In previous interviews you have said people often talk about HBCUs as if they’re monolithic, as if they’re the same school. Where do you think the disconnect is in understanding HBCUs and addressing issues that face them?
That really has to do with understanding African Americans in general. Just as we as individuals tend to be stereotyped, lumped together as a group, in the same way the institutions that are serving African Americans are lumped together and are stereotyped as a group. We have to work very hard to penetrate that bias. You don’t regularly read articles about predominately White institutions are in trouble. You know what I mean? You don’t. So why is that when an HBCU closes its doors because of a loss of enrollment or loss of accreditation we read articles in which all of us get mentioned? That is, I think, just consistent with the stereotypes that have permeated our culture about people of color and the institutions of color.
What about the question of HBCU’s relevancy? Is that the same issue?
It’s a very interesting question. Why do people ask this question? We know that the history of HBCUs is that they were created at a time when there was no opportunity because of segregation, at a time when there was no educational access for African Americans. When Spelman was founded in 1881 in the city of Atlanta, there was no other opportunity for Black women to get an education. So people will say, well now those majority institutions are available so why do we need those other institutions? But that fails to acknowledge the other purposes of HBCUs. An HBCU not only provides an educational opportunity for those who have been underserved, but it does so in a context in which the culture from which they come, the history that they’ve experienced is affirmed and acknowledged in a way that’s very empowering. And so the need for empowerment is always relevant. I had a really interesting conversation with a White male educator and he asked me about the relevance. He went to an Ivy League school and said he would have really benefitted from having women like the women who choose Spelman at my college. He said that would have really benefitted his education. I understood what he was saying, but he failed to realize the privilege in his statement. The parent who writes that check for their daughter to go to college is not thinking, “she’s going to help someone else get a good education.” They’re writing that check because this is the best possible experience for their daughter. And one of the benefits for American higher education is that there are a lot of different schools to choose from. If that guy really wanted access to smart, Spelman women he could have enrolled at Morehouse. [laughs].