pointed the wrong way, away from their group.  I did wonder whether the professor’s constant harping on the question of whether students had done the assigned reading, when clearly they had not, could have been beneficially replaced by guided discussion by the class as a whole, so as to convey concepts – rather than try, and fail, to enforce the physical act of reading, much less to invest it with potentially counterproductive moralistic significance.  If reading is not fun, at least in a literature class, one should learn why not.  In any case, it seemed inadvisable to keep those groups at it for an hour – given that the original three groups, of five to six students each, kept swelling, with the addition of tardy arrivals, until they reached an unwieldy size of eight to nine, among which only two to five members in each group were actively involved.  These criticisms aside, I did feel that the instructor was personally engaged with his material, and believed in its importance for his students.  I also appreciated his apparent conclusion that getting students to read the assignment in class might have been as much as could be achieved in many cases (and not only in an HBCU):  many of them did spend the bulk of the hour looking at their textbooks.  From this perspective, group success might be measured either in the extent of on-topic discussion, as I have done in the preceding sentences, or in the amount of time that students spent getting at least a flavor of the assigned reading.

Incidentally, in my classroom observations, I saw a total of two male students who sported stereotypical gay mannerisms.  Both were among the most interesting and active participants in discussion in their respective classes.  As another point of interest, among the three discussion groups just mentioned, the group that seemed to be conducting the most lively discussion also happened to be the one with no males other than one of those gays.  At first, the middle-aged white woman in that group (one of very few whites in any of the classes I visited) seemed to be its informal leader, but I thought the gay man eventually grew more engaged – more comfortable with the group, perhaps – and became its most active participant and possibly its most engaging promoter of participation by others.

Meanwhile, in another discussion group in that same class, it seemed that an intelligent if taciturn male, evidently familiar with the assigned text, may have inadvertently suppressed group interaction by offering a succinct response to each discussion question and then lapsing into silence, leaving the others to grope for meaningful additions to what he had said.  After class, I spoke with him briefly, and concluded it was appropriate to mention that lower-income students are often not aware that graduate school at highly ranked schools can actually be very affordable, after taking financial aid into account.  In a conversation with a student in a different class, I named Khan Academy as a potentially helpful source of guidance in technical subjects.  To a single mother in her 30s whose unemployment was running out and who did not know how she was going to be able to finance the balance of her education, which still had some way to go, I mentioned Thomas Edison State College as one place where her life experience might count for some credit toward a degree.  To one with an eye toward graduate school, I emphasized preparation for the GRE as a means of qualifying for graduate assistantships; for one with a more common careerist focus, I led to the website of the Occupational Outlook Handbook.  I was increasingly motivated to offer such information, where I seemed to have something of potential value to interject, as I developed an impression that students at these HBCUs might have and/or use even fewer well-informed career advising resources than did students at majority-white institutions.

I did think that the concept of HBCU qua nurturer might invite certain nuances.  As just noted, it seemed that poor instructors were unlikely to advance their students’ career prospects, regardless of skin color.  In addition, the experience of being the old white lawyer among relatively young black social work students raised a question of whether people enrolled in overwhelmingly black schools might experience their own kind of deprivation of diversity education (just as I have suggested, elsewhere, that the overwhelmingly white students in schools of social work appeared to be commonly deprived of alternative perspectives).  Given the frequency with which I conveyed information and entertained views divergent from those with whom I was speaking, diversity education did seem appropriate in this context – not by mindlessly bringing in people selected solely for their skin color, but rather by seeking out opportunities for meaningful exposure to plausible variant perspectives.  As a separate point, absent a black society in which graduates of these HBCUs could continue to flourish, I wondered to what extent administrators or faculty have encouraged or required at least brief exposure to, say, academics at a majority-white school, where possible (e.g., the University of Arkansas – Little Rock).

