Harvard or an HBCU…. Memory as Choice.

On a recent trip to NYC I was approached by a parent who informed me that her son (former Science Skills student; now a Mathematician) was trying to get in touch with me. They wanted me to have a discussion with her grandson. The young man it seems is an academic powerhouse (Yes, I still suspect that there is a genetic and nurturing factor to the development of brilliance); he has been accepted and offered scholarships to many “big time” colleges to pursue a career in Engineering. He (I guess he also inherited his father’s politics) is trying to decide between a full scholarship to Harvard or attending an HBCU. Her question caused me to go into a deep reflective pause. And this grandly wise mother assumed a posture that clearly indicated that she wanted to preview my answer, right then and there (I guess to make sure it was in sync with her position). I was in a spot and on the spot to declare my thoughts. For many students, the primary “choice” of a college can be a very straight forward project. Depending on interest, skills and academic performance (school & standardized exams); the “decision” is actually in the making beginning in and through the 6th -11th  grades; as in the case of places like the Military Service Academies, a performing/creative music or arts colleges, very career specialized focused college (i.e. culinary, fashion design). In this sense the student and university are essentially “seeking” each other. A key to good college advisement is to first get out of your (the adult providing the guidance) own way; alas, this process is really not about you the advisor. I have also very often struggled to provide guidance when the choice was difficult, (as in the case of an Engineering, Mathematics or Computer Science major) trying to decide between an MIT and Yale, Brown or Harvard, that could be a tough choice for a lot of reasons for which I won’t elaborate for this essay. Or a slightly more difficult or (depending) easy choice between a NYU-Poly, Drexel, Cal-tech or Rensselaer (again won’t elaborate here as it is very complex-student personality + career objectives). But this situation presented by the grandmother was an interesting problem, also for a lot of reasons. In the middle of my few seconds of pausing (buying time?) I thought about how over the last 30+ years I have been proud to send young people to different types colleges and universities, in many different parts of our nation (and abroad). But I have always held a long term love in my heart for HBCU’s. I have met, befriended and admired many HBCU Presidents, administrators and faculty members at many of these great Institutions of learning. I have most of all admired their commitment (in theory and practice) of seeing a successful college graduation for all students as part of their mission. I also share their secondary (but equally important) mission of helping students to see that their educational experience is a gift from those individuals who, although intellectually capable, were systematically denied the opportunity to attend college. The HBCU graduates received along with their diploma, a “charge”, to go out and serve, and make real the dreams of the ancestors; and to commit one’s skills and compassion on behalf of  the presently disenfranchised, the “least” and the “left out” of our nation. Also, as a child of the civil rights era, I have painfully watched as desegregation (Yes, there are some downsides to desegregation) allowed talented Black athletes to flee to the bigger (LSU, Ohio State, Michigan, etc.) majority White college and avoid HBCU’s. These athletically talented young people have served as living ATM machines, earning a fortune for the enhancement of the facilities, student recruitment and alumni giving opportunity for these universities. In too many cases these universities often see and treat these Black athletes like race horses, making sure they are healthy and well fed; but with little concern about their education, or their future personal economic well-being. As a NYC Principal I always tried to included HBCU’s as a viable choice for students seeking a college; (in some cases the best strategic choice based on the individual student). I did this even as “majority White” Institutions came “knocking” at our school door with extremely attractive financial packages. Very often we just had to practically go with the best financial package, as many of our student’s families just could not afford the cost of a 4 year college education. I have met some wonderful folks at many of these universities (i.e. Beverly Johnson-Polytechnic-NYU-Brooklyn, Dr. Francine Essien Rutgers University and Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) who have provided huge resources to recruit our students; in the case of Polytechnic-NYU- 4 full-time scholarships a year for Science Skills Center HS graduates. Rutgers and Rensselaer offered scholarships and help to sponsor annual college visits to their campuses where they “pulled out all of the stops”.

