HBCU’s are at an interesting state. Our institutions are one of the most talked about topics in the nation today. We discuss the stability, viability and support that our schools have in this new racially charged era. There’s a lot of empty talk that goes into HBCU advocacy. People talk about problems but no one tries to come up with a solution. In order for us to ensure that HBCU’s are a protected entities in this society we have to have people on the front line that are dedicated to helping us disseminate information to encourage growth. Dr. Marybeth Gasman, professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, is an avid supporter of HBCU’s. She has been her whole educational career.
The first time you see Dr. Gasman, it’s hard not to notice her skin color. She’s a white HBCU Advocate. What many would try to call an oxymoron is truly a blessing for all the 103 active HBCU’s in America, as Dr. Gasman has committed herself to supporting us. Her story is interesting. I’ve done research on her for years and one of the most notable things about her is that she grew up with a racist father and she bucked them and pledged her support and intellectual power to help black people. I immediately became a follower of her work! She inspires me. If she didn’t allow her father’s bigoted perception on life deter her, I surely can push on in my daily life and maneuver around haters and naysayers in my goal to be one of the premier HBCU Advocates in the nation.
My interview with Dr. Gasman was informative. We briefly talked about her educational background and her commitment to HBCU’s. Then we talked about coverage of HBCU’s in the media, a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. Check out our interview below!
Randall: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! It’s an honor to be able to talk to such a respected Collegiate and HBCU Scholar! My first question for you is how did you get your start in education?
Dr. Gasman: I always did well in school and loved school. I grew up very poor in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and never felt that I fit into the surrounding culture. As such, I read a lot of books and enjoyed writing – these skills helped me to get noticed by a teacher in high school. Although my parents were uneducated and knew nothing about college, my teacher helped me to apply to college. My real loves are history and politics but I apply those to the education context. I think education is so important to me because most of my family didn’t have access to it.
Randall: What drew you to being a scholar on HBCU’s?
Dr. Gasman: I read a book by James D. Anderson titled The Education of Blacks in the South. It is a well researched and well written history of early Black education and the beginnings of HBCUs. I admire Anderson immensely for his rigor. I was about 24 when I read the book and having grown up in a rural and all White area of the country, I didn’t know what an HBCU was at the time. To me, HBCUs were an example of African American agency and activism. I was interested in these examples as I grew up with a racist father and I was always looking for evidence to tear down his racism. I also loved history so I moved toward the history of HBCUs. Until 2007, I did very little research aside from historical work on HBCUs.
Randall: I read a write up on you in Diverse Education years ago that a professor tried to steer you away from doing a topic on HBCU’s when you were a graduate student. Have you gotten a lot of criticism about your devoted work towards HBCU’s?
Dr. Gasman: I have received criticism from Whites, especially White men, but more silently from White women — :/ –, who have told me that I’d be better off doing something else in terms of my career. I have also heard of Whites talking behind my back, noting that my work doesn’t matter, because HBCUs don’t matter. I don’t listen to these people, don’t respect them, and don’t care what they think.
There are also African Americans that don’t think I should do this work – most I’ve never met or don’t know me. That’s their opinion and they are entitled to it. I think that Whites need to contribute to scholarship on race in the U.S. and I don’t apologize for doing that with my scholarship. I’m nearly 50 years old and learned a long time ago that you have to do what you feel passionately about and ignore the naysayers.
Randall: From what I perceive, only certain HBCU’s get coverage. We always hear about Morehouse, Spelman, Howard and North Carolina A&T. They seem to get all the coverage from traditional and HBCU media outlets and all the attention from scholars. However, schools like Lincoln University (MO), Oakwood University and even my HBCU Fort Valley State University get little or no coverage at all. Is this an accurate assessment? If so, why do they get all of this coverage?
Dr. Gasman: I don’t think that’s accurate. I do think that Spelman, Morehouse and Howard received more attention as they are more well known. However, the HBCU that received the most coverage over the past 4 years is Paul Quinn College – in terms of media hits – and that is due to the president’s engagement with the media. If an HBCU wants to get media coverage, the president and public relations team have to engage the media and return calls. There are a lot of HBCUs that are good at this – Dillard and Morgan have presidents that regularly engage the media. But many others have been featured in some very good media stories – Xavier, Praire View, Claflin, Delaware State, etc. HBCUs have to tell people their story regularly.
Randall: What can HBCU’s do to garner the same attention that the more prestigious institutions receive?
Dr. Gasman: HBCUs can benefit from more aggressively using all forms of social media. The HBCUs that receive the most media coverage are very active on social media as are their presidents. HBCUs can also share positive stories with data to back them up more often. I think it’s important to regularly engage reporters, locally and nationally, around national issues.
Randall: How important is student life and activities to the success and sustainability of HBCU Life? (Like events such as Homecoming, lecture series, sporting events)
Dr. Gasman: The most important things for the success and sustainability of HBCUs is academics and a strong curriculum. Social events are important but academics are the most important aspect of any college. HBCUs, of course, should communicate their unique social elements, but these shouldn’t overshadow academics. Innovation in academics will lead to more attention by media and funders.
Randall: What’s next for you? Do you have any more books coming?
Dr. Gasman: I always have about 15-20 projects going on at the same time. Much of my work is about various types of Minority Serving Institutions. With regard to HBCUs, I have a forthcoming book (with Thai-Huy Nguyen) titled Making Black Scientists, which is based on a three-year, large-scale study of 10 HBCUs and the work that they do to diversify and strengthen the STEM fields.
I’m always writing books but those in the future will be about other topics related to race, diversity, and/or Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). I do have quite a few peer-reviewed articles about HBCUs forthcoming in the next year or so.
Randall: Do you have any upcoming events or appearances?
Dr. Gasman: I give a lot of talks every year so yes, I have a lot of speaking engagements in the future. Most of them are not focused on HBCUs. I have been focusing my more recent talks on diversifying the faculty and also preparing to educate a diverse nation. The research for these talks is based in part on HBCUs or MSIs more broadly, but it’s not directly about them.
And our center – the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions – has a lot of events coming up – however, they are all focused on MSIs overall and not HBCUs specifically as our work is focused on the larger group of over 650 MSIs. We have the MSI Aspiring Leaders Forum (for future MSI presidents); the MSI Graduate Student Weekend, the HSI Pathways to the Professoriate Conference (focused on moving more Latinos into the professoriate); and our early career faculty workshop ELEVATE. Plus a lot of reports, Twitter chats, and research forthcoming.
Make sure to follow Dr. Marybeth Gasman on social media!
Facebook: Marybeth Gasman
PUBLIC NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the Urban Intellectuals, affiliates or partners.