It should not have been surprising to me that textbooks seemed to play such a minor role in so many classes.  No more than one or two of the classes I attended seemed to be taught in close conformity to any textbook.  I understood that financial constraints might recommend the use of free textbooks (though in fact none of the instructors seemed to be using them).  I also realized that faculty who declined to emphasize the textbook may have been trained by professors who indulged the conceit that their discretion was superior to that of textbook writers and publishers, for purposes of identifying what a course really needed to cover.  As these remarks suggest, I myself tended to favor a focus on textbooks in various settings:  they seemed to contribute to a sense of structure and progress, and offered potential constraints on inadvertent or deliberate disregard or misrepresentation of important subtopics within a course.  It seems that closer attention to textbooks could also reduce the vast unknowability that confronts employers and others who might wonder what on Earth a given course actually covered:  it would ideally be possible for people to gain insight into that, in at least some fields, by just asking what text was used.

In most of the classes where I was familiar with the subject matter, I detected instances when I believed the professor was conveying incorrect information, or was not conveying the information clearly.  This was not unusual; I have tended to have the same experience in majority-white institutions as well.  No doubt many students have this sort of experience from time to time.  Assuming I was right in detecting professorial error in those instances, deeper education of instructors might be the prescription.  But educating educators can be a tall order:  I have observed the complacency of Baby Boomers, teaching in these HBCUs and elsewhere, who find it convenient to assume that what was true or relevant 30 years ago remains so.  I did not have much by way of HBCU-specific advice for this; the primary need seemed to be simply to match students with people who actually want to teach, and who are motivated if not required to do it well.  I would say, in defense of one instructor who seemed weak in some areas of substance, that under the circumstances I felt his commitment to his students’ success outweighed his academic shortcomings – but I would still urge schools to support continued intellectual development for faculty, for as long as they continue to teach.  The world does not stand still.

Generally, I was not in a position to support an assumption that faculty at Philander were superior, or that faculty at Arkansas Baptist were inferior, to those at UAPB; nor was I prepared to assume that PhDs were necessarily more appropriate than master’s degree holders for purposes of teaching the courses I attended.  I realized that there might be factors well beyond my knowledge that would have shaped the outcomes I was observing in this area; for example, an instructor at Philander stated that the college had been prevented, by a lawsuit in the 1980s, from continuing to use comprehensive exams to stimulate students to make sure they were actually learning.

A Walk with the Coach

On the last day of my tour, I went back to Arkansas Baptist.  I got there around 7:30 AM.  Shortly thereafter, I noticed a number of black males going for a run together, heading west from campus through the city streets.  There must have been at least 20 of them.  As I watched, a middle-aged black man came walking past, also dressed in exercise clothes.  It developed that he was the coach.  With his assent, I walked alongside and talked to him about what I was seeing.

What I was seeing was the school’s football team, running three-quarters of a mile to practice on the football field at Central High School.  This put a somewhat different cast on things.  The group that had appeared to me, the previous day, as a bunch of guys who should have been studying rather than hanging out on the street, if they wished to belong in an institution of higher education, now appeared as people who would have been on the street, for real, if the college had not been able to entice them into classrooms by dangling the possibility of a career in sports.  This glass half empty had become half full:  far from seeking to provide a Philander-style version of the American college experience, Arkansas Baptist was engaged in an urban mission to its community.

But would Baptists want to improve their community even if nobody was converted?  I was not supportive of the Baptist concept of faith in the first place, and I had serious doubts about that church’s social justice commitment.  As the coach put it, the college sought to give those guys an education, and “maybe something more.”  It wasn’t necessarily a bait-and-switch – the school was presumably going to have to deliver some graduates if it wished to keep its accreditation, though I did not know how loose the lines might be on that – but there did seem to be something of a quid pro quo.  At some point, it seemed, there would have to be some souls saved, or else the church was going to get tired of it and take its money elsewhere.  Arkansas Baptist College thus appeared to me as a sort of compromise between church and state, where hopefully everybody would come out ahead – not only in terms of college graduates and souls saved, but perhaps also in terms of reduced crime, community improvement, and more worthwhile lives lived.