(All of these thoughts flowing between the question and the not yet provided answer…)

I think about a recent trip to Alabama where I stopped by to visit the University Archival/Historical Center on the campus of Alabama A&M University. As always I enjoyed the warm feeling of “family-hood” that is so characteristic of all of HBCU’s. I spoke to a few of the administrators; and as always I am impressed with their commitment. This place, I think, is surely designed to be a “home away from home”…… Now, despite the rapid (synaptic speed) movement of my thoughts, I am seriously stalling, and grandma is seriously waiting for an answer…. And then I continue to think about the many school districts around the U.S.; where although you have a Black face in the highest educational place;  great harm and mis-education is primarily visited upon the Black children in those school districts. I think about the many majority (or all) Black school boards; that see their duty as not to create a great educational possibility for the children of that district; but rather as a chance to enhance,  and enrich their own (through their families and friends plan)political aspirations and bank accounts. And then I think about the neo-colonial “shenanigans” (another downside of desegregation?) that take place too often at too many of our HBCU’s. I then think about the too many stories that are similar to a recent article: (Howard trustee says university in ‘trouble’… http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/howard-trustee-says-university-in-trouble/2013/06/07/dd638980-cfab-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html) This sad scenario at Howard which has unfortunately gone public; as potential funders, alumni, prospective and presently enrolled students watch, with understandable concern. It is a tragic public spectacle occurring In the face of Black communities around this nation being engulfed in a plague of fratricidal violence; finding their citizens under a crippling economic siege (despite the “good” economic numbers). Communities, suffering from the “worst disease”. Worst: health options, housing options, financial options, business development options, land-home ownership options, good educational options, green space/environmental options, criminal justice system options, a safe place for children to play and prosper options. In the face of all of these daunting (and mounting) challenges why can’t these folks separate the mission from the forest of discontent and self- defeating dissension? Why can’t they get their act together? After all, Howard is a major, and comprehensive degree granting institution; why all the mess? Parents send their children to college (or they are in some part of the process in selecting one); the last thing they want to hear are “serious problems” or “Crises” their child may face at said college; a child who in many cases is far away from home and family. Students presently enrolled and prospective students don’t want to hear about any situation that has the possibility of adversely affecting the “value” of their diploma. I can only hope that the Howard trustees and the president of the university can get behind closed doors, get their priorities in the proper order; and then design a dynamic and bold plan to make Howard the type of university the students deserve; and an institution that the Black communities of our nation so desperately need.

(But what about that grandmother’s question……)

And so at the end of my few seconds of reflection my “preliminary” answer (pending a discussion with the young man) to the grandmother’s question is Harvard; I “conditionally” recommend Harvard for the following reasons:

  • I advise students that if all possible try to avoid the future financially debilitating effects of creating a massive college debt. If all other variables are essentially equal, and you can pursue your desired major; if you are offered a “free ride”; by all means, take it!
  •  Whether we like it or not we live in a world that is very much hierarchically “image driven”; the “brand name” Harvard, means something.
  • An important part (often overlooked) of college life is to make future career contacts both on the faculty and fellow students. Harvard has a strong track record for this form of “human-resource banking”
  • Because of its vast financial reserves, a Harvard can offer a great deal of rich learning and extra-curricular resources.
  •  The upside of attending a strongly academically competitive university is that it is an: “academically competitive university”! Very often (the downside?), this type of “hyper-academic achievement” environment inclines toward individuals striving very hard to establish themselves as “winners” and “leaders” in their respective fields; however pursuing a Science career major at any college requires a strong cohort of students who will support, and push each other.
  • Harvard is very much invested in this young man’s academic success for reasons: (which may have nothing to do with if they like him personally, or the color of his skin.)

     1) They are investing a huge amount of money in him; by offering a full 4 year scholarship. Oddly, the people with a lot of money strategically guard and maintain those resources. Now don’t take this the wrong way, but just as other universities are investing in the athletic ability of Black athletes to build their universities, Harvard is investing in your intellectual abilities. The only difference is that the relationship you would be entering into with Harvard is mutually beneficial and rewarding.


2) Harvard is concerned about protecting their “brand”, image and public perception (PR), and yes their pride. They want their White and Black students graduation rates to be equal.


3) Marketing: Harvard wants you to graduate and “make a name for yourself” so that when you are appointed to some post, appear in a news media event, win a highly acclaimed award, initiate that multi-million dollar start-up company; their hope is that the storyline will read: “…And he is a graduate of Harvard University.” It also won’t hurt if when you become that influential, financially well off member of the alumni; you may want to send a few dollars back to your beloved alma mater!


  • Finally, the truth if it is to be told (or as the old folks would say in the church of my youth: “tell the truth and shame the devil”.) For sure I have encountered much (liberal and conservative) racist opposition to my life-work. But the truth is that looking back over my entire career in education I encountered many wonderful supportive people who were not Black. And yet they were some of the most engaged and active individuals (who moved everything below heaven, and above the earth), in helping to make my many educational projects and the children they served successful. On the other hand I have encountered many Black Americans who, would just as soon, stop and block me rather than help me, to help children who look just like them. And so my son, if you have a strong desire to see, and be around Black folks; there are plenty of them in Boston, some even at Harvard!