Loving (And Side-Eyeing) Your Alma Mater.


via Wikimedia commons.

A lot of Jason Whitlock’s writing has a similar tic: even when he’s in the vicinity of right about some idea, he torpedoes that argument by turning it into a critique of the putative cultural deficiencies of Negroes. Take this essay, in which he looks at the financial troubles besetting Grambling State’s storied football program and historically black colleges more broadly:

I’m going to share a story. I’m not sharing this story to single out the subject of this story, Shannon Sharpe, the NFL Hall of Fame player and Savannah State alumnus. Sharpe was a guest on my podcast Thursday. We discussed many topics. At the end, we talked about HBCUs and the importance of them. Sharpe was an awesome high school football player. He was a poor student. He “had” to attend Savannah State to play football.

During our discussion, I asked Sharpe whether he financially supported his alma mater. He unashamedly told me he did not. When I pressed him on the subject, he explained that he felt he did not owe Savannah State support. In his mind, he was a good football player, he stayed eligible and the school sold football tickets in exchange for his scholarship.

It’s been my experience that Sharpe’s mindset is pervasive throughout black athletes and black people. I attended Ball State University, a mainstream school. When I speak to my former teammates and other athletes about financially supporting the school, they constantly say their performance as athletes years ago was their giveback. …

If you talk with administrators at HBCUs, they will tell you it is extremely difficult to get their alums to give back. We haven’t been properly educated on the importance of financially supporting our institutions. We can’t fathom the importance of giving $50, $100, $500, $1,000 annually. You don’t have to be rich to make a difference at a small college or university. Many of these schools are collapsing now that federal funds are disappearing. That’s what is at the root of the crisis at Grambling State, Howard University and nearly every HBCU.

Whitlock isn’t wrong to point to poor alumni giving as a major hurdle to financial health at HBCUs — that’s a huge potential funding source that’s gone dangerously untapped. Hell, Whitlock probably ain’t even wrong to argue that there are cultural obstacles to alumni giving,  but he gets the causation there all wrong (because that’s just how Jason Whitlock gets down).

[First, let’s back up a taste. Just because their student bodies or mostly black — or, um, most of them have student bodies that are mostly black — doesn’t mean that HBCUs are pulling from the same pool of applicants. The kid who’s going to get into Spelman isn’t the kid who is going to Cheyney. When we’re having a conversation about HBCUs, it’s worth remembering that we’re talking about distinct institutions of varying sizes with particular histories and administrations and challenges. Por ejemplo: part of the reason Howard’s books are a mess is because they run a hospital, which is a money pit and that they can’t get help from the government to pay for. That’s a problem specific to Howard. Just wanted to get that outta the way real quick.]

One of the big problems facing HBCUs is the shifting demographics for them: richer, elite predominantly white schools are courting (and winning) the most academically talented black students. And new, stricter lending rules from the feds have made it harder for students at many HBCUs need government-backed student loans to pay for school, which has hit HBCU finances really hard.1

And he’s also right that the major reason schools like Grambling are struggling is — wait for it! — racism. A 2013 study of land-grant universities, which get money from Washington that their states are supposed to match, found that land-grant HBCUs were far less likely to get those state matching funds than predominantly white institutions were. Between 2010 and 2012, that came out to about $56 million dollars in unmatched money. That’s a whole lot of loot even before you consider  just how paltry the endowments of many HBCUs are. A lot of HBCUs just aren’t priorities for their legislatures, which is a funding problem as old HBCUs themselves.2

Okay. Back to Whitlock. He’s right that there are things that HBCUs themselves can control — generally speaking, they do actually do a terrible job at encouraging alumni to give back.3 Howard alums are constitutionally incapable of shutting up about about having gone to “the Mecca,” and yet the university’s grad alumni giving rate is a paltry 16 percent — which is actually FOUR TIMES HIGHER than it was in 2008. Yikes.

