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Sunday, March 29, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Black Colleges Face Irony: White Affirmative Action

Newhouse News Service

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - In high school, Robin Harris was often the only black girl in class. She recalls the time a white guy, a supposed friend, said, ` "Robin, there's no way you can be black. There's no way a black person can be that smart.' I didn't know how to react."

Today Harris is a senior and student-government president at Fisk - America's oldest black university and alma mater to one of every six black lawyers and doctors in the country. Still, that high school memory pains her for what she didn't say, for what she didn't do.

It will, she says, never happen again. Fortified by four years at Fisk "I can interact with anyone without feeling inferior."

Enrollment at America's 109 traditionally black colleges and universities is up nearly 20 percent since 1986, far outpacing higher education as a whole. While black colleges enroll 17 percent of all black students, they award 28 percent of bachelor's degrees received by blacks.

The ironic outcome is that even as young blacks are increasingly drawn to black colleges, some of those colleges are becoming less black than ever before.

That is nowhere more evident than up the road from Fisk at Tennessee State University, a historically black state school that is under federal court order to become half white by next year. It is a bizarre circumstance in which white affirmative-action and minority-affairs officers are busily recruiting white administrators and faculty and providing 500 white students full scholarships, not on the basis of financial need but because of the color of their skin.

In this upside-down world, blacks on campus grumble about "quota" hiring and admissions, about less-qualified whites stealing opportunities from blacks and about their university slipping away from them.

"I have no problem with being integrated but it's breaking tradition," said Darryl Moulden, a 20-year-old sophomore. He's third-generation Tennessee State and had hoped to make it four generations. But the long-range plan calls for Tennessee State to become more than 60 percent white.

Tennessee State is the extreme case. But in the past 15 years there has been a 75 percent increase in degrees awarded to whites from black colleges. While whites represent only 2 percent of the enrollment at private black colleges, they account for nearly 16 percent at black public colleges. Five historically black state schools are now predominantly white.

ONCE VIEWED AS INFERIOR

Before Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregation in 1954, the black colleges were the only institutions of higher education blacks could attend. In segregated America they were viewed by whites as inferior and they provided blacks with separate and, in terms of those things money can buy, unequal educations. Even today black colleges generally operate on much less money than their white counterparts.

Of late, federal courts have begun to repair that imbalance.

At the end of last year a federal judge ordered Alabama to change its funding formula to benefit its black colleges, Alabama A&M and Alabama State, and provide each with $10 million for capital improvements.

The order also requires the black schools to recruit more white students and the traditionally white schools to recruit more black students, faculty and administrators.

A month earlier, the Supreme Court heard its first higher-education desegregation case.

In that case, blacks in Mississippi are seeking to equalize funding for the state's historically black colleges - where per capita spending is only 70 percent of that at the historically white schools - and increase black access to those white institutions. A decision, expected by summer, could eventually lead to far greater integration of both black and white campuses.

FACULTY PAY THIRD LOWER

The disparity in resources between black and white schools also prevails in the private sector.

Faculty salaries at black private schools average one-third lower than at other private colleges. Even if Fisk is a part of the "black Ivy League," the paint is still peeling in the administration building where most of the clocks tell the wrong time.

But Fisk offers something far more elemental to the black sons and daughters of integration.

"Many of them have lived in desegregated neighborhoods and will probably have desegregated careers, and they wonder, `When am I going to find out about the black experience?" explained Ormond Smythe, Fisk's academic dean.

Freshman Kyre Parker grew up in Portland, Ore., where her school was half white.

"I chose Fisk because I wanted to be among black people," she said. "I wanted to see people who were black like me doing positive things; I wanted to learn about myself."

Other blacks have retreated to black colleges after bad experiences or word of other people's travails on white campuses. Those experiences range from the overt - racist graffiti, name calling, cross burnings and harassment - to more subtle manifestations of white resentment, condescension or avoidance.

