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What White Colleges Owe Black Colleges

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THE REVIEW
By Adam Harris
Published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on August 30, 2021

AUGUST 30, 2021

What White Colleges OWE Black Colleges
Private Money Alone Won't Save Black Colleges. What About Money From Primarily White Institutions


America is home to more prestigious colleges than anywhere else in the world. And while it is true, in some respects, that any student can attend any institution, the effect of more than a century of racial caste in higher education has been felt as a wave rather than just a gut punch. It ripples into the present. Black people were shackled at the beginning, and once loosed, were expected to make up stolen ground on their own; Black colleges were, too. A damning picture is the result: Black students and colleges are trying to catch up, but they have been held back for so long.

There are a couple of indicators that can predict when a college might close: It has fewer than one thousand students; it has a small endowment; it is in a rural area; it has difficulty raising money. Dozens of the about 100 HBCUs still operating fall into some if not all of these buckets, including some of those that receive state funds. Black colleges are resilient; they have made their way through more than 150 years of oppression. But they are not invincible.

Each year, there seems to be a new Black college that must prove its viability. In early 2019, that baton fell to a small college in North Carolina.

There are two historically Black women’s colleges in the United States, Spelman College, in Atlanta, and Bennett College, in Greensboro, N.C. In 2016, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed Bennett on probation because it did not have enough money. The technical term for the association’s complaint was a lack of “financial stability.” The private college, which is heavily tuition dependent, had run budget deficits for seven of the prior 11 years, and it was down to a little more than 400 students from a peak enrollment of nearly 800 students in 2009.

The college started making changes. It appointed Phyllis Worthy Dawkins as its interim president. It launched a fund-raising campaign, and it began looking for ways to increase its student body.

Bennett remained on probation for two years until, in 2018, SACS decided that it had seen enough. There was nothing the college could do, in its estimation, to right the ship. On December 11, leaders of the association informed Dawkins that they would be revoking the college’s accreditation. The university was caught flat-footed. It had raised $4.2 million in the 2017-18 school year and had increased its enrollment by 26 percent to just under 500 students. It thought it was well on the way to financial stability. “There’s no one way to demonstrate fiscal stability, which is why we thought we were demonstrating fiscal stability,” Dawkins told a local news station.

A loss of accreditation is typically a forecast of closure for a college. After that stamp of approval is lost, an institution is no longer eligible for federal and state financial-aid programs. At HBCUs, where 61 percent of students are eligible for the federal Pell Grant for low-income students, federal funding is paramount. Dawkins had a plan, though. The college appealed the decision and organized an aggressive fund-raising effort. SACS set the appeal date for February 18, and if money was what the accreditor wanted, the college would raise money. In the 50 days before the hearing, they planned to raise $5 million.

Bennett launched the #StandWithBennett campaign in December, and it quickly began trending on social media. “Since 1873, Bennett College has created a place for Black women’s voices and brilliance to be developed and cultivated,” Dawkins argued. As the flash fund-raising campaign became national news, donations both big and small began pouring in. Ten dollars here, a hundred dollars there, $10,000 from a local credit union, $500,000 from the Papa John’s Foundation. Students at Erwin Montessori Elementary School scraped together dollars and cents to donate $77.25.

Still, with two days left before its February 18 deadline, the college remained about $2 million short of its goal. The clock was ticking, and last-minute donations started coming in. Another North Carolina college ponied up and donated $1 million. With one hour to go, Bennett College was $250,000 away from its goal. As January 31 turned into February 1, the money was still being counted, so the college extended its deadline to do the final math.

Three days later, on February 4, Bennett announced that it had reached the goal, and surpassed it: it had raised $8.2 million in a little more than 50 days. The college prepared to head into the appeals hearing proud, with lined coffers and proof of its vitality.

But the heroic effort obscured another fact: There were more than a dozen donations to universities of at least $5 million in the first month of 2019. None of those donations went to Bennett College, or to any other historically Black college, for that matter. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, as the nation grappled with the ways structural racism affects various facets of American society, several historically Black colleges received their largest-ever donations from the billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and others. But a one-time injection of funding will not make up for more than a century of discrimination. And wealth begets wealth; while some predominantly white institutions were able to build their reserves, Black colleges were held back.

Private money alone won’t save Black colleges, but, perhaps, money from predominantly white institutions can — and it might be those colleges’ responsibility to provide that aid.

Two months before SACS sent its letter to Bennett, the Universities Studying Slavery consortium held a symposium in Jackson, Miss. For the past two decades, colleges had been examining their legacies of slavery and discrimination. The movement began with Brown University, where then-President Ruth Simmons, the first Black person to lead an Ivy League institution, appointed a commission to explore the college’s relationship with the slave trade. “Other institutions are not tied as closely to transparency,” Simmons told me in 2018. “To hold on to the trust of the public, and sometimes to even earn it or reclaim it, universities have to be associated with this kind of disclosure.”

A loss of accreditation is typically a forecast of closure for a college. After that stamp of approval is lost, an institution is no longer eligible for federal and state financial-aid programs. At HBCUs, where 61 percent of students are eligible for the federal Pell Grant for low-income students, federal funding is paramount. Dawkins had a plan, though. The college appealed the decision and organized an aggressive fund-raising effort. SACS set the appeal date for February 18, and if money was what the accreditor wanted, the college would raise money. In the 50 days before the hearing, they planned to raise $5 million.