And this is where Whitlock is a bit off the mark on the culture-of-giving stuff: folks aren’t giving back for honest, not-all-that-irrational reasons. A big, big part of why HBCU grads don’t donate to their alma maters can be traced to what Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, called the “Bermuda Triangle” of their administrative building: the registrar’s office, the bursar’s office, and the financial aid office. Students develop serious love for their schools, but it’s  complicated by the real animus folks feel toward the pencil-pushers in the “A” building —for a lot of folks, those are the only administrator-types they have any contact with. People will offer up their war stories about how some lady in the financial aid office cursed them out or cut them off, how solving some minor paperwork problem became a logistical challenge on par with launching a Space Shuttle. (There are those Stockholm Syndrome types who argue, oddly, that jumping through all those hoops is one of the benefits of going to an HBCU — “It taught me how to deal with adversity!“)

Here are a few I’ve heard of those war stories I’ve heard from friends over the years. One left Howard because they never told her what her financial aid package would look like for her sophomore year despite her hounding them; it wasn’t until she’d left to start matriculating at Brooklyn College that she even got a response.

Another friend and I both laughed when we remembered that we’d both applied to Howard and never even heard back from them. She ended up at Hampton, where she said she was dropped from a class every semester due to some administrative mistake.

A different friend couldn’t get the folks in the A-building at FAMU to give her a copy of her transcript because they’d made some mistake on their end. That problem that was only rectified when her father — a long-time professor at the university — happened to walk into the office during her argument with the administrator. Some muckety-muck gave her the document as a favor to her pops, whom he knew and liked.  (“I’m not asking you to do me a favor, I’m asking you to do your job,” she said.)

My boy said he had his locks on his dorm room changed every semester at FAMU — they said it was for non-payment of his tuition and boarding fees  — even though he was there on a full scholarship from the school and had been awarded extra grant money/aid on the side. He said FAMU changed his life and opened up the world to him, but that he would never, ever give them money.

This kind of bullshit almost certainly has real material implications for attrition and graduation rates, although we don’t know how much yet. And many still rep their schools to the death and travel across the country to go to Homecoming, but many of those same alumni come to feel, understandably, that their schools can’t do some very basic things consistently well, and thus can’t be trusted to responsibly allocate any money that might come their way via donations.

At this point, the idea of administrative foolywang is just part of HBCU lore, the kind of thing that folks take as a given about the black college experience. Here’s Obama at Morehouse’s commencement last spring.

I know that some of you had to wait in long lines to get into today’s ceremony. And I would apologize, but it did not have anything to do with security. Those graduates just wanted you to know what it’s like to register for classes here.

The line got a big, knowing laugh. And it’s all jokey-jokes until you start asking for money from those same paying customers you’ve erroneously locked out of their rooms and disenrolled from their classes.

1.That last bit was a big enough deal that Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, issued an apology to presidents of black colleges because of how aversely it had affected their institutions.

2. An ex who is a FAMU alum always, always complained about the way Florida State, quite literally down the street from her university, was much more generously funded. Fighting for dough twists the ways HBCUs are meant to function in a bunch of other ways, too. There are HBCU football programs that literally sign up to get mollywhopped by traditional football powerhouses because they get a huge payout to do so. FAMU was paid $900,000 by Ohio State to come to Columbus last year, where they promptly lost, 76-0. There’s a lot of ethically dubious stuff going on there, but FAMU is doing what most schools do: using its football team as a way to generate revenue for the university, albeit with a very different calculus than an SEC school might.

3. The big exceptions to this rule are Spelman College and, surprisingly, Claflin University in South Carolina. Both are in a race to be the first HBCU to clear the 50% alumni giving threshold; they’re both currently in the 40s, and rising — numbers that aren’t just high for HBCUs but high for colleges and universities, period. 



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • xay

    My question is why is this accepted as a rite of passage at HBCUs? I took graduate classes at FAMU as a non-degree student – after that experience, I had no interest in pursuing a graduate degree there. I’ve heard similar stories about Hampton, North Carolina A and T, Clark Atlanta etc. I agree that most HBCUs are underfunded and undersupported by their alumni, but why isn’t there an emphasis on bringing in strong leadership and administrators who can improve how the universities function?

    FAMU is a classic case of failed leadership – continuous choosing people from the same pool whose entire experience is at dysfunctional HBCUs and/or who were run out of their previous position due to incompetence. I agree that FSU is better funded, partially for historical racial reasons and partially because FSU has selected presidents with ties to the legislature who can bring more funding to FSU.

