Untold story

Marybeth Gasman, assistant professor of education in GSEsicPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

For 10 years, Marybeth Gasman held a variety of jobs in college administration, from student affairs to fundraising. And when she started a Ph.D. program at Indiana University, she did so with every intention of remaining in college administration—until her husband sat her down and changed her career path forever.

“My husband—who was my fiancé at the time—said to me, ‘You have so many ideas. Why don’t you be a faculty member, so you could explore those ideas?” Gasman recalls.

Following her husband’s advice, Gasman changed tracks in her Ph.D. program, enrolled as a full-time student, and graduated in 2000. She’s never looked back.

“I changed from having more practical interests to developing an interest in the history of African-American higher education,” she says. “That interest came from taking classes and from looking around and [seeing] where there were huge holes and having an interest in creating publications, creating writing, in a way that would fill some of those holes.”

With the publication last year of her book, “Envisioning Black Colleges,” Gasman, an assistant professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, has started to do just that. Already in its second edition, “Envisioning Black Colleges” offers a comprehensive history of the United Negro College Fund—the philanthropic organization that raises money for student scholarships and other tuition programs at private black colleges.

Gasman’s text reveals for the first time the story of the white philanthropists who first funded the UNCF, the organization’s response to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s and the success of the landmark “A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste” ad campaign. “While I was doing this research, I realized there were a lot of African-Americans who were doing a lot to support their own causes, and that gets ignored many times in the philanthropic literature,” Gasman notes. “‘Envisioning Black Colleges’...starts out with the whites doing the fundraising. But mainly it’s about African Americans raising money for their own cause and I think that’s really significant.”

Q. How did you get interested in black colleges and philanthropy?
A.
Because I had done fundraising for quite a long time, I had an interest in fundraising and also in philanthropy—how do we raise money from individuals and organizations and also why do those individuals or organizations give? It becomes even more interesting when you bring race into the picture, because for me there are all kinds of intrinsic and extrinsic reasons that people fund things.
When you study black colleges, one of the things that you find out right away is that white philanthropy is all over them. Some people would say, ‘Well, that’s great, right?’ These wealthy white men, mainly, were funding these institutions, but on the other hand, what you find out when you look at the history of these institutions is that they were, these white philanthropists, funding them for specific reasons. They were funding them so they could, in some cases, have an educated class of workers for their railroad or their mills or things like that. In other cases, there were people who had the well-being of African Americans in mind and they were funding them because they wanted to move the black race forward. This is early on, anywhere to the 1880s to the 1920s.
Philanthropy always has some strings attached. It’s almost impossible not to have strings attached.

Q. You write in “Envisioning Black Colleges” that white philanthropists had a big influence in the beginning of the United Negro College Fund. Talk about that.
A.
One of the reasons I wanted to study the United Negro College Fund, was, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is an example of African Americans taking the initiative to support their own institutions—private black colleges.’ And I thought, ‘Well this would be really interesting to look at because I could look at African-American agency, African-American leadership and the UNCF would be just a wonderful example of that.’ I was really surprised because, once I got into the archives, I started to find out this wasn’t exactly the story, which is something that typically happens to historians.
What I found out is, the early United Negro College Fund was started in 1944 by Frederick D. Patterson, who was an African American and President of Tuskegee Institute at the time. He started it because he could kind of see the writing on the wall that these wealthy white foundations would not continue to fund every single black college and he thought they really needed to band together and have a common message. It was his idea, he took the initiative to start it, but basically John D. Rockefeller Jr. became involved—and they couldn’t have started this without some seed money from white philanthropists—but John D. Rockefeller and his, I would call them, cronies or buddies, really were pulling all the strings and calling all the shots behind the scenes. Some people would say, ‘Well why was this happening?’ I guess my response would be that there really wasn’t another way to do this at this point, because these black college presidents didn’t have access to money and capital. They needed the relationships with these white philanthropists.

Q. What was the relationship like between the UNCF and the Rockefeller family?
A.
The Rockefeller family is notorious for its heavy-handed involvement in any of the relationships that they have with their donees. What’s interesting is you definitely see the early black college presidents who were active in the UNCF fighting them for equality, you see them speak out, but you also see the frustration that they have with these white donors who really won’t let them do that much. All of the names on the incorporation papers were all Rockefeller employees and they were white. For example, the person who managed the day-to-day activities of the office, Betty Stebman, was white. There was the chair of the national campaign every year who was always a Rockefeller associate, and that person was involved in every decision that was being made. Not that there’s anything wrong with being white, but I thought this would be a black organization.
One of the most jarring things that I found was, up until Vernon Jordan became president of the UNCF in the 1970s, the black members of the organization were not allowed to write a check for over $200 without permission from the white leaders of the organization.

Q. What was the basis for that rule?
A.
It was definitely to control them. I think it was important for [the whites] to show they were the ones calling the shots. But there has been—and continues to be, in some cases—a mistrust of African Americans along the lines of being able to manage financial matters. One of the presidents, Benjamin Mays, even called out these philanthropists on this issue and said, ‘We’re aware that you don’t trust us to manage large amount of money.’ In my book, there are quite a few examples of how, over time, blacks were mistrusted and were not given the opportunity to show that they could manage this money.

