Maryland’s Historically Black Universities: Racial Underperformance is not Racial Inferiority

For more than 20 years the University System of Maryland (USM) and the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC) have treated the underperformance of Maryland’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as near normal. During those 20 years none of the state’s Traditionally White Institutions (TWIs) have recorded a graduation rate of less than 50 percent, and none of the HBCUs have recorded a graduation rate of 50 percent or above. This dichotomy has been essentially accepted as normal.

To assume underperformance is normal for one racial group in comparison to another racial group constitutes racism, which is an assumption of race-based inferiority or conversely racial superiority of the performing group. The continued existence of this dichotomy suggests its acceptance as normal. It appears normal for the TWIs to outperform the HBCUs, as the HBCUs are considered “not comparable” to the TWIs. This assumption can take one of two tracks; either Black students who attend HBCUs are inferior to the White students who typically attend TWIs, or the institutions themselves (HBCUs) are incapable of performing at the same level as the TWIs.

The most commonly accepted explanation for the discrepancy is that many of the African-American students who attend HBCUs are under-prepared, thus their rates of failure are greater and their matriculation rates are lower. This is a common variation on the “Culture of Poverty” thesis promulgated during the late sixties as an explanation for racial differences in economic achievement (poverty). The argument suggests the students themselves are not inferior (which is racist), rather, the conditions from which they come have been disadvantaged (culture, not race). This argument would seem to suggest that efforts to remedy the disadvantages and their effects would produce comparable results between Black students and White students. Unfortunately the policy discussion stalls at this point.

Funding for remediation or corrective interventions is often portrayed as unfair to White students. In other words to eliminate this “condition-produced-discrepancy” is unfair to the Traditionally White Institutions and White students. The fact is, if the discrepancies are reduced, the performances will become comparable, and the illusion of White superiority dissolves. Unfortunately USM and MHEC have perhaps inadvertently embraced the myth of White student superiority that continues to be reflected in what appears to be a “normal” White performance and an acceptable Black underperformance.

Consider the following anecdote:

Two men of comparable ability will compete in a race. The night before the race someone steals a shoe from one of the men. If the race continues without replacing the shoe, the man with both shoes most certainly will win. Why then, after many races, is replacing the first man’s shoe considered unfair to the second man? The unfortunate answer is that the second man becomes accustomed to running faster than the one shoe man. In fact the second man builds quite a reputation on his winning abilities and the rewards that come from continuing to win. Changing the equation by replacing the first man’s lost shoe will have the potential effect of changing the second man’s world, his identity and all the spoils that have been derived from what is objectively an unfair situation.

Rectifying the imbalance of conditions affecting the African-American students who attend HBCUs changes the race equation in state supported higher education. What happens when Morgan State University and Coppin State University graduate students at the same rate as the University of Maryland College Park and Towson University? Some of the persistent privileges and advantages historically associated with whiteness in the state become much more transparent. In fact the continued underperformance of the HBCUs assures less economic and social competition for

White college graduates from Black college graduates across the state and nation. This continued underperformance in no small measure perpetuates the myth of White racial superiority which very much undergirds the current set of operating assumptions involving higher education in Maryland.

The state Higher Education authorities have a responsibility to determine the specific nature of the HBCU underperformance and to find effective remedies. The continued acceptance of the underperformance as “normal” is a disservice to the students and families who support HBCUs as well as the tax payers of the state and nation who invest in higher education. Some of this discrepancy can be related to funding and resource utilization. HBCUs have higher faculty to student ratios.

HBCUs tend to have a higher proportion of part-time faculty. The full time faculty teaching loads are usually heavier (4-5 courses per semester) when compared to TWI teaching loads (3-4 courses per semester). Even though students attending HBCUs are more likely to need a greater amount of financial aid, the amount of state funding for students is relatively lower. This means that even full time HBCU students are far more likely to need (often full time) employment which affects academic progress. The lack of campus budget transparency often makes it difficult to analyze actual HBCU spending priorities.

Maryland also needs to raise serious questions regarding the accountability of HBCU administrators and the bureaucracies they maintain. Students continue to complain about a myriad of problems with registration, financial aid, customer services and academic support. The latter includes inadequate support staff as well as lack of timely availability of needed courses. HBCU administrators command the highest salaries and status on their respective campuses, while productivity languishes. Two not too distantly retired HBCU presidents served a total of more than 50 years yet neither of their institutions ever reached a graduation rate of 50 percent. There is very little indication that current HBCU Administrators or the University System Administrators are under any serious pressures to close the graduation (performance) gaps. This acceptance of Black underperformance as normal forms the basis for the absence of comparable educational opportunities for the state’s African-American students. Hopefully the current lawsuit against Maryland’s higher education establishment will force a serious analysis of HBCU underperformance and require interventions to produce comparable results between HBCUs and TWIs.

John L. Hudgins, Ph.D., is associate professor of Sociology at Coppin State University.

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Maryland's Historically Black Universities: Racial Underperformance is not Racial Inferiority


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