Who is Marybeth Gasman?

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by Michelle J. Nealy

People are surprised, and not always pleasantly so, to discover that Dr. Marybeth Gasman, one of the leading scholars on historically Black colleges and universities, is White. When she was a graduate student, one professor tried to steer her away from the topic, advising her that research of this nature would be “ghettoized.”

 He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Gasman, an associate professor of higher education at The University of Pennsylvania and author of Understanding Minority-Serving Institutions, and Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund, crisscrosses the country monthly to give lectures, collect data and present research on topics emerging out of the nation’s more than 100 HBCUs.

The author of more than 100 articles and book chapters, Gasman was recently tapped, along with Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., by The New York Times to guest blog about historically Black colleges, the often misunderstood institutions whose revelance is often questioned.

“One misconception is that Black college environments are not diverse. People say things like, why would you want to go to a Black college when there is no diversity? But there is a lot of diversity,” says Gasman, noting the increasing enrollment of African, Caribbean, Latino, Asian and White students.

She also corrects the misperception that only a few of these institutions offer a quality education.

An African-American woman wrote (to The New York Times blog) that there were only two really good Black colleges — Spelman and Morehouse,” Gasman says. “Then she wrote in parenthesis and maybe Xavier and Hampton. I said those are really great institutions, but that’s not true. There are many HBCUs that are offering a good education. And, I also said that there are some HBCUs that are not doing so well and I wouldn’t recommend them just as I wouldn’t recommend some historically White institutions.”

Gasman was recently elected vice president of the history and historiography section of the American Educational Research Association. She chairs the American Association of University Professors Committee on HBCUs and serves on the research advisory boards for the UNCF and Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund.

Gasman cultivated her interest in minority-serving institutions as a graduate student at Indiana University. Before enrolling in the institution, the Michigan native knew nothing about Black colleges and had limited interaction with African-Americans. She grew up in a predominantly White and American Indian community with a father she describes as a raging racist. (“You either turn out one way or the other. For me, I was never going to be my father,” she says.) 

“In grad school, Dr. John Thelin, a prominent historian of higher education, assigned a book called The Education of Blacks in the South by James Anderson,” says Gasman. “That book changed my whole perspective on education. I had always been given readings about Black people being victims but I never got to see any readings about African-Americans being leaders and taking action.”

The book stirred up Gasman’s interest in Black colleges and educational access. “I’ve always felt really strongly about issues of equity and equality among various people,” says Gasman, whose blog hosted by this magazine at DiverseEducation.com taps into the pulse of access and retention issues for students and faculty of color.

Her current project is a book on the history of Black medical schools with Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, the founding dean of the Morehouse School of Medicine and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A primer that provides a comprehensive overview of the nation’s HBCUs is also in the pipeline. 

“Gasman has a genuine passion for HBCUs. She is committed to survival and overall thriving of these institutions,” says Kimbrough. “There are probably some who are wishing that  one of the primary voices on HBCUs was an African-American, and I think that there are opportunities for African-American scholars. People have to get in there and continue to do some of the work.”

Despite her success, Gasman says she is far from the “end all” on Black colleges. “I know a considerable amount but I didn’t go to one. I’m not Black and I’m aware of that. But I do feel like I can contribute to the conversation,” Gasman says. 

At the heart of Gasman’s work is access. Over the years, Gasman has recruited dozens of young scholars of color to Penn’s Ph.D. programs and helped to polish them into faculty. Those students, Gasman says, will be her legacy.

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