Q. How and when did this all change?
A.
This white control of the organization really stays in place—you start to see it be eroded under the presidency of Stephen Wright. He starts to get really frustrated and ends up resigning. Then you had Vernon Jordan, who has a really interesting personality in that he’s not the kind of person who’s going to be pushed around. In fact, when John D. Rockefeller III starts to kind of push a little bit, have a little too much control, Vernon Jordan basically says, ‘We can do this without you,’ which is a huge step, because they cut their ties to the Rockefeller family. Jordan was able to accomplish fundraising goals without Rockefeller III. The main reasons he was able to do this? He is incredibly innovative, he had this dynamic personality and he is the person responsible for bringing together the Ad Council, the United Negro College Fund and an ad agency called Young & Rubicam and coming up with the “Mind is A Terrible Thing to Waste” campaign, which really put the United Negro College Fund on the map.
But more than that, I think that because most Americans, especially white Americans, don’t realize the difference between a private and public black college, the “Mind is A Terrible Thing to Waste” campaign was wonderful not only in terms of the amount of money it brought in, but wonderful in terms of the amount of exposure it gave to black colleges and how it helped people understand what a black college was.
That’s why my book is called, “Envisioning Black Colleges.” I think that the United Negro College Fund really helped the United States think about black colleges—how you think about them before the Brown [vs. Board of Education] decision, how you think about them after the Brown decision and how do you think about them today.

Q. What’s the role of the UNCF today?
A.
The UNCF plays an enormous part in the lives of private black colleges. There is another organization called the Thurgood Marshall Fund, and that is similar to the UNCF, but for public black colleges.
I think the UNCF today, they’re still defining what a black college is, especially a black college in the 21st century. What’s the role of the black college, why do we have black colleges? I think [the UNCF is] incredibly instrumental in the fundraising success of private black colleges. They also do a lot of leadership training, fundraising training, help with various programs on the college campuses. I think they lend a lot of credibility to black colleges because they have been such a stable organization and have had so much success with regard to fundraising. Bill Gates let them be the steward for the Gates Millennium Scholarship monies and that was incredible amount of money. He gave that to them to dole out and make decisions.

Q. Speaking generally about black colleges and universities—how are they doing? I’m thinking specifically of Grambling State University, which was in danger of losing its accreditation.
A.
I get asked a lot about struggling black colleges and the one thing to keep in mind there are 103, 105 of these colleges, depending on your definition. They are all very different. They are not this monolithic entity that we think of as black colleges.
The main thing black colleges have in common is they are dedicated to African-American education. They are dedicated to the idea of racial uplift, educating the black community. Now, just like the rest of the over 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, there are some that are strong, there are some that are doing okay, there are some that are just hanging on by a thread. Out of the 103, 105, there are some that have had accreditation problems—it’s usually all around financials. They’ve had leadership problems, they’re having programmatic problems. This happens among predominantly white institutions as well. When a black college has trouble, people tend to use a broad brush and sweep across the black colleges, which does an incredible amount of damage to them. Right now, Fisk is having a hard time, having a lot of financial problems. That ends up hurting black colleges as a whole. People see the word black colleges and wonder: ‘Why do we even have these?’
What I would say is, yes, there are some of them that are having problems and there are some of them that won’t be around much longer. We see one close every once in a while. I think there are some that need to come up with a different strategy for continuing, but on the other hand, there are some that are incredibly strong and are doing very well.

Q. What are some examples of schools that are thriving?
A.
The typical ones that you hear about are Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, but if you look at an institution like Claflin University—U. S. News & World Report recently did a ranking of America’s best black colleges and Claflin was ranked number seven. They have a 65 percent graduation rate—that’s higher than the national norm for all students. When you keep in mind that the majority of their students come in with much lower test scores then a lot of institutions are willing to take, there’s a value-added component to attending an institution like that.
One of my favorite examples is Xavier University of Louisiana [in New Orleans]. Here, you have a tiny little college that is responsible for putting 100 African Americans a year into medical school. These African-American medical students have like a 98 percent rate of passing the board exam. Their graduation rate is 52 percent. The one thing to keep in mind about that—the 100 African Americans they send every year—that’s more than any other institution in the country. The other thing is, these students who they bring in typically have very low test scores and most people would not admit them into pre-med programs. But Xavier, through a variety of programs and special initiatives, is able to add value to the students’ experiences that might have been missing when they first got there.
Another school that has done really well as of late is North Carolina Central—that’s a public school. They have great strengths in the sciences, especially putting women into the sciences. Other really good examples are two really small colleges—Spelman and Bennett—both black colleges for women. Those two institutions are responsible for putting 50 percent of black women in the graduate sciences.
Yes, there are some black colleges that have some problems. Yes, there are some that shouldn’t be around for that much longer. But there are also some that have an incredible track record and I think they play a really important role in U.S. higher education.