"If you're a black person at a predominantly white school, you run into a lot of attitudes," said Al Colvin, who transferred from a small Catholic college in Kentucky to Tennessee State. "My mother wanted me to go to a black school in the first place."

BLACK FACULTY SCARCE

For blacks, the loneliness of the white campus is compounded by the scarcity of black faculty. Blacks represent less than 5 percent of teachers at predominantly white schools. By contrast, the faculty at black colleges are far more integrated - on average about a third white.

Kim Vaden, who went to a well-integrated high school in Louisville, Ky., chose to attend Vanderbilt University because she did not consider race of paramount importance. After four years at Vanderbilt, where only 239 of 5,500 undergraduates are black, Vaden is far more race conscious.

"You're reminded every day you're black," said Vaden. "There are some days you just need to be around other black students."

There are other fundamental differences between most black and white colleges.

Black colleges rely less on tests in evaluating applicants. They are more committed to providing special help for students who arrive with academic deficiencies. This year six Fisk seniors made Phi Beta Kappa. Each of them required some sort of remedial help when they first arrived.

"They're genuinely concerned for you," said Johnetta Allen, the student-government president at Tennessee State. She recalls the night she and some friends were stumped by some math problems. They called the professor at home and he came over to the library to help them.

For some black students, that concern is a new experience.

"Coming from a white high school, teachers expected less of you," said Edward Shearer, who came to Fisk from Versailles, Ky. Back home, he said, a black student could "act the fool, be a buffoon" and get away with it. Not at Fisk.

Black colleges are in many ways fundamentally conservative institutions. There is a curfew at Fisk and visitation rules at Tennessee State.

The net result, according to Jacqueline Fleming, author of "Blacks in College," is that despite their more meager resources and less elegant reputations, black colleges do far better by black students than white colleges.

Her study of 3,000 black students at eight white and seven black colleges found evidence of twice the academic and intellectual growth for the black students at the black colleges based on grades, test scores and other measures of motivation and self-concept.

"I'm a strong me now," said Johnetta Allen, who plans on getting her doctorate in computer engineering and business communications. "I can't wait to see how I end up."

But Allen is less euphoric about the wholesale integration of Tennessee State. "A majority of students don't think it's fair."

"There are an awful lot of good things happening at Tennessee State University," said Richard Rhoda, vice chancellor of the state Board of Regents. A new institute of government. A $112 million building program.

Students, who two years ago engaged in a sit-in to protest run-down conditions on campus, are pleased about that. But they are not unmindful of the context.

"Yeah, new parking lots, new buildings - to attract whites," said sophomore Darryl Moulden.

ENROLLMENT TO GROW

Rhoda says blacks won't be hurt by the increasing white enrollment because Tennessee State is growing. Its undergraduate enrollment now is 7,300 but its master plan calls for serving 10,000 students by 1995. Meanwhile, the state's predominantly white schools are committed to increasing their black hires and admissions, though the goals would not have a huge effect on black representation.

Opponents of the desegregation plan believe that, when all is said and done, blacks in Tennessee will have lost their one public college and gained little.

"It's a shame," said Andrew Jackson, a Tennessee State sociologist whose courses include black nationalism and black psychology. "It's not a serious effort to dismantle a dual system of education. It is an effort to make all schools predominantly white. In their minds that's desegregation. In our minds that's disenfranchisement."

Jackson said it is more galling still for TSU to be offering $768,000 this year in race-based scholarships in order to pay the tuition of half the school's full-time white students.

"Whites a minority? It's patently absurd and sociologically ridiculous in America to define white people as a minority," said Jackson. "If America were fair she would leave these schools alone and desegregate the white colleges."

But Coleman McGinnis, a white professor who was a plaintiff in the case that led to TSU's desegregation, disagreed. "I'm perfectly happy for the Fisk Universities, just as I am for the Notre Dames, the Brigham Youngs and the Brandeises of the world. But I do have a problem with a state institution identifying itself in racial terms. I think it's constitutionally wrong as well as morally wrong."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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