Signs point to the Atlanta University Center area along Martin Luther King Jr Drive.
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON/AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON/AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Opinion: If you don’t support merging HBCUs, how else can we ensure their future? 

HBCU advocate says he wants them to thrive, not only survive

A guest column a few weeks ago proposed the creation of a powerhouse Atlanta University through a merger of  Morehouse CollegeSpelman CollegeClark Atlanta University and the Morehouse School of Medicine. The piece became one of the best read AJC Get Schooled columns this year.

It also produced a lot comments, most of which argued against merging historically black colleges and universities because each of them makes a critical contribution to the education of African-American students in America. 

Today, Scott Craft, the author of the column, shares a follow-up essay. 

A graduate of Albany State, Craft earned a master’s degree in library and Information studies at Clark Atlanta University and is a professional of library science and academic and business research. He has worked at several campuses in his career, including as a legal research librarian at Howard University.

By Scott Craft

There was much debate and discussion surrounding my recent opinion piece on consolidating or merging the Atlanta University Center schools. I'd like to add more context to the subject and also offer some perspective on the rationale, reasoning and motivation behind the idea.

John Hope, a prominent and distinguished educator, became the first African American president of Morehouse College in 1906 and then Atlanta University in 1929. Hope's mission during his time at Morehouse was to create an academically rigorous institution rooted in the classical liberal arts and hard sciences. This was the antithesis to Booker T Washington's focus on industrial trade and vocational training at the time. W.E.B. Du Bois and John Hope disagreed adamantly to the "Atlanta Compromise" and worked diligently to cultivate institutions that realized the talented tenth philosophy of educating leaders in black society.

After becoming president of Atlanta University, John Hope worked to develop competitive graduate degree programs, forming the affiliate relationships between Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. While Atlanta University focused on graduate programs, Morehouse and Spelman held the responsibility of providing undergraduate education. Clark College, Morris Brown and Gammon School of Theology soon followed and later joined the consortium. 

As part of the consortium plan, the schools participated in increased collaboration and shared infrastructure. The proximity of the schools and even the relocation of some of them was not by accident. It was a very intentional construct to bring the institutions closer, form alliances, and develop close affiliations.

When I read that part of John Hope's consortium plan was to ultimately one day merge the schools, I understood what I thought he may have been attempting to accomplish. And in the wake of these uncertain times for many of our beloved institutions, I still believe it's worth it to have a discussion.

To watch HBCUs like Fisk University sell off high valued art collections in an attempt to balance their budget, Bennett start a campaign drive to keep accreditation, Morris Brown lose accreditation due to mismanagement of finances and Paine College's battle to keep accreditation, is heartbreaking. I am a product of HBCUs. They helped to shape who I am today. I come from a family of HBCU graduates and my grandmother was a Hubert. The Hubert halls of Savannah State and Morehouse bear the names of my family ancestors.

When I wrote the first piece, it was written in support of my schools and as an idea to strengthen them. I love the Atlanta University Center. I love Albany State University. I love Howard University. I love Savannah State.

I am a proponent and an advocate for HBCUs and I want to see them thrive, not just survive. I want to see them wealthy, not just tuition dependent. I'm glad the first article generated debate because this is a serious matter that needs attention. That was the goal. Get angry. Get fired up. But we should do it in love and in solidarity, not division.

So, if a merger for the AU consortium is off the table, then what could be some other alternatives or solutions? How do we work toward making sure that our institutions thrive in a wealthy and prosperous state of existence?

Bennett college's most recent struggle with budget deficits and threats of revocation of accreditation is not a singular occurrence among our historically black colleges and universities. Many black colleges have already either met their demise by accreditation loss and closure or are now under severe threat of the aforementioned. Some of these institutions include Morris Brown College (lost accreditation), Barber Scotia College (lost accreditation) Paine College (under threat), Cheyney University (under threat), Concordia College (closed).

Of course, much of this dilemma is due to systemic issues in American society. The wealth gap disparity along with American descendants of slaves never receiving recompense for hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow laws and institutional racism all play a part. It's a domino effect that leads to less ability to give back as alumni if we are unemployed, underemployed or bear extreme burden from student loan debt. The schools are forced to raise tuition because of enrollment decline which again leads to more student debt. 

Our students don't typically come from families with generational wealth and extremely high incomes which means more student loans. Our schools many times can't compete with the amount of athletic or academic scholarship money many predominantly white schools are able to provide which is a factor in enrollment decline. And there are many more generations of wealthy white families who have had the resources to donate huge gifts to their alma maters.

It's my hope that in solidarity, more of our African American wealthy elite entertainers, athletes, celebrities, and business leaders can do more to show support for our beacons of black educational excellence. In the 80s and 90s black college sweatshirts were popular fashion and cultural statements thanks to shows like “The Cosby Show,” “Martin,” “Living Single” and “A Different World.”

It would be great to see our schools advertised in such a positive light again and, in addition, more financial support from prosperous individuals in our community. More financial support leads to more resources, which leads to more research funding, which leads to more fellowships and grant opportunities. I guess the question is, how do we get there?

Merging is never a popular subject for any college or university and it certainly does not always guarantee sustainability, but in this new economy, it is imperative that we continue to dialogue and arrive at sound solutions.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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