HU President Dr. William R. Harvey Responds to WSJ Article Criticizing HBCUs

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Jason Riley questioned the relevance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in today’s society. He complained about President Obama’s conventional approach to HBCUs and opined that “instead of more subsidies and toothless warnings to shape up”, the President and federal government ought to “…remake these schools to meet today’s challenges.”

I cannot speak for the President of the United States, but I have spoken to him about HBCUs. An ardent supporter of historically black colleges and universities, President Obama understands and appreciates their value to the nation and the world. The facts justify his support, i.e., representing 4% of all American colleges and universities, HBCUs conferred over 22% of all degrees awarded to African Americans. With only 13% of African Americans in higher education, these colleges awarded nearly 30% of all undergraduate degrees earned by African American students in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines; 50% of all bachelor’s degrees in teacher education received by African American students; and 85% of Doctor of Medicine degrees acquired by African Americans according to statistics compiled by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

Most HBCUs are also economic engines in their communities. According to a 2006 National Center for Educational Statistics report, the short term economic impact of HBCUs is $10 billion annually, providing more than 180,000 full and part-time jobs. The report also noted, “to put that in perspective, the rolled up employment impact of the nation’s HBCUs exceeds the 177,000 jobs at the Bank of America in 2006, which was the nation’s 23rd largest employer.”

In attempting to make his case, Riley presented biased, antiquated suppositions such as articles written by Thomas Sowell some 36-years ago along with references by Christopher Jencks and David Riesman some 43-years ago. Riley also makes such groundless claims as “…available evidence shows that in the main, these students are better off exercising their non-HBCU options.” What evidence? This certainly is not the experience that we have seen at Hampton University.

Another ridiculous assertion that Riley offers is that “For-profit entities could be brought in to manage other schools.” He uses the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college, as an example stating that they confer more bachelor’s degrees on black students than any other school. Does he really want HBCUs to model themselves after an institution whose latest graduation rates, as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), was 1% at 4 years, 4% at 6 years, and 6% at 8 years?

Riley’s mindset, journalistic standards, and research methodology aside, as President of Hampton University, and Chairman of the President’s Advisory Board on HBCUs, I want to provide a more accurate view of HBCUs and the quality work many of these institutions perform.

First and foremost, just like predominately white institutions, HBCUs are not a monolith. Some are exceptional, the majority are sufficient — all but a few are accredited institutions that meet or exceed the standards set by the accrediting bodies for any institution. An acknowledgment of some of the world-class academic and research activities at HBCUs is in order. Let me begin with my own institution—Hampton University.

In August, Hampton University began seeing its first patients at the Hampton University Proton Therapy cancer treatment center. The center is one of only eight in the United States and the largest free-standing facility in the world. Sixty-five percent of the patients treated at this facility will have prostate cancer, the other 35% will be those with breast, lung, ocular, and pediatric cancers.

Faculty in our School of Pharmacy have been involved in Alzheimer’s research. If their research on proteins in the blood can provide a link to Alzheimer’s, then a protocol establishing an early diagnostic test will allow physicians to treat the disease before it manifests itself.

Our Skin of Color Institute is a research center dedicated to probing issues, challenges, and diseases unique to the skin in people of color. The goal is to develop new and better treatments.

In 2007, Hampton University launched a $140 million weather satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base to study noctilucent clouds in the ionosphere. With this feat, Hampton became the first historically black college or university to have 100% responsibility and control of a NASA satellite mission.

Hampton is also home to the National Center for African American Marriages and Parenting. The Center’s mission is to strengthen families in the African American community by helping them gain essential knowledge, skills, and other resources required for building and sustaining healthy marriages and practicing effective parenting.

Hampton’s nationally known physics department continues to do outstanding work. One physics group has received 12 patents on prostate and breast cancer detection devices. Another group has 14 patents on prosthesis for artificial limbs.

The Hampton University Leadership Academy is providing a multi-faceted approach to improving the level and effectiveness of school leaders. Hampton is the only educational entity in the entire state of Virginia to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education in support of this initiative, and will work with the public school systems in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Franklin, Danville, and Roanoke, Virginia.

When one looks at the depth and breadth of Hampton University’s academic, research, and public service activities, any objective analysis will show that Hampton does not need a remake, as it is clearly one of the best and most productive modest-sized universities in the country.

Other HBCUs are also doing outstanding work. Xavier University in New Orleans has educated nearly 25% of the approximately 6,000 black pharmacists practicing in the United States, and ranks first in the nation in placing African American students in medical schools. Tougaloo College ranks among the top 50 institutions whose graduates earn PhDs in science and engineering disciplines. More than 40% of Mississippi’s practicing African-American physicians, dentists, other health professionals, and attorneys are graduates of Tougaloo College.

North Carolina A&T is the nation’s largest producer of African-American bachelors and doctorates in engineering. North Carolina A&T, Tuskegee, Florida A&M, Spelman, Tennessee State, Prairie View A&M, Morgan State, Howard, and Alabama A&M cumulatively graduate more than 30% of all African Americans who receive engineering degrees.

In addition to training physicians, dentists, and other health professionals, Meharry Medical College has a Center of AIDS Health Disparities Research. Faculty at this Center have discovered and patented a salve that removes cholesterol from the HIV virus causing it to lose its ability to infect.

This short list of some of the research and academic activities at HBCUs refutes the assertion that HBCUs are inferior. In fact, it illustrates that some HBCUs are superior.

Better research could have enlightened Riley immensely. Sometimes, however, particularly when a viewpoint is inaccurate or extreme, people don’t want to be confused with the facts.

Clearly, historically black colleges and universities do not need “a makeover” or “a new mission”. What is needed are major publications, such as the Wall Street Journal to conduct solid and sincere research so it can better appreciate the value and contributions HBCUs make.

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