Bennett launched the #StandWithBennett campaign in December, and it quickly began trending on social media. “Since 1873, Bennett College has created a place for Black women’s voices and brilliance to be developed and cultivated,” Dawkins argued. As the flash fund-raising campaign became national news, donations both big and small began pouring in. Ten dollars here, a hundred dollars there, $10,000 from a local credit union, $500,000 from the Papa John’s Foundation. Students at Erwin Montessori Elementary School scraped together dollars and cents to donate $77.25.

Still, with two days left before its February 18 deadline, the college remained about $2 million short of its goal. The clock was ticking, and last-minute donations started coming in. Another North Carolina college ponied up and donated $1 million. With one hour to go, Bennett College was $250,000 away from its goal. As January 31 turned into February 1, the money was still being counted, so the college extended its deadline to do the final math.

Three days later, on February 4, Bennett announced that it had reached the goal, and surpassed it: it had raised $8.2 million in a little more than 50 days. The college prepared to head into the appeals hearing proud, with lined coffers and proof of its vitality.

But the heroic effort obscured another fact: There were more than a dozen donations to universities of at least $5 million in the first month of 2019. None of those donations went to Bennett College, or to any other historically Black college, for that matter. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year, as the nation grappled with the ways structural racism affects various facets of American society, several historically Black colleges received their largest-ever donations from the billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and others. But a one-time injection of funding will not make up for more than a century of discrimination. And wealth begets wealth; while some predominantly white institutions were able to build their reserves, Black colleges were held back.

Private money alone won’t save Black colleges, but, perhaps, money from predominantly white institutions can — and it might be those colleges’ responsibility to provide that aid.

Two months before SACS sent its letter to Bennett, the Universities Studying Slavery consortium held a symposium in Jackson, Miss. For the past two decades, colleges had been examining their legacies of slavery and discrimination. The movement began with Brown University, where then-President Ruth Simmons, the first Black person to lead an Ivy League institution, appointed a commission to explore the college’s relationship with the slave trade. “Other institutions are not tied as closely to transparency,” Simmons told me in 2018. “To hold on to the trust of the public, and sometimes to even earn it or reclaim it, universities have to be associated with this kind of disclosure.”

The consortium examined the long history of the institution from slavery through Jim Crow. When Brown’s committee issued its report, it found that roughly 30 members of the university’s governing board in its early years owned people or captained slave ships. Donors to the university offered the labor of enslaved people to help with construction. And though the college itself did not own or trade people, the Brown family engaged in the slave trade.

Brown built memorials remembering the violence of the trade, and the institution’s role in it. Georgetown University, which sold 272 people in 1838, did a study similar to Brown’s. But do subtle gestures make amends for the harm caused by their participation in the infernal institution?

The University of Virginia rented enslaved people from local slaveholders to save money. It was cheaper to rent the labor than to buy the people outright. Before abolition, there were between 125 and 200 enslaved people on campus at any given time. Should the university atone for that?

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MIKE YOCKEY

Emery Hall at Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio, prior to its renovation.

Universities quickly developed a rhythm for answering those questions. They would apologize. They would build a memorial. They would remove the names of those who held people in bondage from their buildings. But there are descendants of those people who were used and abused by those institutions alive today. Their lives were indelibly changed by the fact that their ancestors were held in slavery. Don’t they deserve more? Repair for that harm?

When the Universities Studying Slavery consortium met that October, these were the questions its members had on their minds. One answer looked to the institutions that the descendants of enslaved people turned to in the years that predominantly white colleges were shutting them out: historically Black colleges.

The leaders who had gathered discussed partnering with Black colleges, helping Black college professors with research proposals to secure federal grants and contracts, and other opportunities for collaboration. But true repair will very likely look a lot less like partnership and a lot more like reparations. Those institutions could redistribute some of their endowment funds — the unrestricted bequests, at least — to Black colleges or Black students themselves.

At Georgetown, students moved to tax themselves — in the form of a $27.20 fee, in honor of the 272 people who were sold — so that they could create a fund to support descendants of slavery. (A significant percentage of the 272’s descendants live in Maringouin, La., a poor, rural area where many residents live below the poverty line.)

When Bennett College raised $8 million in 50 days, it was trying to save its accreditation, to keep its doors open to the hundreds of Black students that called it home each year. On February 22, SACS announced that it would not renew Bennett’s accreditation. It was too little, too late.

The university filed a lawsuit to prevent any immediate disruption to its ability to receive federal financial-aid funds and sought accreditation with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. The college, which had been founded to educate those newly emancipated from slavery, was struggling to stay alive because it had no money. The colleges that had benefited from slavery were flush with it.

Bennett College is now a candidate for accreditation with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, or Tracs, and has until 2025 to come into full compliance with a series of standards in academics, finances, strategic planning, and a host of other criteria. They’ve balanced their budget, cut programs, and are on the path to stability. But as Timothy Eaton, the president of Tracs, told The News & Record, “The reality is, Bennett has been through the fire. … When you’ve been through the fire, there’s not a lot of fat left in the budget.”

Perhaps the institutions that grew and flourished while blocking Black students from attending (while Black colleges languished) have some responsibility to share their wealth with institutions that have historically served — and continue to serve — those students.

This essay is adapted from the author’s book, The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal — and How to Set Them Right (Ecco).

We welcome your thoughts and questions about this article. Please email the editors or submit a letter for publication.

OPINION

Adam Harris

Adam Harris, a staff writer at The Atlantic, was previously a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education and covered federal education policy and historically Black colleges and universities. He also worked at ProPublica.