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Saturday, November 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Close-up
White students at black colleges: a course of a different color

By Avis Thomas-Lester
The Washington Post

DUDLEY M. BROOKS / THE WASHINGTON POST
"The people who are nice to me are genuinely nice," says Chad Bishop, left, walking with Robert Jones on the Howard University campus in the District of Columbia.
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WASHINGTON — Just after noon on the Howard University yard, members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity broke into an impromptu step show, bobbing and chanting as they stomped in unison.

Chad Bishop watched from a distance. In his three years on the campus, he has become fully immersed in college life: student-body treasurer, sports announcer, newspaper board member, resident adviser in a dorm.

But Bishop, one of the few white students at this historically black university, said he has never felt quite comfortable enough to join a fraternity.

"You know, I started to pledge, but then I thought I shouldn't," Bishop, 24, said. "I wasn't sure how people would feel about it with the history and everything. I wasn't sure if people would understand why I wanted to do it."

Increasingly, white students are enrolling at the nation's 120 historically black colleges and universities, changing the landscape of institutions created when African Americans were barred from attending most colleges.

In the past quarter-century, the number of white students at these campuses has risen 65 percent, from 21,000 to nearly 35,000 — an increase driven partly by court orders aimed at desegregation and partly by interest in programs these schools offer.

Measuring success

Some, such as West Virginia State University and Lincoln University of Missouri, are now majority-white. Others, struggling to meet court mandates for more white students, use scant scholarship money to lure students from as far away as Russia.

Many educators said the changing demographics will enrich the educational experience for all students at the once all-black colleges.

"Boardrooms are not all black, and classrooms shouldn't be either," said Lee Young, admissions director at North Carolina A&T University, which actively recruits white students.

His school's increasing popularity with students of all races, Young said, is in many ways a measure of its success.
 
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"What does it say about the value of your institution that people who didn't come before are now coming in droves to get in? It means that your institution has transcended color and now it is viewed as an institution of higher learning of impeccable choice."

Another hurdle?

Other activists and students, though, said this influx of white students is costing African Americans slots and scholarships and could change the mission of historically black colleges and universities, considered more nurturing than most other institutions.

"I feel like it will change the structure of the classes and the culture of the campus," said Tiffany Hawkins, 22, a senior telecommunications major at Baltimore's Morgan State University. "Now, we can speak freely. We learn about how things are different for us as black people. ... In English class, we study black literature. In my media criticism class, we talked about how blacks are portrayed in the media.

"The focus is on us."

Most of the influx has come at public institutions, which receive funding from federal and state governments. Such colleges are pressured to increase their white enrollment — even as affirmative-action requirements at some other universities are waning.

"It is an odd and dubious legality that institutions that have not excluded anyone" are now forced to recruit white students, said Lezli Baskerville of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Education.

Tennessee State University, for instance, was at one point under court order to increase its non-black enrollment to 50 percent. The court eventually dropped that requirement, and the school has agreed to earmark $924,000 a year for scholarships to white students.

Three universities in Mississippi — Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State — must increase white enrollments to at least 10 percent and maintain that level for three years before receiving a portion of $524 million in state funds for school improvements provided in a federal court settlement, officials said. An effort to overturn that settlement reached in Ayers v. Fordice, a landmark desegregation case for colleges, was rejected Oct.18 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hands across the water

Alcorn State University, about 90 miles southwest of Jackson, has not found enough eligible white students from Mississippi to attend, so officials began recruiting overseas.

Eugenia Merculova Lubrano, 24, of Veronezh, Russia, a 2001 graduate who works as an Alcorn recruiter for multicultural students, said she heard about the college from the mother of a friend. Word spread, she said, and now 40 people from her town have attended the historically black college.

Lubrano said she never could have gone to a U.S. university without the full scholarship Alcorn State offered.

Alvin Chambliss, the attorney who argued the Mississippi desegregation case, said the focus at historically black campuses should be on providing a quality education, not on drawing white students.

"They are going all the way to Russia to give away scholarships when they are sitting in the poorest state in this country and there are many poor black kids right there who could use those scholarships," Chambliss said. "They should be focusing on improving facilities and adding professional programs so that it will make all students want to go to these schools."

Morgan State University President Earl Richardson agreed. He said the key to diversifying student populations is offering quality programs. The Baltimore school offers no race-based scholarships, but has unique programs in architecture and city regional planning that bring in students of all races. About 8 percent of its undergraduates and 20 percent of its graduate students are white, Asian or Latino.

"My goal here is to create an institution that is comparable to any of the majority-white universities," Richardson said.

Morgan State and Maryland's other historically black institutions — Bowie State, Coppin State and University of Maryland Eastern Shore — are governed by a 2000 accord with the U.S. Department of Education that sets no quotas for enrolling white students. The agreement encourages the state to invest in those colleges so they can offer unique programs. Virginia, too, has focused on enhancing facilities and academic programs at Norfolk State and Virginia State universities rather than setting quotas.

Private universities, such as Hampton in Virginia and Howard, face no court mandates to attract white students and generally have less diverse student bodies.

At Howard, 1 percent, or about 100 of the 11,000 students are white. Those who do enroll are generally drawn by its academic reputation or its music and athletic programs.

Trying to fit in

Bishop — a native of Shreveport, La. — whittled his college choice to Howard or the University of Michigan. He said he chose Howard "because of the tradition" — the red brick buildings, the faculty's impressive resumes, the prestigious reputation.

He is aware, though, that some people think he doesn't belong.

He has been called racist names. He has been in classes where instructors have referred to "the white man" and made generalizations about white people that would have drawn fire if a white professor said the same about African Americans, he said.

"I was in the administration building and I had had a problem with something ... and this lady who worked there said to me: 'Why are you here? This is for black people.' "

The hardest gazes come when he walks across campus with black female friends. "It's like, 'What is she doing with him?' " he said. But he has enjoyed Howard. "I wish I could do it over again," he said. "This is a beautiful experience. The people who are nice to me are genuinely nice. ...

"Not only did I get an academic education, I got a cultural education. ... I don't believe I would have gotten that someplace else."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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