    • I agree that FSU is better funded, partially for historical racial reasons and partially because FSU has selected presidents with ties to the legislature who can bring more funding to FSU.

      My hunch is that those two things are probably related.

  • T.


    I mean, having gone to Hampton this is something we made a stink about as students, but to no avail. I mean, maybe it will take the old heads leaving their posts or the schools failing for them to realize you can’t treat students like shit. I love HU, but I’m also really glad I went to a PWI for grad school. The way they encourage giving and staying connected is far different than the sparse outreach I’ve gotten from Hampton. Having articles like these are helpful in getting alumni to look at the bigger picture as far as how their giving/involvement has an impact on the future of their alma mater.

    I have more thoughts but I need a nap.


  • ADB

    This is is one of the main reasons that I didn’t even apply to an HBCU. I’m a native ATLien, and my junior of HS I visited Spelman on a college tour and found out that only the freshman honors dorm had air conditioning. *slow blink*.

    As hot as it gets down south and that was somehow acceptable? Yet I was told repeatedly about their generous endowments from the Cosby family and other prominent Black supporters. The horror stories about financial aid were the icing on the cake. I knew I was relying on the HOPE scholarship to pay my tuition so I couldn’t afford any mistakes from the Bursar’s office. I went to Georgia Tech for the interdisciplinary liberal arts program, the national reputation and yes, the shiny new facilities that strong alumni giving/legislative funding paid for and never regretted it.

    • ADB

      I should probably add that I have not as yet made an alumni donation (being a broke law student will do that to you) but I do plan to give in the future.

    • While I feel where you’re coming from, it’s important to remember that HBCUs don’t exist in some kind of historical/political vacuum. The fact that Spelman didn’t have air conditioning doesn’t mean Spelman isn’t a good school. Spelman has nearly 800 more students than Bryn Mawr, quadmoniker’s alma mater, but it has an endowment nearly a third the size. It seems like Spelman just might not have the money for big infrastructure projects.

      • ADB

        I completely agree. But it’s also true that high school seniors are still kids in a lot of ways, and choose a college based on more than its educational merit. In my case, I wanted to to get a degree and be physically comfortable while doing it.

        • No, I feel you.

  • BRob

    My GF went to FAMU for three years, paying cash. She showed up for her senior year and, according to the computer system, she had never attended the school, had no credits, and had never paid a dime. So she had no housing, either. After two days of not getting any answers, she went home to Michigan and enrolled at Michigan State. A good friend who attended the school had a similar experience.

    HBCUs do their selves no favors because the administration and computer systems are poor; this causes students to have maddening, time and money wasting problems completing their education; “dissatisfied customers” do not like to reward poor performance, so they don’t give to the school; so the school does not have the money to lobby for better funding, to buy better computer systems, or to hire competent management; which causes students to have maddening, time and money wasting problems completing their education; and on and on . . . .

  • BRob

    When I was applying to college YEARS AGO, in August before my senior year, I sent letters to about 20 different colleges (Harvard, Princeton, Howard, Morehouse, etc.) seeking applications. Had my name, address and telephone number on each letter. 19 of the 20 schools responded with applications and other propaganda about how great the school was. Howard responded with an application; Morehouse never responded. Now, granted, in all the confusion, I did not notice that Morehouse never responded. And I ended up only applying to five schools, with Howard not being among the five. But I was open to Morehouse and probably could have been convinced to visit at least, if not apply.

    Fast forward to June. I have graduated from high school and committed to a college. I get a call at my house from Morehouse, asking if I was interested in attending that fall.

    Are you serious? I asked for an application ten month ago and you never sent me one!! I applied to, and got accepted at, and committed to attend another college, and NOW you respond, after I have graduated high school? How does that make any sense?

  • I attended two PWIs, one of which was FSU. Obviously, FAMU is figuratively right across the street; you cannot “avoid” FAM if you live in Tallahassee. So I’ve been on FAMU’s campus, I have attended their programs and cultural events, their graduations, performed at their State of the Black Student summit, befriended their students–some of FAMU’s youngest professors are my grad student cohort from FSU.

    I feel more emotional ties to the school than if I had merely attended FSU and ignored the HBCU on the highest of seven hills. I experienced none of the annoyances; only the good.

