The Root Interview: Julianne Malveaux on the Importance of HBCUs

Harriette Cole, The Root's contributing editor, spent three days at Bennett College, one of the nation's two HBCUs for women. There she found a college president fired up about educating today's young black woman.

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Julianne Malveaux (left)

Educator Dr. Julianne Malveaux has long been known as a firebrand. Armed with a doctorate in economics from MIT, she's made a career out of interpreting the American economic landscape as it relates to African-American life. (Her latest book is Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.) Three years ago, the economist refocused her lens to become the 15th president of the 137-year-old Bennett College for Women. Moving from the buttoned-up, politically savvy nation's capital to the conservative family town of Greensboro, N.C., she hit the ground running.

In a way, she had to. HBCUs have been under fire for years, often not being able to attract the best students or raise the funds required to finance their basic needs. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed criticizing what the editorial writer saw as the deficits of HBCUs, making the case that many should be closed rather than pumped with the additional $850 million that President Obama has earmarked for them over the next 10 years.

Bennett has not been immune to the challenges and sometimes harsh realities facing HBCUs. It was founded in 1873, in the basement of St. Matthews A.M.E. Church by former slaves who had made their way to Greensboro along the Underground Railroad. The school was repurposed to be a college exclusively for women in 1926. While it has consistently been a small campus with the mission of nurturing its students, the college has not always had the funding, nor the organization, it has needed. Former Spelman College president Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole became president of Bennett in 2003 and was considered a savior of sorts, spearheading a campaign to upgrade the financing and academic intentions of the school. She established the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity & Inclusion Institute to expand the college's global awareness.

Even with Cole's efforts during her four-year tenure, Bennett was still in need. Malveaux says that she inherited an $8 million debt, which made it tough for school officials to proceed with much-needed construction projects. The graduation rate is still relatively low; about 38 percent of the student body typically graduates within six years. (The average graduation rate among HBCUs is 32.5 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Education study, compared to a national rate of 55.9 percent.)

Malveaux takes umbrage at the criticism, arguing that comparing HBCUs with traditional colleges is unfair. "If you didn't have historically black colleges, you'd have to invent them," she says. HBCUs, she argues, serve promising underprivileged students that other universities don't. She says that the student body is comprised of a diverse array of students, including those students who could easily gain admittance to the nation's top-tier universities -- among those a candidate for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. But she acknowledges that there are students who will likely only be accepted at HBCUs.

"Which colleges accept young people who come with academic deficiencies?" she asks. "We call our students who come with lower than a 2.4 'emerging scholars.' They're not there yet, but they will get there." For such students, Malveaux explains, the school gives them extra academic attention, from a tutoring center to a summer program to professors who provide intensive, one-on-one attention. "You're not going to get that anywhere else," she says. "You'll go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a great school to be sure, and get swallowed. And that's just the end of that."

As Malveaux sees it, dismissing the importance of HBCUs is "part of this whole post-racial fallacy that a lot of people have embraced, that we have a black president and so being black doesn't matter anymore. Historically black colleges don't matter anymore. It's just not the case." Black colleges, she says, are an important part of our history, history that should not just be thrown away. In the post Civil War era, HBCUs played a vital role in educating former slaves; during slavery, in many states, it was illegal to educate slaves. Says Malveaux, "In North Carolina, the law read: 'to teach a slave to read is to excite dissatisfaction to the detriment of the general population.' Imagine that, that the general population would be threatened by you and me. So when you understand that, you must embrace HBCUs."

Today, many students attending black colleges face unique challenges. Many are the first in their families to attend college. Many of them struggle to pay tuition; one Bennett student, for example, can only afford to attend one semester a year. 

And then there's the issue of the nation's public education system, which is failing to graduate students with the requisite skills to succeed. According to Malveaux, the average inner-city student attends school less than the average suburban student. A student attending school in urban school attends fewer than 1,000 hours a year, while on the other side of the country, a student in suburban Houston goes to school 1,300 hours per year, she says, explaining that part of the reason for the disparity from one location to another is budget. The bottom line: Many students come to Bennett not fully prepared for college.

Her mantra: "Bennett is an oasis where we educate and celebrate and develop 21st century leaders and global thinkers." To make good on her credo, the president insists that four areas be given special focus in the college's curriculum: entrepreneurship, leadership, global studies and communications. To inspire the students to imagine greatness for themselves, she regularly invites leaders like Cornell West to speak to the 800-member student body each week at the Academic Cultural Enrichment Series (ACES).

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