Black colleges' role is still in transition

The educational importance of Coppin, Bowie, UMES and Morgan will only grow in Maryland, but many issues remain to be addressed.

August 11, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

WILLIAM E. Kirwan arrived this month as chancellor of the University System of Maryland with a weighty resume that includes the presidency of two large state universities - Maryland and Ohio State - and induction into the prestigious American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

But Kirwan may find himself calling upon a lesser known part of his curriculum vitae in his role as chancellor: his recent nomination to the Bush administration's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. That's because Maryland HBCUs will likely demand much of Kirwan's - and other education leaders' - attention in the next few years.

The numbers show what a major role the four HBCUs - Coppin State College, Bowie State University, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Morgan State University - play in the state. They make up a third of the state's 12 public four-year campuses and last year produced two-thirds of the 3,000 or so bachelor's degrees awarded to black students by Maryland public four-year campuses.

Their importance will only grow with the increase in black college students - which is expected to outpace the growth in white students, Kirwan notes.

"A large number of our increasing population will be African-American, and many of these will be the first generation in their family to go to college," he said. "This is a very significant issue."

It might seem as if the state resolved the issues facing its HBCUs in 2000 when it signed an agreement - required of all states with formerly segregated systems - with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Under the agreement, the state pledged to invest more in its HBCUs, both to ensure that a quality education is available to the state's black students and to help these schools attract more nonblack students, thus desegregating the state system.

But today, more questions remain than ever before:

What is the proper role of the HBCUs? Is it to provide a college education to disadvantaged minority students who may not have access to one otherwise? Or is it to become campuses as diverse as any others in the system while still taking nourishment from their African-American roots despite their origin in a segregated past?

These are pressing questions, especially with the HBCUs sprouting new graduate study programs. (Morgan State alone hopes to double the number of black Ph.D.'s it produces within five years, its president says.) Do those programs draw resources from the remedial education that the colleges say is also in high demand? Or will they help bring nonminority students to campus, as the Office of Civil Rights agreement envisions?

Take, for example, Morgan State's recent addition of an English Ph.D. program. Will it draw Baltimore-area white students who otherwise would go to College Park for their degree? Or will it distract an English department busy teaching basic composition to the many students with poor writing skills?

Or take UMES' proposal for a new pharmacy school. On the one hand, the school argues a pharmacology program at UMES is a good idea because it will increase the number of black pharmacists. At the same time, the school says the plan makes sense because it will be another way for UMES to bring non-blacks to campus. Can both apply? UMES thinks so.

"We expect it to be a very diverse program for us," said Eucharia Nnadi, vice president for academic affairs at UMES.

That did not work at Morgan State, where an engineering school has failed to attract many non-African-American students. But Morgan can boast of being one of the top producers of black engineers in the country, while using the protections guaranteed by the OCR agreement to keep a competitive engineering program out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Also challenging the HBCUs self-definition are the state's community colleges, where enrollment is rising as increasing four-year college tuitions and admission standards lead some students to find two-year colleges a better option.

With HBCUs all strugging with graduation rates below the state average - of black freshmen enrolling in 1995, 42 percent had graduated from Bowie State six years later; 33 percent from Coppin; 40 percent from Morgan; and 48 percent from UMES - should they be urging more students who are unprepared for college work to attend a community college first?

What is the relationship between the HBCUs and the state's other public four-year colleges? The state's predominantly white colleges are making slow but steady progress in increasing minority enrollment.

There is the oft-noted example of the Meyerhoff Program at UMBC, which has graduated almost 300 minority students in science and engineering since 1993. But Towson University and Salisbury University also have seen increases in their once-minuscule black enrollments while the flagship campus in College Park graduated 642 black undergraduates last year - second only to Morgan State.

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