MORGAN State University and other historically black institutions are under a recent and grave threat.
The U.S. Justice Department has filed a brief with the Supreme Court in response to a suit filed in Mississippi by predominantly black colleges protesting historical underfunding. The brief challenges a series of court orders over the last 20 years that required states found to have operated racially segregated higher education systems to increase their financial support for black colleges. The increases were designed to insure that black students have educational opportunities and to attract white students to the historically black institutions.
But the Justice Department is apparently arguing that equalizing funding may cause more black students to attend black institutions, thus having a "perverse effect" on desegregation. In other words, rather than providing sufficient funding to historically black institutions to enable them to offer quality education to both black and white students, the department argues for the equivalent of reducing children's cholesterol by eliminating the lunch program. This mentality could well sound the death knell for many black colleges. Thus, I am compelled to write about my present choice of employment.
In the past three years that I have been a researcher at Morgan State University's Institute for Urban Research, I have received job offers from various prestigious universities. The offers increased tenfold when I received a MacArthur Fellowship last July.
I always respectfully decline. I am told by friends in academe that those making the offers have commented with incredulity, "You mean she wants to stay at Morgan?" I haven't previously found it necessary to explain myself, but circumstances are now such that I feel it important to go public with my reasons for staying.
Yes, I have chosen to work at a historically black college -- which, like most others of its kind, is underfunded, understaffed and generally undervalued -- because I believe that these institutions are our best hope to educate many of our young people, and to educate them in fields they would not otherwise attempt. Black colleges still produce the largest numbers of black graduates in medicine, law, engineering and other sciences. In 1990 Morgan State graduated 100 percent of the black physics majors in Maryland, 80 percent of those in civil engineering and 54 percent of the black chemistry majors. Morgan ranks second among all of the educational institutions in the nation in the percentage of black graduates who have received doctorates.
I choose to work at Morgan because I am honored to work with people who commit so much time to serving their community. Having spent most of my working life at predominantly white institutions, I have been accustomed to "service" being what you do outside of the university walls primarily to enable you to publish more research findings. Morgan's faculty and staff -- both black and white -- consistently work unheralded at the behest of community organizations and public schools. They set up tutoring programs, they work with teen-age mothers, counsel Head Start parents, set up community book-reading groups and perform for or just visit the elderly.
They do all this without such activity increasing either their chances for tenure or fattening their pocketbooks. And Morgan researchers consistently engage in work that is of direct benefit to the urban community of which it is a part.
I also choose to work at Morgan because it is a repository of African-American knowledge and culture, much of which would be lost if it were not housed and supported at institutions such as Morgan. Morgan State's award-winning choir, the drama productions, the art, the dance, the radio broadcasts -- are all resources for the entire Baltimore community.
Until I began working at Morgan, I did not fully understand the role that the historically black colleges play in bettering the lives of African-Americans, in keeping America competitive or in adding to the American culture as a whole. I pray that those who share a belief in justice, fair play and the benefits to be gained by supporting diverse institutions in our diverse society will join with me in denouncing this latest threat to historically black institutions.
Lisa D. Delpit writes from Baltimore.