    I was more than made aware of the racist history surrounding the location of FAMU and how Tallahassee police treat FAMU and FSU students differently. I get it.

    FSU doesn’t need my help. I feel I owe FAMU a spiritual debt rather than a monetary one. But I would rather give to FAMU than anywhere else, knowing how many Black professionals in my community attended it, knowing that if FAMU does not exist, that’s one less place for my kids to go and feel what I experienced. I wish all Black folk could adopt an HBCU and give regardless.

    But I understand why they don’t.

    • Thank you for this.

  • Also… Philanthropy, sad to say, is a luxury, and it’s one that we largely can’t afford. Think about it this way; if there are reports of people not saving adequately for retirement, of not being able to help fund their OWN children’s college education, and not being able to pass down wealth to their own children…WHERE is the money for endowments to institutions going to come from?

  • Leigh

    Such an interesting conversation for me to follow. I have been faculty at CUNY (City University of NY) for almost two years, and it is amazing how often I hear from students about registration, enrollment and financial aid issues. It is not unlike the stories you all are sharing here. (The bureaucracy is also a nightmare for faculty, we are talking 6-12 months for reimbursements that one has out on their personal credit card, but we are on average less financially vulnerable than our students.) I’ve chalked up the mishaps to the sheer bureaucracy of the university, but there is something here to failing systems correlating with comparatively impoverished or less affluent students.

    I also rarely donate to my alma maters. Part of it is of all the ways to charitably or politically part with my money, giving to universities is low on my list. But there is also the sense that they have their networks of big donors and one’s modest change makes no difference. My undergrad (Brandeis, a historically Jewish university) doesn’t have too big an endowment, and a relatively low giving rate, but a very tight network of older philanthropists supporting it. It might be another interesting comparison to HBCUs, especially if average alumni wealth differed but giving didn’t. What is it about these historically X colleges that depresses support?

  • GeeKayGee

    warning: all of text below

    “She ended up at Hampton, where she said she was dropped from a class every semester due to some administrative mistake.”

    ^^^^ Very common at Howard. Although I somehow escaped this in my time (2006-2013) being there, I know plenty of students who were purged (as we called it) from the system at the beginning of the semester. Getting themselves back into the system was a nightmare, driving people to tears.

    I wrestle with how I feel about my times at Howard. I met some really interesting people and had life altering experiences that only Howard could provide. On the other hand, the professional and administrative culture of Howard is a sin and a shame. Howard is very insular. New hires (at all levels. lower level staff to professors to high level admin) are often former students or related to people who work at Howard. There’s a presumption that “we need people who understand Howard” (someone said to me in a debate about the incestuous nature of Howard) to work there. Being so beholden to “the legacy” is a major reason for Howard’s problems.

    Being so insular just sustains the problems and allows new ones to pop up. And because so many people have personal relationships with each other, people (students very much included) are less likely to really call out people who are responsible. There’s a sense that all the blame belongs in the “A building” and the highest level of administration. They both hold their fair share of the blame, but the professors at Howard who minimize or rationalize the problems have some responsibility in this too. Many students are very reluctant to criticize their professors because professors may have been very helpful to them. It becomes a big circle jerk with problems spinning more and more out of control.

    During my time (2006-2013), there was mold and asbestos in the elevator in the communication building. The mold was so bad that a group of students set up a blog with pictures showing the dilapidation of the building (paint peeling, damaged floors, etc). The asbestos was removed around 2010 (if my memory holds), yet I believe there is still mold. Even now, the wireless on campus is incredibly spotty. There are fvery ew Smart Classrooms on campus, yet community colleges in NoVA have had them for several years.

    The Stockholm Syndrome you mentioned is very real. Countless times, my complaints were met with “this makes us stronger” and “we’ll be able to deal with anything after this.” It’s so laughable and dismissive.

    When I left, I was informed that approx. $7 million had gone missing. Rumor was that a recently ousted administrator embezzled it. Who knows?

    Yet, Howard’s solution to it’s financial woes is for alumni to give. Why should we give when we don’t even know where the money is going? It’s certainly not going to infrastructure and modernizing technology on campus.