TOPICS > Education

Saving Black Colleges

February 25, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JOHN MERROW: Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia, is one of 105 historically black colleges and universities in this country. Its doors have been open to anyone who wished to attend since its founding by former slaves in 1882. In 2002, the school was featured in the movie “Drumline.”

ACTOR: That’s the unstoppable, undefeatable Morris Brown.

JOHN MERROW: But what was once a thriving campus is now a ghost town. The stadium is empty. The student center and library are desolate. ( Speaking French ) Some classes have one or two students.

The trouble at Morris Brown began in December of 2002. Because of years of mismanagement and accumulated debt, Morris Brown lost its accreditation, essentially its right to operate. Without accreditation, the school became ineligible for state and federal money, and lost 80% of its operating budget.

AARON WATSON: The athletic program has been eliminated. The band has been eliminated for the moment. The student body has gone down from 2,600 to 2,700, down to less than 100. The faculty has gone from over 500 to less than 100.

JOHN MERROW: To survive, Morris Brown needs to find a president and raise $26 million to pay off its debt. Senior music major Stacey Barrett is one of the few students who did not transfer. Why should Morris Brown survive?

STACEY BARRETT: Because of the 122-year legacy that’s been played a part in ground one in forming this school. And as long as there are students who need to learn, there should be an institution like Morris Brown who is willing to take in anybody who wants that opportunity.

JOHN MERROW: The majority of historically black colleges and universities were founded by churches following the Civil War, to provide educational opportunities for African Americans when there were none. WEB Dubois, author Toni Morrison, Martin Luther King, Jr., and filmmaker spike lee all graduated from black colleges.

SPOKESMAN: The African American community will not succeed in America, has not succeeded in America, without the contribution of historically black colleges and universities.

JOHN MERROW: But today, with more than 270,000 students, these schools face daunting challenges, money problems, low retention and graduation rates, and a reputation for academic mediocrity.

JOHN MERROW: Why does the world need historically black colleges and universities? Aren’t we moving past that?

DENNIS KIMBRO: Well, I could say the same question, why does the Jewish community need Yeshiva? Why do the Irish need Notre Dame?

JOHN MERROW: Reporter: Dennis Kimbro, a professor at a black college, writes about African American issues.

DAVID KAY: Right now we have about 103 HBC U.S– historically black colleges and universities. At one time we had 117. The tragedy is, today’s black middle class can’t even keep them open.

JOHN MERROW: Reporter: On average, 80 percent of students who attend black colleges are on financial aid. In addition, the combined endowment for all 105 black colleges in this country is only $1.6 billion. Harvard’s alone is $19 billion. These factors threaten the stability of many black colleges.

JOHNNETTA COLE: Suppose we gave them up now, let me tell you what we would lose. Three-quarters of all black PhD’s in our country did their undergraduate work at historically black colleges and universities. Are we going to stop that right now? I don’t think so.

JOHN MERROW: Dr. Johnnetta Cole, a longtime leader in the education community, is finding ways to revitalize these schools. In June of 2002, she was brought in to rescue 130-year-old Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. And today her success is a ray of hope for many struggling black colleges.

JOHNNETTA COLE: We celebrate a new day at Bennett College for women.

JOHN MERROW: Two years ago, Bennett was $3.5 million in debt and its accreditation was on probation. Dr. Cole solicited prominent friends like former U.S. Senator Bob Dole and entertainer Bill Cosby to pledge time and money to save the school.

SPOKESPERSON: Dr. William H. Cosby, jr., helped us to raise over $1 million. ( Cheers and applause )

JOHN MERROW: Today, Bennett has been taken off probation. It is out of debt and even finished the year with a $300,000 surplus. Another school that is turning itself around is Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, home to more than 7,500 students.

When Walter Broadnax became president in the fall of 2002, the school’s operating budget was $7.5 million in the red because of years of fiscal mismanagement. Despite much opposition, he eliminated more than 100 positions and began phasing out entire departments. According to Broadnax, this was necessary to avert financial disaster.

WALTER BROADNAX: The goal here is not just to make the school smaller, it’s to make the university stronger.

JOHN MERROW: Tell me about that meeting this morning. I mean, it seemed like the theme was “cut, cut, cut.”

WALTER BROADNAX: Well, it’s not just cut, cut, cut. It’s cut strategically. We are reducing our expenditures so that this institution can thrive, not just be smaller.

JOHN MERROW: Broadnax is also willing to spend strategically and invest in areas he thinks will make a difference, like the new multimillion dollar classroom center, now under construction.

WALTER BROADNAX: We have to be competitive. Our dormitories and our classrooms and our instruction has to be as good as anybody else’s, because today’s youngsters aren’t going to accept anything but the best.

JOHN MERROW: President Broadnax said, you know, the future of HBCUS really requires that they become good enough to compete with every institution.

DENNIS KIMBRO: I agree.

JOHN MERROW: What has to be done to get to that level?

DENNIS KIMBRO: Oh, you’re talking, really, a shopping list: Number one in terms of resources; number two in terms of faculty and faculty development; number three in terms of overall quality of the students.

JOHN MERROW: Improving the quality of students is an ongoing struggle for many black colleges, because the country’s most prestigious universities recruit the best and brightest black students in order to maintain diversity. To compete, schools like Clark Atlanta offer their best applicants four-year scholarships.

WALTER BROADNAX: I think our high-performing students are very important to our colleges and universities, just like they are to white institutions. That’s why white institutions work so hard to get those students there, and that’s why we work so hard to get them here.

JOHN MERROW: But critics say there is a bigger issue: Students may be getting an inferior education at black colleges in general. In this year’s national ranking of undergraduate liberal arts colleges and universities, only one black college was ranked in the top 100.

WALTER WILLIAMS: On average, the education offered at historically black colleges is less challenging than many, many other colleges.

JOHN MERROW: Walter Williams is an economics professor at George Mason University, and a syndicated columnist.

WALTER WILLIAMS: Many people will say, including whites, that Howard University is just as good as a Harvard, Yale, or university of Chicago. That’s nonsense, unless you’re saying that “considering it’s black, it’s a good school.” And I find that something that’s racist.

JOHN MERROW: One of the critics of historically black colleges and universities said basically that any good white college outperforms the Howards, et cetera; HBCU’s should be for low-performing black students. What’s your reaction to that?

WALTER BROADNAX: Well, he’s by definition just going to turn them into some sort of poor ghettos. If you… if you restrict who’s going to attend and take all the good students and send them off to white schools, then he’s probably right. It will just turn them into sort of low-end little ghettos.

JOHNNETTA COLE: Sisters and brothers all.

JOHN MERROW: Despite the ongoing debate, black college presidents like Johnnetta Cole firmly believe that schools like Bennett and Clark Atlanta must be preserved so that students who wish to go can.

JOHNNETTA COLE: I think the greatest strength in American higher education is its very diversity. What do you want? You want a research institution, you want a small liberal arts college? You want a coed school, you want a women’s school? You want a predominantly white institution, you want an historically black college or university?

JOHN MERROW: Over the past two years, the United Negro College Fund has partnered with major companies to upgrade technology at historically black colleges. And while Morris Brown has a long way to go, it’s getting help from private donors. Since June 2002, the college has retired one-third of its debt. It hopes to apply for re-accreditation in the spring.