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Excerpted From: Stacy Hawkins, Reverse Integration: Centering HBCUS in the Fight for Educational Equality, 24 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change 351 (2021) (462 Footnotes) (Full Document)


StacyLHawkinsHistorically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) once provided the sole means of higher education for Black students and, as a result, produced our nation's most accomplished Black leaders for over a century. Many of this country's greatest civil rights leaders, including those whose efforts led to the desegregation of public education and made it possible for Blacks to attend historically white institutions (HWIs), were themselves educated at HBCUs. Notwithstanding their storied history, HBCUs have received too little attention in the academic literature. While there is increasing study of HBCUs among education researchers, little focus has been directed to HBCUs in the legal scholarship. Whether the motivation is to understand academic achievement among Black students specifically, or assessing the current state of educational equality generally, attention to HBCUs has been sorely lacking.

Perhaps because of this inattention, many HBCUs exist outside of the broader public consciousness. They have even been relegated to the sidelines of our discourse on higher education. Public support for HBCUs has waned since the desegregation era, and as a result many face continual threat of closure. In spite of their struggles, HBCUs continue to serve a vital function in our higher education ecosystem. Overall, they have done (and continue to do) more to educate Black students than many larger, more well-resourced HWIs. Despite representing a mere fraction of all four-year, degree-granting colleges and universities, HBCUs successfully graduate a disproportionate share of Black students each year. They produce more Black science and engineering majors than any HWI, and they have produced the majority of Black doctors, lawyers, judges, and academics for generations. HBCUs have consistently generated both educational and professional outcomes for their Black graduates that far exceed those of their HWI peers, making them an ideal case study for how to close existing educational attainment and academic achievement gaps on behalf of Black students.

Drawing on the available research on HBCUs in the educational literature, this Article identifies a unique pedagogical model common among HBCUs, highlights the success of this model in effectively educating Black students, and suggests that HBCUs have much to teach us all about how to ensure educational equality for Black students specifically, and even for first-generation and low-income (FGLI) students more generally, who are overrepresented at HBCUs. The success of this model not only implores us to reclaim HBCUs from the margins of higher education (and many from the brink of extinction), but by centering the history and experiences of HBCUs it also offers HWIs important lessons on how they can better educate Black, and FGLI, students who are so often underserved by these schools.

This Article is divided into five parts. Part I chronicles the history and success of HBCUs, tracing their rise during the post-Reconstruction era to their fight for survival in the wake of Brown and the desegregation efforts of the Civil Rights era that ensued. This Part highlights the many ways in which HBCUs have contributed and continue to contribute to the academic and professional success of their Black graduates, but also the ways in which their survival has been threatened post-Brown. Synthesizing the data and research on HBCUs from the educational literature, Part II identifies a unique pedagogical model common among HBCUs. A model that centers student well-being and support, values an ethos of collectivism over individualism, and promotes a cultural model of instruction. The benefits of this pedagogical model for those Black students who attend HBCUs extend well beyond their undergraduate experience - they launch students into successful graduate education, inspire high professional ambitions, and even improve students' personal well-being.

Contrasting the history and success of HBCUs set out in Parts I and II, Part III recounts a set of disheartening but all-too-familiar data about the overall failures of our system of higher education, and in particular HWIs, to effectively serve the needs of Black students. These failures can be seen in the academic achievement gap, Black students' lower overall educational attainment, and their greater dissatisfaction with the experience of higher education. This Part concludes with a discussion of the numerous climate threats posed to Black students attending HWIs. From stereotype and stigma threat to physical assaults, these climate threats compromise the emotional well-being and physical safety of Black students attending HWIs, and they also exacerbate the academic problems already faced by Black students attending HWIs which thereby further contribute to the widely-noted Black-white achievement gap.

In light of the persistent failures of our system of higher education overall to effectively educate Black students, and the extraordinary success of HBCUs in doing so, Part IV considers what it means to truly provide equal post-secondary educational opportunities for Black students. This Part engages the longstanding debate between integration and segregation in the quest for educational equality. Identifying the benefits and drawbacks of both approaches, Part IV concludes that true educational equality must effectively mediate between the failed integration ideal typified by HWIs on the one hand and the abandoned segregation legacy of HBCUs on the other. Finally, Part V offers a modest proposal to move us towards this preferred middle ground. The compromise position seeks to celebrate and strengthen HBCUs as the unique and vital resource they are, while at the same time improving the educational experiences and outcomes of those Black students who do attend HWIs. The added advantage of this model is the likely improved success of first generation and low-socioeconomic status (SES) students attending HWIs as well, who experience many of the same challenges in higher education, and benefit from many of the same approaches, as Black students.

The dual approach suggested here envisions the growth and expansion of HBCUs befitting their legacy of success, together with some adaptation of the unique HBCU pedagogical model by HWIs in ways that will inure to the benefit of Black as well as first generation and low-SES students. These changes will expand the positive impact of HBCUs to more students and allow HWIs to better serve their Black and FGLI students, both of whom comprise an increasing share of students in higher education. White students, and HWIs themselves, also stand to benefit from this expanded pedagogical model in ways that enhance the entire educational enterprise by imparting the knowledge and skills necessary for all students to navigate an increasingly complex and multicultural world.

[. . .]

Achieving educational equality, especially on behalf of Black students (the original beneficiaries of Brown) has proven an elusive goal. The failure to achieve racial equality in higher education may in part be attributable to the integration strategy of Brown itself. The post-desegregation era's myopic focus on integrating Black students into HWIs has led us to ignore the vital role that HBCUs have played (and continue to play) in educating Black students, especially those who are low-income and/or first-generation. In the quest for educational equality, a reconsideration of the post-Brown integration strategy in favor of strengthening and renewing our commitment to HBCUs offers an opportunity for leveraging their unique pedagogical model to achieve greater educational equality for Black and FGLI students across the entire higher education landscape.

Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School.

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