Debating HBCUs

North Carolina Central University’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences held its second annual “Great Debate” last week in front of a packed audience of students, professors, and administrators. “HBCUs: Can They Survive?” was the topic of this year’s debate, which featured student teams from the departments of political science, human sciences, psychology, public health education, and criminal justice.

The students from NC Central, one of North Carolina’s five public historically black universities, discussed profound issues affecting not just their school, but private and public HBCUs across the country.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 made “HBCU” an official designation for colleges and universities that were established before 1965 and that had educated a predominantly black student population. The 106 HBCUs operating in the United States today are concentrated in the South. North Carolina, for example, has 11 HBCUs.

Before the start of the debate, Brandon Robinson, who served as debate moderator and who works for the UNC system’s general administration as a public communications and legal specialist, explained the reason for the event. “If people in Raleigh, the N.C. legislature, the governor’s office, and the budget office of the UNC system are talking about the relevance of HBCUs, it is so appropriate and it behooves us all to own that discussion in our own community at NCCU,” he said.

To that end, Robinson crafted several big-theme questions for the student debaters. The students’ responses—highlighted below—may or may not represent their actual views. In some places, I provide my own commentary and offer additional facts as appropriate.

Would the closing of HBCUs materially impair access to higher education?

The strongest response to this question came from the psychology department’s debate team, which argued that closing HBCUs would not have a major impact on access. The team noted that only about 2.5 percent of the more than 4,000 postsecondary educational institutions in the U.S. are HBCUs. Furthermore, more than 90 percent of black college students attend non-HBCUs, and blacks are being accepted in large numbers by both community colleges and “predominantly white” four-year institutions.

Closing HBCUs would therefore not preclude blacks from attending college. If a prospective black student wants a college education, he or she has numerous options that are accessible and affordable.

Criminal justice’s debate team resorted to tangential argumentation to make the case that closing HBCUs would materially impair access to higher education. One student said that since black leaders from low-income backgrounds (he lumped Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Oprah Winfrey, and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs into the same group) had attended HBCUs, other students with similar potential, but who come from low-income households, should have the same collegiate opportunity.

Some of those black leaders’ backgrounds are inspiring, but their unique stories have nothing to do with the question.

Would the closing of some HBCUs make the remaining HBCUs stronger?

The human sciences department argued that selective closing would strengthen the remaining schools since many HBCUs are experiencing declining enrollments and have limited resources. Better to boost the existing HBCUs that have good reputations and solid enrollment numbers. With more enrollment come higher public funds (in the case of state schools) and more generous donations. These factors will increase resources for HBCU students, the debaters said.

Public health education’s team took the “con” position. One debater said that existing HBCUs may be struggling, but are nonetheless important because a large percentage of black students with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degrees earn such degrees from them.

It’s true that HBCUs confer a large percentage of black students’ degrees in STEM fields (roughly 40 percent). But while pundits and politicians cheerlead for more STEM graduates, STEM jobs are simply not being created fast enough to keep up with the expanding glut of STEM degree holders. (In a recent article in The Atlantic, Michael S. Teitelbaum explains the reasons for this glut and why the conventional wisdom regarding STEM degrees is misguided.)

Perhaps more to the question, if an HBCU has strong STEM programs, it will be able to attract students and avoid financial instability. But if an HBCU is in dire straits, especially a public HBCU relying on a taxpayer lifeline to stay afloat, it’s time to seriously consider closing or merging that school. Prospective black students who want a STEM degree, or any degree, will not be deterred or set back by the closing of a few troubled HBCUs.

Would the great civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s support an enduring HBCU presence in American higher education in the 21st century?

This was a fascinating question, and one that spurred some intense back-and-forth. One student on the political science department’s team (the “pro” side) opened the debate by saying that “institutions like NCCU provide a sense of black nationalism…the civil rights movement was about establishing black pride.” “What better way to [establish black pride] than by having HBCUs?” he asked.

The public health education team argued in the opposite direction. The students said we now live in a global, diverse, and “post-racial” society, and maintaining HBCUs is a form of segregation. “We must have institutions that tailor their curriculums to many different populations, not just blacks,” said one student. “We would like to be inclusive of all persons and provide opportunities for all rather than simply targeting minorities or low-income populations,” she explained.

In my view, the civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were champions of the open society and opponents of segregation and racial division. It’s difficult for me to fathom Martin Luther King, Jr. supporting a continued HBCU presence in the 21st century. “Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other, they don’t know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated,” said King in 1958.

Does the U.S. Constitutions guarantee of equal protection of the laws forbid the existence of publicly supported HBCUs after the age of Jim Crow?

The question suggests that publicly supported HBCUs are perpetuating the segregated society that the Supreme Court declared illegal 60 years ago and thus are unconstitutional given the societal change that has occurred over time. Because most of the students’ responses didn’t directly address the relevant constitutional issues, I’ll provide a brief synopsis of an important Supreme Court precedent.

In Brown v. Board of Education (1954) the Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional the “separate but equal” standard in public schools, thus declaring racial segregation illegal. While Brown did not touch upon colleges, its progeny, United States v. Fordice (1992), is relevant to HBCUs. In Fordice, the Supreme Court ruled that Mississippi’s public higher education system, despite adopting race-neutral admissions policies and being racially divided because of private individuals’ voluntary choices rather than an explicit state policy, violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because it perpetuated prior segregation.

Although the Court ultimately did not decide on the constitutionality of HBCUs, some regard the Fordice opinion and its dicta—which imply that HBCUs should be closed or merged with other higher education institutions to satisfy the Brown decision—as an indication that publicly supported HBCUs may violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

Overall, the “Great Debate” at NC Central was a worthwhile event (in case you’re wondering, the psychology department’s team won first prize). Many of the students who attended were exposed to arguments and facts that they had never heard before.

For me, the debate was an eye-opening experience. On one hand, most of the student debaters were eloquent and their topics well-researched, but on the other hand, I picked up strong hints of a political progressivism steeped in anti-capitalism and vague notions of “social justice”—notions based more on emotion than critical thinking.

Nevertheless, I commend NC Central’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences for hosting this debate, and for being willing to pose such tough questions. The debaters and those of us who listened should remember the words of the moderator, Brandon Robinson, who at the start of the debate paraphrased the French philosopher Voltaire: “I may disagree with everything you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”