Q. Do you have any sense what application numbers are like for these colleges?
A.
There’s lots of competition from historically white institutions because they tend to offer higher scholarships, and because they tend to have facilities that are a little more flashy. A lot of the black colleges just don’t have the infrastructure to have a plant like Penn or Temple or any of these institutions around here. I would say, there has been an increase in white students and Latino students and there are quite a few black institutions that are trying to tap into these populations, especially the Latino population. Where you see white students tends to be the night schools, the law schools, the professional schools. A lot of people ask why. Well, because it’s inexpensive. Most black colleges are known for an environment in which you’re being built up, not torn down. It’s a competitive environment, but you’re competitive with yourself. Especially in the sciences, that’s really important.

Q. Is that, in essence, the appeal of applying to these schools?
A.
I think the appeal for African Americans is a couple of things. One: sometimes it’s tradition. I also think that many of the smaller liberal arts black colleges have a really good reputation for doing a good job of preparing young people for graduate school. One thing that [historically black colleges and universities] are good at, by and large, is they help build up self-esteem, they help give students confidence. They kind of hone these skills that are necessary for making it in graduate school, especially compared to historically white institutions that were not necessarily built for you.
The other reason that they might go is affordability. These colleges don’t charge as high tuition because they know that their main constituents can’t pay that kind of tuition. HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] are known by and large for that nurturing environment. There’s something nice about not having to deal with white racism on a daily basis. That can be oppressive, and it can really work on the psyche as far as performing on a daily basis in the classroom. So I think that that’s appealing.
There are some people who would say, ‘Well, they won’t learn about how the real world works.’ One thing that I think people forget is that black colleges tend to have very diverse faculties, have very diverse staff. In fact they’ve never discriminated against people who aren’t black. They’ve always had diversity. Most of them, if you look at the student body, probably have higher levels of diversity—meaning higher levels of white students or Latino students—than we have at historically white institutions. We think of an institution being integrated if it has 3 to 5 percent of African-Americans. That’s not integrated. It should be representative of the population if it’s going to be integrated. Black colleges are much more diverse. I think people forget that.

Q. How do historically black colleges and universities contribute to higher education as a whole?
A.
They offer some choice for people. One of the beauties of higher education in this country is it’s filled with different choices, and I think they offer a choice, not only to black students, but all students. I think that they are a reflection of the complexity of our higher education in this country.
The fact that they empower students, by and large, is really important because the research on the experiences of African Americans at historically white institutions says that’s not the case there. Even the students who have had the best experiences still have to deal with racism on a daily basis or deal with people who don’t think they can cut it or people who think they’re not as intelligent. Within the black college community, by and large, that’s not the case. You’re empowered, you’re built up. I think that’s an enormous contribution to make. One of the biggest contributions is that they send so many people to graduate school and that’s really important.

Q. What are some common threads that historically black colleges and universities share with other minority-serving institutions?
A.
The commonalities across black colleges, Hispanic-speaking institutions, and tribal colleges are that, by and large, they tend to be constantly looking for money. It’s difficult to not be a mainstream institution and try to serve the needs of low-income students—which many of these institutions do.
I also think that the interesting thing is that historically black colleges and tribal colleges have more in common because they were created for the express purpose of educating a specific race or ethnicity. Now, Hispanic-serving institutions are determined by percentage and so they don’t necessarily have to have a mission of serving Hispanic students. Some of them, in fact, don’t talk about this on their websites. Some of them do. It all depends. But they do get federal monies, so, these institutions, yes, have some similarities but they are very very different. They tend to serve lower-income students and some of them are financially strapped.

Q. What’s next for you?
A.
I have a variety of things, which is normal for me. I’m writing a collective history—a prosopography—of black college presidents from the beginnings of black colleges in the 1860s through the current day. And the reason why I’m interested in this is because black college presidents have been, by and large, stereotyped as authoritarian, autocratic, Uncle Toms, accommodationists—these are the words that are used to define and identify many black college leaders. I’m really curious as to why and where that comes from.
There are many presidents of white institutions—famous presidents like Robert Maynard Hutchins at University of Chicago or Charles Eliot at Harvard—these men are lauded for their strong leadership skills but they were incredibly autocratic. So I wonder, why aren’t they talked about in these terms? Why do we celebrate them but look down upon these other individuals? I really want to look at where this all comes from.
At the same time, I want to read the autobiographies of a lot of these black college presidents. I want to go into their papers and I want to find out what they really thought about themselves as well. I want to find out how they made decisions. Did they feel like they acquiesced? Did they feel like they were accommodating? Or is that something they vehemently denied? For example, Frederick D. Patterson, he’s known as an accommodationist, a conservative, and he never saw himself that way. I think it’s interesting that he saw himself in different ways than in ways people attributed to him.

Q. Are you teaching this semester?
A.
I’m teaching my seminar on black colleges this semester. I consulted with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and asked them if there were any problems or challenges that they knew of within the black college setting that they would like to have students try to solve. What I have are hands-on problems that the students in that class can try to solve, and we’re going to share that with the Thurgood Marshall Fund and their member institutions.

Originally published Jan. 24, 2008

Originally published on January 24, 2008