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Conversation #42: Marybeth Gasman on HBCUs

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Marybeth Gasman

A conversation with Dr. Marybeth Gasman of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education on teaching, learning, and HBCUs.

Dr. Gasman's areas of expertise include the history of American higher education, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), minority serving institutions, African American leadership, and fundraising and philanthropy. Her research also explores the role education has in the development, growth, and journey of students seeking a college degree.

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DiMaggio: Thank you for joining us on the university podcast for Teaching, Learning, and Everything else. I am Stassi DiMaggio, associate professor in chemistry at Xavier University of Louisiana and I am joined today by Dr. Marybeth Gasman who is the director of higher education  at the University of Pennsylvania. And she also serves as the director for the Pen Center for Minority serving institutions. Dr. Gasman is a national expert in diversity issues in higher education and focuses specifically on studying historically black colleges and universities as well as minority serving institutions. So thank you so much for joining us today.

Gasman: Thank you! It’s a pleasure to be here today!

DiMaggio: Great! So our first question is what made you decide to get into this particular field of study?

Gasman: Well that is an interesting question. The main reason why I did this kind of research and caring so deeply about issues of opportunities for all students is because I grew up with a father who was extremely racist. And I started fighting back against him pretty early and that kind of pushed me towards wanting to learn more about African American history and many different histories about people of color. And as I started to learn more about African American history, I started to learn more about black colleges and the contributions they made and the importances. The way they built the black middle class and how they were deeply responsible for so much that has taken place in the country. And so I wanted to learn more about them. And I actually felt cheated by my education  that I didn't learn anything about them until I was enrolled in a Ph.D program focused on higher education which didn't make any sense to me why I wouldn't learn it. So I just started learning it back in 1994 and it’s been over 20 years. So I guess I just got really interested and hooked. My work started off on mainly black colleges but then I also ventured into learning about more minority serving institutions.

DiMaggio: Well I imagine while studying this, you seen some of the challenges minority students have faced when entering colleges versus their majority counterparts. What are some of the biggest challenges you still see them face today?

Gasman: Well I think that they face a lot of different things. A lot of students of color come from low income homes that are first generation students but not all. A lot of the students at Xavier that I met are second generation students and come from middle class homes. But at large, one of the things that we know is that they disproportionately educate low income and first generation students. And often one of things that we know is that students are dealing with financial issues. The struggle to pay for their books, to be able to go home on their breaks. It’s sometimes a struggle for students parents to come home for graduation so things like that. And also, students of color at majority institutions tend to struggle with microaggressions on a daily basis. I think one of the strengths of black colleges is that most of the time you are treated as if you wanted to be there and you don’t get the message that you are taking up space that could be for someone else. There’s this belief that you have value and I think that’s incredibly important. So I would say that’s something. I think that some, emphasis on the ‘some’, students that go to HBCUs are I would say ‘cheated’ by the K through 12 system. So they might have gone to a K through 12 system that did not serve them well. So they may have to catch up and HBCUs are known for helping students that may be struggling with those issues initially, but then bringing them up to speed. I think Xavier in particular is really really good at adding immense value to their students. And I argued that black colleges add more value because they are taking students from one spot to another because there’s added value. The staff is adding value. The faculty is adding value. At some institutions where you bring in students who are perfect on paper stereotypically, I often ask the question well what are we adding? And I think it's important that we are adding something significant and I don’t think we are doing that with all students.

DiMaggio: Right. And you sort of answered a question I was going to ask you. It’s a question people ask me all the time, all of these majority institutions are focused on recruiting minorities so why do we still need HBCUs? And I think have already given us the answer. And the other question I get that is sort of a semi-criticism is, I guess I’ll ask you this, once they leave a HBCU where it’s a nurturing environment where they aren’t an outsider and then they integrate into the workforce and people say, sometimes you are giving them a disservice for that. And so what would your answer be to that, they now have to work in a diverse workforce?

Gasman: Well, I guess one of the things that I would point out would be that all HBCUs are operating in the larger world. They are surrounded by communities that are majority white, it may not be right around them, like you guys are in New Orleans so there’s plenty of white and diverse people around, but they go right back into that. And I think that black colleges provide sort of a sanctuary of the more robust learning but I have never met a student that had trouble acclimating to the outside world. They are typically pretty good at it because they have to be acclimated to the world overall, and I never seen a problem with that. I would say I have seen the opposite of that. I have had a lot of black college students become my Ph. D students here at Penn. and I’ve had a lot of my black college students become my masters students. One of the things I know is that by at large they are very prepared for graduate school. And they have sort of built up this layer around them that helps them to be strong and secure in an environment that can be a little difficult. Because some of these environments  can be very harsh and difficult. So I would say I seen the opposite. Students get very prepared.

DiMaggio: Just to be fair, we talked about the advantages of attending a HBCU for college. Are there any, I don't want to call them disadvantages, but are there any competing advantages for attending a traditional institution versus a HBCU?

Gasman: Um...I would say it depends on the kind of preparation that they are getting from the HBCU and it probably depends on the HBCU. So if you are coming from a HBCU that emphasizes writing, I think you are going to be better off at majority or more selective  majority institution because most of these institutions would emphasize writing. I have found that students coming from less selective HBCU so Xavier would not be a less selective HBCU it would be a selective HBCU right? And so I have had students coming from less selective HBCUs that have had more trouble with the more intensive writing. But on the other hand, the majority of HBCUs that send a lot of students to graduate school, tend to be the small liberal arts HBCUs. And I would consider Xavier to be one of those. So the majority of those schools that send those students tend to emphasize writing, are usually okay.  I would say some of the larger state HBCUs, and this would be the same thing with a non-HBCU, the emphasis on writing isn’t the same as a small liberal arts school and I see that across the board. But I have noticed it with some of the public HBCUs. And I think that has something to do with the emphasis. It depend on how you are being graded in classes. I would say from the small liberal arts HBCUs, I don’t have that at all due to the closeness of writing and critically thinking among faculty. So it might also have to do with the size of the institution and the fact that you might have larger classes at bigger institutions.  

