The Past, present, and Future of HBCUs
If you’ve read an article, book, or blog post about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) any time in the last decade or so, odds are Marybeth Gasman was somehow involved. She may have been quoted, she may have been consulted for background, and she may very well be the author. In the first two weeks of March alone, Gasman—an associate professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education—wrote a series of blog posts for the New York Times about HBCUs; appeared on NPR’s Tell Me More to discuss Spelman College’s financial challenges; posted to her own blog, Access Granted, about HBCUs in the Obama era; and continued work on several of the five books she is due to put out in the next academic year. As GSE Dean Andrew Porter puts it, “Marybeth is so darn productive that when I read her list of accomplishments, it leaves me breathless.”

Considering her status as a go-to source on HBCUs, many people are surprised to hear that before graduate school, Gasman had never met an African American. She grew up in an all-white community in the upper peninsula of Michigan, and black institutions were about as far off her radar as, well, African Americans. “I used to watch A Different World”—a TV show set at a historically black university—“but I didn’t know there were real places like that,” she says. At the same time, her mother, who had been raised in an integrated neighborhood of Flint, Michigan, “always told me that equity was important and that equality was something you should fight for.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in political science from St. Norbert College, Gasman went into college and university administration, focusing on higher-education marketing and student life. With an eye on becoming a dean of students, Gasman enrolled at Indiana University to pursue a Ph.D. in higher education. That plan changed shortly after she arrived on campus and experienced two major awakenings: “I was exposed to all these different people and ideas, and instead of hating it and recoiling, I loved it,” she says. Second, one of her professors suggested she read James D. Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. The book was “enlightening, almost mesmerizing,” Gasman recalls. She read it twice while on a cross-country trip.

Feeling inspired, invigorated, and even a little starry-eyed, Gasman approached her advisor about focusing her studies on HBCUs. He asked if she was crazy. As a white woman, could she really gain complete access to the communities she proposed to study? “He said, ‘You’re not going to be able to do this,’ but I had already overcome quite a bit,” Gasman says. “I grew up incredibly poor. Like, outhouse poor. Like, no-running-water poor. My mom has an eighth-grade education, and my dad graduated high school in the military. I’m one of three [among my nine siblings] who went to college.”

Even with a new advisor and course of study in place, she still faced some of the obstacles her original advisor had predicted. “Initially, it was hard to form relationships” in the HBCU community. In fact, it took seven trips to the first historically black university she visited before its archivist acknowledged that she was worth showing “the really good stuff,” as Gasman puts it. “She wanted to see if I was serious, because there are a lot of white scholars who just want to use this work to bolster their careers.” (On the contrary, Gasman’s connection runs deep, Porter says: “She works with these institutions and advises them on fundraising and all kinds of things. She’s not just a scholar at a distance. She’s someone interested in making a difference.”)

As something of a media darling, Gasman receives about a half-dozen calls per week from reporters writing about HBCUs and the issues they face. And every month, at least a few reporters ask the question that irks her most: Why do historically black institutions still need to exist in an integrated society? “Nobody ever asks that about white institutions,” she says, her frustration evident. “I can think of a lot of white institutions that aren’t [racially] diverse at all, so why do we need them?”

When it comes to those reporters, “I try to school them all,” she says. HBCUs “are educating 20 percent of African Americans and graduating 24 to 25 percent of African Americans at the undergraduate level, yet they make up only three percent of colleges and universities. [Also], aside from the black church, they’re one of a very few institutions that is a mecca of black culture. I think their accomplishments and contributions are very important.”

The five books forthcoming in the next year reflect much of what Gasman has discovered about HBCUs over the years. They include a history of higher education with ample attention paid to HBCUs, a history of the Morehouse School of Medicine, a book focusing on Booker T. Washington, and a volume on race and gender in nonprofit and foundation leadership.

“I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘Isn’t there something else? Haven’t you studied those institutions enough?’” Gasman says. “I’ll say, ‘My Gosh, I still have so many questions! There’s still so much more that I want to know.’”

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