(The Root) — The "Best Colleges" rankings from US News & World Report are usually an opportunity for many colleges and universities to go into PR overdrive to attract the best and brightest to their campuses. For other schools, it's an opportunity to take stock of their aspirational goals. For Howard University, the school's decline in the rankings — 22 positions from 2012 and 46 positions from 2010 — represents an obvious crisis. For one, Sidney A. Ribeau, the university's president since 2008, recently announced his retirement.
A week after Howard University's descent in the rankings became news fodder, the New York Times profiled the relationship between venture capitalist Glenn Hutchins and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. The occasion of the profile was the launching of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, underwritten by a gift of $15 million to Harvard in support of the center. That sum is the largest individual gift ever in support of African and African-American studies.
Admittedly, there seems to be little connection between the current trajectory of the most well-known and best-endowed university in the United States and that of what some have often referred to as the Harvard of HBCUs. Yet as Howard begins its search for a new president, Gates may be just the figure to reverse not only Howard's fortunes but also those of many other HBCUs. (Gates is, of course, the editor-in-chief of The Root.)
A winner of the MacArthur "genius" grant in 1981 and the author of one of the classic texts in African-American literary theory — the 1989 American Book Award winner The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism — Gates was a relatively young scholar when he was recruited to chair Harvard's department of Afro-American studies and direct the university's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute in 1991.
More than two decades later, Gates presides over, arguably, the premier scholarly enterprise devoted to African-American studies, essentially transforming a field that had historically been on the margins of higher education in the U.S. (even at HBCUs) into a visible and meaningful brand. Gates' rise to national prominence coincided with the emergence of a generation of black public intellectuals — including Michael Eric Dyson, Melissa Harris-Perry, the now-deceased Manning Marable and Cornel West, whom Gates poached from Princeton University and who, along with former University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson, formed part of what was referred to as Harvard's black "dream team" in the 1990s.
To be sure, the success of that brand has been most pronounced at elite institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Duke, and even then, black faculty at these institutions have rightly decried being on the outside of leadership circles and have been critical of institutional ambivalence around issues of diversity. These issues notwithstanding, what Gates has essentially created is a shadow university within the confines of Harvard. One can only wonder what Gates' skill set might look like if, in fact, he were the president of an actual college or university. Howard might be just the institution for him.
In a rather unusual move, US News & World Report actually detailed the reason for Howard's fall in the yearly rankings. The magazine specifically cited concern over graduation and retention rates, student selectivity, faculty resources, alumni giving and administrative malaise. On the latter point, the university inexplicably failed to report numbers related to the above concerns, forcing the magazine to estimate — and, most likely, doing so without the benefit of the doubt that it might have given a PWI, or predominantly white institution.
While these issues are obviously not unique to Howard University, they do speak to some of the challenges that HBCUs regularly face. Indeed, graduation and retention rates directly correlate to matters of tuition affordability for many students, but also issues that could be addressed — such as better support for faculty research and teaching — with more robust fundraising campaigns, as well as visionary and innovative leadership.
What Gates has shown consistently throughout his tenure at Harvard is his ability to raise funds in support of his vision for African and African-American studies. Although there are some who might question the primarily "white" money that Gates has used to build his scholarly empire, such efforts are firmly in line with the modern history of black studies at PWIs beginning in the late 1960s. This is in keeping with a longer history regarding the very creation of HBCUs in the late 19th century via white philanthropy and land grants.
Many of the first generation of black-studies programs in the U.S. — including those that housed the most militant scholars and activists — were underwritten by the Ford Foundation, then under the leadership of McGeorge Bundy, a former national security adviser to President John F. Kennedy. The initial round of grants in support of black studies went to schools such as Princeton, Yale, Vanderbilt and Stanford, but also five HBCUs, including Howard, Morgan State, Jackson State and Lincoln University. As Noliwe M. Rooks writes in her book White Money/Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education, "Implementing Black studies became the primary method through which Bundy and the Ford Foundation would attempt to address the 'Negro Problem.' "
This is not to say that many HBCUs aren't in capable hands — Dillard University's Walter M. Kimbrough stands out for his willingness to engage students and younger alums from where they are in the world. Camille and Bill Cosby's $20 million gift to Spelman College 25 years ago during Johnnetta B. Cole's presidency remains one of the largest individual gifts ever given to an HBCU. Yet as traditional donors give way to a younger generation of givers who have been raised on hip-hop and the trinkets of high-tech industries, HBCUs are going to have to be able to adjust.
The recent $70 million gift to the University of Southern California from entertainment moguls Andre Young (Dr. Dre) and Jimmy Iovine represents the type of largesse with which HBCUs will have to compete. Although Dr. Dre has been criticized for giving to the very institutions that were not supportive of hip-hop music and culture a generation ago, others are making similar awards: The HipHop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard, under the leadership of Marcyliena Morgan, recently announced the creation of the Nasir Jones HipHop Fellowship, funded by an anonymous donor, who insisted that the fellowship be named after the artist Nas.
I suspect that any institution would be hard-pressed to draw Henry Louis Gates from his perch at Harvard, but if he is looking for the chance to run an institution — and one whose success or failure has deep implications for the future of black America — the presidency of Howard University might present just the opportunity.
Response from The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr.:
Howard University, the venerable "Capstone of Negro Education," as it was fondly called back in the day, has a long history within the Gates family: My great aunt, Pansy Gates, graduated from the school of nursing in 1909; her husband, Robert Thompson Sr., graduated from the dental school in 1919; their son, Robert Jr., also graduated from the dental school; and his son, Robert III, graduated from the medical school.
I was honored to receive my 50th honorary degree from Howard just a few years ago. Had it not been for affirmative action desegregating the historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs), I would quite likely have attended Howard as well. So professor Neal's generous suggestion is deeply flattering to me. But as he suspected, I am quite happy in my position at Harvard, and am especially excited to have been named just a few weeks ago as the founding director of Harvard's new Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
However, I would love to be able to suggest a few names for the search committee to consider. And I would hope that the new president would include among her or his priorities the dramatic expansion of the university's current faculty and programs in both African American and African studies, and the bolstering of manuscript and archival holdings in its magnificent Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books, including the recent Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, and is the host of the weekly video webcast Left of Black. He is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the HipHop Archive and Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.