Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week Opens in Washington - Higher Education
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Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week Opens in Washington

by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The role that HBCUs will be expected to play in the Obama administration’s “2020 Goal” is on the map — a new Google map, to be precise.

As the 2011 HBCU Week kicked off Monday, Dr. John S. Wilson, Jr., executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, introduced one of the latest Internet-based tools from Google, one of the conference’s sponsors.

Similar to how other Google Maps features work, this one not only enables users to see precisely where all HBCUs are, but how many degrees each institution produces each year, as well as how many more degrees each institution will need to produce each year in order to help reach the Obama administration’s goal of restoring the United States to its former spot as the nation with the highest percentage of college degree-holders in the world.

While the website elicited some oohs and ahs, a few among the 1,000 or so conference attendees said financial resources will prove more crucial to meeting the 2020 goal than the latest Internet gadgetry.

Still, the mere existence of the website serves to reinforce a message that Wilson said HBCU leaders must continue to send about the interconnectedness between their vitality and America’s future.

“A lot of people need a new message about HBCUs,” Wilson said during the conference’s opening plenary session.

Wilson related that federal agency funding to HBCUs has increased under the Obama administration, from $783 million in 2009 to $853 million in 2010. Anticipating some incredulity over the practical relevance of the claim, Wilson told the audience: “If you hear me say funding is up in these ways, and you are less aware of it than you think you should be (and) you really don’t feel it on campus, engage with us more.”

White House Senior Advisor Valerie B. Jarrett used the plenary platform to tout President Obama’s proposed American Jobs bill, which she portrayed as a panacea for the economic problems that plague America in general and African-Americans in particular.

For the unemployed, Jarrett said, the American Jobs bill “will be the difference between finding a job and not.”

“For those who are employed, it will put more money in their pockets, remove barriers to growth and create new demand in the marketplace,” Jarrett said, adding that the proposed plan also would extend unemployment insurance and give companies incentives to hire the long-term unemployed.

Jarrett also touted various initiatives the Obama administration had taken that benefit HBCUs directly, as in the case of Recovery Act funds for HBCUs, or indirectly, as in the case of increasing Pell grants and maintaining them despite efforts to scale them back.

Afterward, participants attended a number of breakout sessions. One of the well-attended focused on “Black Male Initiatives” at HBCUs.

Ronald Mason Jr., president of Southern University System, said the need for such initiatives stems from America’s history of receiving free labor from enslaved Africans, who at the time of America’s founding were counted as three-fifths of a human being.

Mason spoke of a new “Five-Fifths Agenda for America” —  a new demonstration project at SUNO that seeks to “make America whole” as it relates to African-Americans.

“The problem is not Black men and boys. The problem is America,” Mason said. “If you really do understand the statistics at play and how disproportionate they are in relationship to what’s happening to Black men in America, you can only come to one of two conclusions.

“Either Black folks are born with something innately wrong with them, or there’s something wrong with America. There’s no science to support the former contention, so the latter must be the truth. If something is wrong with America, the question is how do you fix it?”

For panelist Dr. Bryant T. Marks, Assistant Professor and Director of the Morehouse Male Initiative at Morehouse College, or MMI, programs such as the Morehouse initiative are an important part of the answer.

Among other things, the MMI seeks to give Black male students an opportunity to explore and relate their personal identities and what they think they were called to do.

“Get to know them from a pedagogical perspective,” Marks said. “If you can’t reach them, you can’t teach them. You can’t grow them if you don’t know them.”

Marks showed a video in which students taught a lesson on the nature of bases and acids in two different manners — the first in a more traditional stand-and-deliver mode and the other through creating raps, including this line: “Check the stoichiometry, this mole is an anomaly, this base is looking weaker than the U.S. economy.”

“Look at the energy when doing it their way,” Marks said. “I’m not saying we all need to be rappers,” he continued. But there is a need, he said, to engage Black male students in different ways.

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