Can HBCUs and Fundamentalist U Learn from Each Other?

Is there a common denominator? It is not easy these days to be a small college or university. Both public and private colleges are closing their doors. It seems as if some purpose-built institutions, such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and evangelical colleges might be able to learn from one another.

Ken Ham hooded at Bryan

Desperate times at Bryan College

Both are in tight spots. Evangelical colleges like Bryan College in Tennessee, for instance, has slashed tuition in the face of dropping enrollments. And many HBCUs find themselves, in the words of a recent report,

facing existential threats and will need to be transformed, reinvigorated, to ensure that their futures are as vibrant as their pasts.

In addition to the usual financial pressures facing all institutions of higher education, HBCUs and evangelical colleges find themselves losing students due, in part, to broader trends in American culture. Some evangelical college—like Gordon College near Boston—have had a hard time convincing evangelical families to pony up extra money for a uniquely evangelical experience. And some HBCUs find themselves in a new competition for African-American students with historically white universities.

The news is not all bad. Some evangelical institutions—like Trevecca Nazarene in Nashville—have plenty of students. And some HBCUs—like the well-endowed Spelman College—are not on the verge of closing.

spelman

Doing fine…

Moreover, both HBCUs and evangelical colleges can hope for financial fillips by taking advantage of their unique cultural niches. Gordon College, for example, recently attracted a huge donation by emphasizing the school’s cultural conservatism. And HBCUs can hope for more public support, based on the promises of leading Democratic candidates such as Elizabeth Warren.

But both types of schools would be wise to heed the advice of a recent report about HBCUs. As it recommended,

The schools will need to further engage alumni beyond homecoming events and Greek life. It may also be helpful for them to create broader marketing campaigns — to lobby school counselors and state departments of education to better explain the richness of HBCUs — explicitly encouraging students of other races to apply as well.

Similarly, evangelical colleges would be wise to explore possible pools of students who might be interested in their unique type of higher education. Beyond evangelical families, who else might be interested in a college that promises a conservative Christian consensus among its faculty? Conservative Catholics? Conservatives in mainline Protestant churches? International evangelical organizations?

The numbers don’t have to be enormous to make an enormous impact. With yet another evangelical college closing its doors this semester, evangelical leaders will need to do something, fast.

Academic Impostors

What does Rachel Dolezal have to do with Woodrow Wilson? Her story has been poked and prodded from every angle, it seems, except one. In important ways, this is a story about higher education. Universities have always had non-academic categories that they have preferred. Students and faculty—like Dolezal and President Wilson—have always allowed schools to think they fill those categories, even if they don’t.

Dolezal then & now...

Dolezal then & now…

If you haven’t heard about Dolezal yet, congratulations. Her strange tale of a white woman passing herself off as an African American leader has attracted bajillions of comments from all over the punditocracy. In very brief form, here are the highlights: Dolezal has served as the successful chapter leader of the Spokane NAACP. She has either allowed people to think of her as African American, or has even checked that box herself. She may have performed some Facebook fakery to make her family look more African American. She attended graduate school with a full scholarship at the historically black Howard University. She teaches African American Studies classes at Eastern Washington University. Recently, her very white parents outed her as white. The family had split over Rachel’s accusations of abuse. Rachel had fought for custody of one of her younger brothers.

As journalists have noted, this story has raised tricky questions about race and racism in the United States. Conservative commentators have wondered why people can be transgender but not transracial. The NAACP has issued a statement affirming that its leaders can be from any racial background.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’m up to my eyeballs in research for a new book about the history of American higher education. To my tired eyes, one angle of this story jumps out and I haven’t heard any other nerds talking about it. As a student and as a teacher, Dolezal’s imposture has reaped significant rewards. If nothing else, her story can give us another example of the ways preferred categories have always affected higher education.

At Howard University, according to Dolezal’s father, Rachel allowed the school to assume she was African American. They gave her a full scholarship for her graduate program in art. She also teaches part-time at Eastern Washington University in the Africana Education Program. It is not certain that she lied to the people who hired her there, but the director of the program told the New York Times he thought she was black.

It seems evident that Dolezal would not have had the same opportunities at Howard or EWU if she had not been perceived as African American. Academic positions, especially in relevant areas such as Africana Studies, usually have explicit preferences for members of underrepresented groups.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against hiring preferences in higher education. I agree that personal background can be an important factor when it comes to teaching and scholarship and universities are correct to prefer some candidates based on non-academic qualifications. IMHO. Indeed, I only got my job because of my experience as a secondary-school teacher.

The interesting point, rather, is that these non-academic preferences can tell us a lot about the nature of higher education, the non-academic values of colleges. In the past, elite schools used to prefer Christian professors, for example. This is where Woodrow Wilson comes in. When Wilson, future POTUS, was elevated to the Chair of Political Economy and Jurisprudence at Princeton University in 1890, he received a forceful letter from Princeton President Francis Patton. To keep his chair, Patton warned, Professor Wilson would need to be far more explicit in his Christian testimony.