The walk with the coach was interesting in another sense.  This was the only instance, on the entire trip, when I encountered even a hint of racism.  Not to say that it doesn’t exist at any and perhaps all of these three campuses, but up to this point I personally had encountered none of it.  In this walk, though, there was a small reminder of it.  The coach hailed from an earlier generation, one that had taught people like me to try to avoid black people and the subject of race, for fear of saying or doing something wrong.  As he spoke of the hardships faced by these students, I was inspired to remark on a somewhat analogous situation from my own experience.  I told him that I, too, had experienced a sort of cultural exclusion, when I, as an unsophisticated rural youth, had gone to New York City and the Ivy League.  When I said that, it seemed to me that a grimace flashed across the coach’s face.  My prior experiences — which, in fairness, may not at all represent what he was thinking — gave me the impression that he rejected the idea that experiences of exclusion in my own life had significance – that I had any idea at all of what it meant to be black.  And so here, within just a few minutes after attempting a conversation, it appeared that I might already be receiving messages that I was not expressing myself the way someone else thought I should.

That, however, was not the end of the story.  It now seemed to me that times had changed, that that old mentality of attempting to dictate the sympathies of white America had grown stale.  It was very nice, on all of these campuses, to encounter almost nothing (except from that one dean) that smacked of negative or hostile attitudes regarding power, race, or gender.  When I later described my conversation with the coach to a younger black instructor, I suggested that sympathy and pity go only so far – that, among other things, if you want to be able to do effective fundraising from white people nowadays, you may have to validate their own experiences.

In other words, a person in my position is probably able to recognize that his/her hardships do not always approach those of a person in a ghetto.  But it would be false to say that they never do; and in any case, people are probably going to be more likely to take out their wallets if they can relate in their own terms, as I had been doing.  You can’t invalidate someone just because s/he is white, nor because s/he thinks or talks like a white person.  Better to foster engagement, to let people express themselves in their own terms, and to try to work with them where they are.  Here, again, I wondered whether HBCUs might benefit in some regards from their own form of diversity training, as a counterpoint to the self-congratulatory irritability that any group is at risk of forming in isolation.

Again, it is possible that I misread the coach’s facial expression.  Unfortunately, we did not then occupy circumstances conducive to careful analysis.  I would have been hesitant to explore the matter in detail on the spot, for reasons just stated, and at any rate we were walking, at a fairly good clip, through what may have been one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in America.  He needed to get to the field and get his players working, and apparently I needed to find a bodyguard.

When we got to the football field, I asked the coach how long the team would be practicing.  He said two hours.  I indicated that, in that case, I would have to head back to campus.  He said he didn’t want me to go back the way we had come, not by myself, and directed me along 16th Street instead.

As I walked back, I thought about his players.  Now I understood why I had seen young men cursing on a Baptist campus:  they were apparently people who still had at least one foot in the old neighborhood, who were not quite sure they were going to make the team, or that a future would develop therefrom, or that they were even necessarily committed to this educational environment.  Cursing could be the least of all worries, where they were concerned, and likewise for the unwelcome raucous greeting they extended to me.  Along the way, as I was thinking about this, I passed Central High and also noticed – as I had once noticed in a section of the Bronx – that I was passing some very nice homes in this fallen neighborhood.

The coach’s words about his players brought home, to me, that Arkansas Baptist’s mission to the community might be irreconcilably different from that of, say, Philander Smith.  If a purpose of an HBCU was to provide a sheltering environment for students who would struggle on a majority-white campus, then it seemed to me that sheltering was not a single concept.  I could see that some students elsewhere — in, say, that algebra class at UAPB — might need gentle, extensive remediation in particular subjects.  But it did not seem that many students were struggling in most of the classes I observed.  It now occurred to me that, because of the schools’ disparate missions, the percentage of the student body needing comprehensive academic sheltering at Arkansas Baptist might be considerably higher than the percentage needing such sheltering at other HBCUs.

While I have been going on about the ball players, I should mention that I had other conversations germane to the topic of sheltering.  One that comes to mind involved a student, maybe mid-20s, who wanted a future in music.  He said he had made some bad decisions.  I guessed that there might be a felony on his record.  I was confronted with the realization that, actually, I had limited advice to offer someone in that position, not that he had sought advice.  His goal was to earn an associate’s degree and, I think, get some job-related experience with the limited but worthy facilities that Arkansas Baptist could offer him.  I had the impression he was just taking things one semester at a time.  Here, again, but in a different role, I was looking at someone with very limited means who wanted to build a future for himself, for whom there just might not be an affordable alternative to Arkansas Baptist.