DiMaggio: Right. And you know they have a dozen of HBCUs in the country and they all have their speciality of what they are tailoring their students to do. So most of our students at Xavier, either want to go to medical school or pharmacy school or graduate school predominantly in the sciences, and so we tailor our curriculum to meet that goal whereas others have different populations of students where they tend to gravitate to one goal more than the other.  And I’m glad that you said that about the writing because people are always asking us well why are you so successful? So what is it that you see in addition to the focus on writing that makes successful HBCUs that prepare students for the next level of their life? What are they doing particularly well?   

Gasman: I think that is a good question and that that is a good aim. I would say that the successfulness of HBCUs is a couple of things. I think that they challenge their students to think beyond their regions. I think that they emphasize critical thinking skills. One of the things I noticed when I came to Xavier is that your students, and I’m not just saying this because you are interviewing me,  your students are some of the smartest students I have ever come across. They were so smart. They were so dedicated. And they were also just fierce in terms of wanting to be successful. What I love is that when we asked them why they were like this, they said it was because they felt incredibly supported by their faculty. So I think one of the reasons why HBCUs are so successful is because they have great faculty. They have faculty that care more about the students than they do about their own advancement. A lot of faculty are always about “me, me, me, me, me” especially where I work and I’m just being honest. When I was at Xavier, I just noticed this wonderful glaciology around student learning and I tell people about it constantly because it was mind boggling to me. I was like “This is amazing!” I wish I had gone into a school like this and had that kind of experience. Even as a student. So i would say the faculty and having supportive student success is another thing. I noticed at Xavier is that the students told us about all the different things you had in place to assure they succeed. And that is incredibly important. I do think you need to make sure that your students are thinking globally. And if you can build in study abroad that’s great and don’t let them be afraid of study abroad because sometimes people are afraid of study abroad. One thing I noticed about Xavier students is that a lot of them came from Louisiana and so a lot of them have not been abroad. So to encourage them to do that I think is really important. I think getting them into undergraduate research is really important if you want them to go to graduate school. And I saw that over and over. And I told the New York Times that over and over. I think Xavier’s programs in the sciences are modeled for everyone. We visited 10 HBCUs and they were all great but I tell you, no one is doing what you are doing. And I also have visited many majority institutions and no one has worked out a system the way that you do. And you can see the success. So I would say that institutions should be doing what you are doing and that you’re the model. And so that’s how I feel.

DiMaggio: And you know, I will say this, when you work for a mission based university, people are attracted to that university and that mission. So it does tend to have a lot of nice and dedicated people gravitate to that university and it does help. People have asked me for many years over time at conferences, how can we do this? With all fairness, you can have the most dedicated faculty, but when your entire university is not dedicated to that mission, it makes it more of a challenge. I mean we have the support of every office on this campus that have the same mission the faculty do. And I will say that does help. And not to knock other universities, but that can be more of a challenge when the whole university isn’t centered on this one mission.

Gasman: I would definitely agree.

DiMaggio: And thank you for these flattering remarks! I didn’t mean for this to be why Xavier is so great. But it is so great.

Gasman: Oh no no! I think that you guys are!

DiMaggio: So I think the last question I would have for you is that, so Xavier just thinking about our campus, we have a pharmacy school tracks a number of different students. And for a HBCU I think we have a very diverse campus. And on several occasions we have students who aren’t African American that are looking to come to our school because of our sciences and pharmacy school. And sometimes they are a little bit apprehensive about that. What would you say to a non-black student looking to attend a HBCU?

Gasman: Well HBCUs are very diverse comparatively. If you look at HBCUs overall, they are 13% white, 3% Latino, 2% Asian. I also think that one of the things to keep in mind is that 60% of faculty at HBCUs are black but 40% are other races. And that is not what you are going to get a majority institution. The faculty are almost all white people. So I do think that the diversity is really wonderful. I also think that if they are looking into HBCUs, they should look and see if they have the kind of curriculum and that they shouldn’t let the fact that it is historically black deter them. I think  that people have to look at the quality of the program. Now I have a daughter who, well she doesn’t care that much for science of math, but if she wanted to be a doctor, I would send her to Xavier or Spellman, because these are two institutions that have a wonderful proven track record, honest a much better track record than most institutions around the country. I would also probably be very frank with someone and say why are hesitant to go to a historically black institution and what does that say about you. Because you do have people who are white and black who don’t use black doctors or organizations and I do think that has a lot to do with internalized racism. The country believing for a long time if something is black it’s not as good as something else. And for me I don’t think that at all. And when I hear people all the time say negative things about HBCUs and they have no idea what they are I always come back and say well what makes you say those kinds of things? What makes you think that way because they're black? And that’s racist to me. I’m sorry I got a little political on you.

DiMaggio: No! I think that is a very good experience. Because I know some of our students who went to predominantly high schools or lived in predominately white neighborhoods, it’s a different environment for them but they may have this preconceived notions because they never been the minority themselves and I think it's a growing experience for our students from what I understand it’s never been an issue here. I think people are very welcoming and understanding.  

Gasman: I agree! And that’s what we heard when we were there.

DiMaggio: And we have also had students who have done their bachelor's degree at another university, and then have come to Xavier to take their pharmacy prerequisites and they said they felt like they had so much more support available to them because of where most of them came from high school. And so have also gotten a lot of good compliments about students coming to take their pharmacy prerequisites from Xavier as well. But I really do appreciate you offering your insight on this today.

Gasman: It was my pleasure!

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