Patton worried in a letter to Wilson

That in your discussion of the origin of the State you minimize the supernatural, & make such unqualified application of the doctrine of naturalistic evolution & the genesis of the State as to leave the reader of your pages in a state of uncertainty as to your own position & the place you give to Divine Providence.

Princeton, Patton insisted, was determined to “keep this College on the old ground of loyalty to the Christian religion.”

Even at the time, as Patton’s language suggested, such Christian orthodoxy was becoming rarer and rarer in American higher education, at elite schools at least. Patton wanted to hire only Christian scholars. Wilson, for his part, allowed Patton to think he agreed, though Wilson’s later work never embodied the sort of loud-and-proud supernatural thinking Patton desired.

What does any of this have to do with Rachel Dolezal? Back in the 1890s, if one wanted a job at Princeton, one was wise to allow school leaders to think one supported orthodox Calvinism. These days, if one wants a job in a university, one is wise to allow school leaders to think one is a member of an historically underrepresented group.

Back then, conservative schools such as Princeton and Yale were clinging to an older tradition of explicitly Christian education. These days, schools are scrambling to include a wider diversity of racial backgrounds.

Wilson’s career was certainly not hurt by his willingness to let Patton believe his Presbyterianism was stronger than it really was. Dolezal—until this ugly scandal, of course—has not been hurt by people’s assumptions about her racial background.

Can Conservatives Care about Black People?

Would you take twenty-five million dollars from a conservative donor?

That’s the question posed recently to the United Negro College Fund.  The love-em-or-hate-em Koch brothers gave a $25 million donation, and some voices in the academic community want the UNCF to give the money back.  We have a different question to ask.

The prominent historian Marybeth Gasman argued that the UNCF should give the money back.  [Full disclosure: Professor Gasman and I will both be contributing chapters to an upcoming volume about agnotology and education.]  For anyone who knows the history of African-American higher education, Gasman wrote, this sort of conservative funding raises ominous red flags.

As Gasman has demonstrated, philanthropists have too often exerted control over historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the UNCF.  James Anderson, too, has argued that philanthropists have pushed HBCUs away from liberal-arts education and towards manual training courses.

With that history in mind, Professor Gasman insisted that the Koch money is tainted.  “The Koch brothers,” she wrote,

have a considerable history of supporting efforts to disenfranchise black voters through their backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council. In addition, the Koch brothers have given huge amounts of money to Tea Party candidates who oppose many policies, initiatives, and laws that empower African Americans.

Balderdash, say leading conservative intellectuals.  In the pages of Forbes  Magazine, George Leef argued that the UNCF should be celebrating.  First of all, Leef insisted, the Koch brothers’ anti-big-government activism will help African Americans, not harm them.  And in addition, the money is just money.  Take it, spend it, help people, Leef concluded.

In an interview with Michael Lomax of the UNCF, American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess suggested a similar happy ending.  Lomax told Hess that he hoped to take money from whomever he could.  Too much ideological thinking, Lomax said,

has really poisoned the thinking of some people all across the country. For them, there’s this kind of purity thing that, unless we agree on everything, there is no common ground.  Call me a pragmatist but, if I can agree on something meaningful with folks that I don’t agree with on other things, I’m going to try to work on what we agree on and, hopefully, build a meaningful and productive relationship.

Professor Gasman worried that the Koch brothers will use their gift to have a nefarious influence on the UNCF. Lomax insists it won’t. But in the world of conservative education policy, we’ve seen a different struggle.

As I argue in my upcoming book, conservative intellectuals and activists have argued since the end of World War II that their school policies did not make them racist. As we’ve seen in these pages, conservatives have worked long and hard to overcome the accusation that conservatism is inherently anti-black.

In 1950 Pasadena, for example, progressive superintendent Willard Goslin pushed a new zoning plan that would have desegregated Pasadena’s schools by race. Conservatives reacted furiously and eventually booted Goslin. But their opposition to desegregation, conservatives insisted, did not make them racist. To prove it, many conservatives cited the support of prominent African American leaders. As one conservative activist told a packed school-board meeting, her anti-deseg petition could not possibly be racist, since it was signed by “her Negro, Mexican and Oriental neighbors.”  Plus, this woman told the meeting, she could not be racist, because she had become friends with a “Negro physician” in her neighborhood.

Similarly, in the fight over textbooks in 1974 Kanawha County, West Virginia, conservatives insisted that their position did not make them racist. In that case, new textbooks included provocative passages from writers such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson. White conservatives hated the books, but not because they were racists, they insisted. In their support, conservatives cited prominent African American voices such as George Schuyler.

In all these cases, conservative educational activists trumpeted the support of African American voices to prove that their conservative ideas did not make them racist. In a way, foes of the Koch brothers could argue that this UNCF gift will serve a similar purpose. If folks like Professor Gasman accuse the Koch brothers of racism, the Koch brothers can now call on Michael Lomax and the UNCF to burnish their anti-racist credentials.

Professor Gasman argued that the Koch gift will come with unacceptable strings. But we could also ask this question: Is the UNCF now vouching for the Koch brothers? Is the UNCF willing to back the Koch brothers when they insist that their conservative activism does not make them racist?