On a policy level, it seemed that, in place of the relative homogeneity favored by contemporary notions of higher education accreditation, perhaps there should be flexibility to embrace remedial institutions that focus on basic academic functioning, offering open admissions in order to bring students away from the road to perdition and setting their feet upon a more productive path.  I would hope that an academic star would not somehow be caught up in such a place – that s/he would rather be directed toward a school, black or otherwise, that would provide the best preparation for graduate or professional school or practice.  But it could be appropriate to move people like me away from the inevitable, David vs. Goliath comparison of B.A. degrees from Arkansas Baptist and the likes of Yale, and to formalize, instead, an explicit distinction between this and other institutions according to mission.  I would not want the state university to attempt to provide what the coach called “an education – and maybe a little more” – at least not if “a little more” meant conversion to Baptist belief.  But if that approach works for some people, within a specialized institution in downtown Little Rock, well, there are worse things.

During my subsequent attendance in a class at Arkansas Baptist, that same morning, I reflected that my academic criticisms of the instructor and of related facilities could miss the point.  If we must lock all institutions of higher education into the same mold, then, yes, my criticisms were probably valid:  this particular bit of education could have been improved.  But if I were instead freed to examine the education within the context of its actual purpose and available resources, I would have to say – and I did emphatically feel – that they were doing a fantastic thing here, toughing it out in this gritty corner of America, for the sake of people who just might not have a chance otherwise.  Despite my displeasure at what I perceived as the coach’s reaction to my attempt at conversation, I had my own little conversion experience:  I came away with an appreciation that he, and these other members of the faculty, were positioned to make a difference, in their students’ lives, as profound as any that might occur at the big state university.  I went from being critical of Arkansas Baptist to being supportive.  That, I did not expect.

Reflections on This Kind of Research

There is a kind of research known as qualititative research.  Qualitative research involves various forms of inquiry whose findings are not best represented in numerical terms.  For instance, I could do a quantitative interview, asking people to give me their reactions to various aspects of a certain experience on a numerical scale (e.g., 1 to 10); or I could instead do a qualitative interview, where I would ask more open-ended questions.  Quantitative research in such a situation could have the advantage of giving me quick access to responses from larger numbers of people; I could be done with each person in just a few minutes.  Qualitative interviews could have the advantage of leaving me with an open mind, to follow leads and develop insights that might have been blocked out by the quantitative approach – to discover, for example, that my nice numerical rating scales were asking the wrong questions.  Obviously, qualitative research can take a lot longer per person, and can raise more questions than it answers.  So both have their place.

In qualitative research, there is a concept known as saturation.  The concept of saturation is used to give the researcher a sense of when s/he has gathered enough data – has conducted enough interviews or otherwise examined enough cases.  Saturation can be defined as “the point when no new information is obtained from additional qualitative data” (Kerr, Nixon, & Wild, 2010, p. 271):  saturation occurs when my additional interviews are not telling me anything more than I have already heard from prior interviews.

I mention saturation because I believe it can occur at different points, depending upon how a research project is conceptualized.  My research project was to set forth, in a very general way, and learn things about HBCUs.  I had saturation vaguely in mind, as I decided what to examine at the three HBCUs discussed here.  I wondered, that is, if I would be able to use something in the nature of saturation to steer me away from areas in which I had achieved the desired introductory learning.

Some information provided in this post illustrates how that unfolded.  For instance, I spent more time at UAPB than at the two others:  I went there first, partly for reasons of scheduling, but also partly because it was bigger and seemed likely to (and did) offer more opportunities for observation.  That relatively multifaceted environment afforded many routes that I could explore briefly and then close off for purposes of this study.  For example, I needed just one tour of the campus, video camera in hand, to get a basic sense of the layout and the facilities.  You might say I experienced anticipatory saturation in some regards:  for instance, the thought of sitting through another section of introductory algebra evoked boredom as an early warning system, telling me that I had probably achieved functional saturation there.

