Sunday, April 17, 2011
A scant two years ago, most of Dallas was writing Paul Quinn College's obituary. In fact it's anticipated failure, on the former campus of another failed black college (Bishop College), had a number of people questioning the need for Historically Black Colleges and Universities altogether.
Paul Quinn had lost its accreditation, after losing its membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools because of what seemed like insurmountable debt, very low enrollment and a general lack of support from the African-American community in particular and Dallas in general. Unable to grant degrees and with students unable to receive federal financial aid, and with the new, state supported University of North Texas at Dallas literally right down the street, why was anyone delaying the obvious and the inevitable?
However, last week, Paul Quinn was accredited by Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. This is the result of a lot of hard work by the school's president Michael Sorrell, his faculty, staff and students. But the most significant work that went on, is the work that was so obvious that those saw it ignored: the hard work of persistence!
What is most impressive about Sorrell's work during this period, is that he never acted like the president of a college that wasn't a real college. I can't really remember the last time, after the initial news of PQ's loss of accreditation, that anyone asked, 'Do you think Paul Quinn will make it?' And when you are around Michael, there is this air of supreme confidence that makes you think that they'd already overcome their problems.
This was no false bravado or whistling past the graveyard. Sorrell and Paul Quinn kept working! They did the things that sent the signal that PQ was on its way back - obtaining money to tear down decades long vacant dormitory buildings, buildings in decades long disrepair. It didn't just give the impression that they were breaking with their past, it sent the signal that they were making room for their future.
Earlier last month Paul Quinn shocked the world by being named 'HBCU of the Year by The Center for HBCU Media Advocacy Inc.
And then there is the football field!
Paul Quinn plowed under its football field, no longer in use, and in a partnership with Pepsico began an urban farm. The innovative use of land opened up opportunities for practical education in business, the sciences, even public policy that also sent a signal to Dallas and beyond: we're open for business! At the breakout sessions that followed CitySquare's annual prayer breakfast, we had one special session in which we learned about PQ's urban farm and what faculty and students were learning during the experience. It was inspiring to learn how this facet of their curriculum caused them to look beyond the troubles of the school and look at their neighborhood and how this venture could not only have academic benefit, but how it could potentially meet the needs of those neighbors and surrounding businesses, in turn exposing them all to the asset a college in their community is.
As a product of Bishop College, I waited for disparaging remarks from alumni and former students. But, to their credit, I've heard none. I think (I hope), that for those of us who still love the campus and the memories it holds for us, we also know that this city - actually the nation - could not stand to lose another HBCU. What that would have said about our city and what it says about blacks and education, is not only not true, but would itself had sent a signal that we can't afford to send - that opportunities for education for those who need a more intimate and supportive experience than can often be found in larger more affluent colleges and universities no longer exist.
Paul Quinn's success (survival isn't a strong enough word), while not complete is still a remarkable story that gets short shrift, especially when one considers all of the ink speculation of their demise encouraged. Questions about the viability of PQ and the necessity of HBCUs are, to me themselves questionable.
Black colleges and universities are in the same position as every other black institution...the struggle to remain relevant in a world they ironically helped create. Equally ironic is the fact that no one questions the relevance or viability of Hispanic, Asian or other ethnic business or institutions. It is interesting that not only are they found relevant, but also interesting enough that they are cultures which seem to reflect the richness of our nation. It is indeed telling that we seem to have no qualms about identifying black colleges as 'unnecessary'.
HBCUs specifically are necessary precisely because there is an African-American culture and heritage to which they can speak in ways that Southern Methodist University or Ohio State can't. They provide an experience within that context that cannot be had anywhere else. HBCUs came into being, not only because mainstream colleges and universities were segregated, but because the needs of the students, for faculty that could not only educate them, but nurture them. They were students needing an academic experience through which they could not only have an education, but in which they could be inspired by engagement and challenge by professors and other students with similar backgrounds who had overcome or were overcoming similar obstacles. They need an educational experience that would both accept and affirm them while challenging them. And these days, when public schools are resegregated by class as often as they are by color, issues of identity are as important in the 21st century as they were in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Blacks now have the opportunity to attend any college for which they academically prepared. Some will choose an HBCU, just as some will choose other small colleges of whatever make up. Some will choose the University of North Texas at Dallas, or Denton. Other students will choose Texas A&M in College Station or Denton. Some black youth will go to Stanford or Georgia Tech. HBCUs came into being in an age when black kids didn't have a choice to teach those same young people that they were good enough to have a choice and to create a generation that would create a world in which such choices would become a reality and not just a dream. There's absolutely nothing wrong with HBCUs to be among those choices. They've earned it.
Dallas should celebrate Paul Quinn's return to health. It means that young people, black and otherwise, can choose them as well.