Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Serving Black Students’ Needs

BOND: Talk about a protest that was involved in the early part of this.

HRABOWSKI: You should know that every spring I found out in my first year here in ’87, as I came up the elevator and got to the tenth floor of the President’s Office and I was Vice Provost, the floor was covered with people -- African Americans, a few white students being supportive, and I’m shocked. There’re TV cameras and there’s this big protest and I’m thinking the last time I’d seen a protest was when I was a student at Hampton as a part of the leadership and I’m thinking, "Oh, my God, I’ve become the man." I was the administration. And I asked a secretary, “What is this?” And she said, “Oh, don’t worry, this happens every year at UMBC.” It was springtime and there was a protest. And when we got to the bottom of it, students said the place had been racist about some things and we tried to figure out what that meant and we talked about the issues. There was an incident that we went through. But when I examined the records of the students, what I found was that the average black male GPA was a 1.9. The average black female GPA was a 2.0 and the primary reason students were not succeeding was that many wanted to be doctors and had done poorly in chemistry, you see.

Now, I went through the white GPAs and the Asian GPAs and found that the whites had about a 2.5 and 2.6, the Asians, 2.8, 2.9. We then did focus groups on the students and found that the Asian students studied more than the white students who studied more than the black students. Now, then I did -- when we did the focus groups, what the black students would say, “Well, it was racism. "Well, I studied as much as anybody else and I got a D and everybody on both sides of me, white, got As and Bs and the teacher’s white,” so there was the racism, you see.

BOND: Ipso facto.

HRABOWSKI: That’s exactly right. There must be some prejudice here, right? Just not understanding they’d come from different high schools where the level of rigor was very different from what they found in other schools and as a result, students were not as well prepared. That was the issue. They were not as well prepared and didn’t know how to study and weren’t working with other people.

At the same time, my colleagues began to see that they needed to do more to give support, including, quite frankly, more feedback to students, not waiting until midterm to having the test, having a chemistry tutorial or something. Now, all of this we began to look at at the same time that I was saying, "But there are special issues these black students are facing, issues involving their feeling ordinary, issues involving their thinking they’re not smart," and that’s when I began to talk about those issues with people and that led to my meeting they had with the Abell Foundation. At the same time, the Abell Foundation head, Bob Embry, had been talking to Bob Meyerhoff who had been interested in the issue of black males and the fact that there was such negativity on TV. He got us together. Bob Meyerhoff and his wife were absolutely fascinated by the idea. They wanted to make a difference for black males and we were able to marry the two ideas and in spite of my protest at first about doing it only for black males-I want to give them credit -- we did it the first year for all black males and then the next year for women and that began the program.

But there were all kinds of other issues in terms of leadership in terms of, particularly getting the campus to have positive feelings about what we were doing. Sometimes people think it’s unfair to do something for a particular group. It’s only when you can use everything from data analysis to focus groups to people talking about the issues to bringing some allies along to looking at the issues that you can make a big difference.

BOND: In effect, you had to create a conversation that endorsed this idea before you could put the idea into motion.

HRABOWSKI: Before, yes. Because we had begun to get letters from people as we began to reach out to schools to say we’ve got this program for black males and there were people who liked it and other people who didn’t like it and there were differences of opinion. And what I had to explain to a number of my white women friends was that the issues they were concerned about with white men were different from the issues for black men. Black men were not in positions of power. There was not -- you didn’t find large numbers of men, black men, in science at all. Women had actually even then begun to have larger percentages in med school unlike what we had seen in other groups. And black women were very helpful, quite frankly in saying, "No, we need some things for black males specifically because we’re seeing that women are doing well and the men are not, so we like this." I had parents of daughters saying it, too, but it was a very sensitive matter that I had to learn how to talk about in such a way that I wasn’t offensive to anybody when they were bothered by these things.

Now, since that time, we have developed the Meyerhoff program that has black men and women but also whites who have an interest in these issues, but we still talk with specificity about each group and about their needs.