Reflection later suggested, however, that saturation might not be the only principle informing a decision to curtail further inquiry within a given research project.  Within this kind of poorly defined, introductory inquiry, I would back off from certain avenues of potential exploration, not only because of saturation or incipient boredom, but also when experiences highlighted potential weaknesses or limits in my previous thinking.  The abortive interview with that dean at UAPB was an example.  Suddenly I realized that I might have grossly underestimated the influence of administrators in the shaping (or, perhaps, the distortion) of educational priorities and performances at HBCUs.  The same students and instructors might perform very differently, and have very different experiences, within different kinds of administrative schemes.  It would take more time and probably a different kind of approach to do justice to the administrative part of the picture.  So now I saw that my writeup could not be smoothly superficial across the gamut of HBCU topics; it would necessarily be a gerrymandered affair, stitching together an incomplete and disjointed collection of anecdotes, reflections, and questions into a crude pastiche.

The meeting with the dean was not the only example of this non-saturated constraint on indefinite qualitative inquiry.  In my conversations with students, at a certain point I started to feel that I was repeating myself and needed a more extensive and informed set of questions.  The remedy in that case was probably not to observe ponderous bureautic niceties, as the administrators might require; it might be, instead, to conduct better background research into student experiences and outcomes, yielding a better set of things that I might want to talk to students about.

The walk with the coach confronted me with yet another barrier precluding further progress along the lines vaguely incorporated in my initial concept of this study.  I had begun with a unidimensional perspective, handed down by the accreditors and by accumulated impressions of a classical or proper education.  It was a fuzzy form of unidimensionality, but all the same it was hostile to what I had briefly observed at Arkansas Baptist (which, again, may significantly underrepresent what a more comprehensive inquiry would find there).  During that walk, my epiphany was that the received wisdom on “the” purpose and nature of a good higher education should itself be open to question – that there are multiplicitous needs and opportunities, under the big tent of higher education, and that accreditation and expectations and all the other determinants of the received impression should become more informed in and engaged with that multiplicity.  The remedy in this regard seemed philosophical:  I could not pursue a timely rewrite of higher education accreditation, and might thus have to content myself with a more informed sense of what counts as legitimate higher education, to guide my questions and conclusions regarding a place like Arkansas Baptist.

Concluding Thoughts

In this study, I observed some imperfections in higher education at Arkansas HBCUs.  I also observed some strengths, and more variety than I had expected.  Many of the imperfections are not specific to HBCUs.  There is a question of whether remedying such imperfections means making the schools more like Stanford or Peabody.  At some point, one might question the model, both for its imperfections even at Stanford or Peabody and also for its imperfect replicability, to the extent that Arkansas HBCUs depart significantly from the degree of supposed perfection encountered at more prestigious places.

It is interesting that the thought of questioning the model arises, in this study, most directly from what could be the least academically respectable school in the set — assuming, that is, that the open enrollment and last-chance ambiance of Arkansas Baptist does qualify it for that description.  One might analogize an apprenticeship, where the point would not be the ways in which the apprenticeship fails to measure up to a classroom learning environment, but rather the ways in which the apprenticeship succeeds in offering possibilities not available within the classroom.  In other words, the approach of replicating an elite model seems to fail when local conditions warrant significant departures from that model:  it does not appear that people at Stanford and Peabody are diligently promoting concepts of higher education that would create a framework by which institutions like Arkansas Baptist might better serve disparate local communities.

To sum up, I spent several days visiting the accredited HBCUs in Arkansas.  I felt safe in doing so, partly because an older and more hostile generation had largely passed from the scene, and partly because I had now spent several years away from white social work educators who had treated me as a closet bigot due to the color of my skin and the openness of my questions or beliefs.  It seemed that I could just go, talk to people, and learn things.  That turned out to be correct.  There was surely much that I did not and perhaps could not learn in such a brief time.  But it was an undeniably worthwhile and educational experience.


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