MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, you may have noticed that we've been taking a look at a number of interesting issues in education since the start of this school year. Now, we have another interesting trend to report. Several historically black colleges and universities are reporting record increases in student enrollment after years of declines. Freshmen enrollment is up nearly 50 percent at Shaw University in North Carolina; nearly 40 percent at South Carolina State; nearly 30 percent at Tuskegee University in Alabama and Virginia State University and a 17 percent increase at Dillard University in Louisiana, according to those universities.
Now, everybody seems to have a different theory about the higher enrollment at these institutions from lower out-of-state tuition fees to improvements in outreach. But the president of Dillard University says he thinks enrollment is up due to increased racial tensions on college campuses over the past few years.
Dillard president Walter Kimbrough wrote about this in The Washington Post, and he joined us from WRKF in Baton Rouge to talk about it. I started by asking about his theory that the jump in enrollment numbers at HBCUs - which he calls the Missouri effect. He's been talking about the protests at the University of Missouri last fall when students protested racist incidents against students of color that they felt were unaddressed and those protests eventually led to the resignation of the institution's president, Tim Wolf.
WALTER KIMBROUGH: Missouri became the tipping point for African-American students on predominately white campuses that they were just not going to take it anymore. And, really, last year wasn't the beginning. If you go back even a year before that, you had black students at University of Michigan with the hashtag #beingblackatmichigan, and they sort of aired everything that was going on there. Black students at Harvard had the campaign I, Too, Am Harvard where they held up placards with some of the phrases that have been said to them by white students, like I'm surprised you're here, can you read, it must be easy to get into Harvard if you're black, those kinds of things.
Missouri then becomes this tipping point, and everyone sees it nationally, and they see real change happen. The president of the system as well as the chancellor of the campus are gone. And from then, all these other campuses started to have the same kinds of protests. There were other resignations and lots of different things happened. So it really was this empowering movement, and it really linked with everything that was happening in the country with the Black Lives Matter movement as well. And so I think that that spilled onto the campus to say that black students' lives matter on these campuses, and we want to address those issues.
MARTIN: But wait, how would that then lead to more students, black students in particular, seeking out the historically black colleges and universities?
KIMBROUGH: Right. So, you know, as you look at a lot of the demands, people are asking for more black faculty, more black staff, black living spaces, black-centered curriculum. Well, HBCUs have provided these things for almost 200 years. And so I think people are now asking a question to say, what's important to me? And if those things are important, they're looking to say, well, an HBCU offers that, and why don't I just go to the place that has those things? The other part of the conversation with students and parents that I'm hearing is that they are concerned about their students being in those environments that they feel are hostile with macro- and micro-racial aggressions.
MARTIN: You say in your piece that for black students, HBCUs continue to serve as the original safe spaces, that the whole question of safe spaces has become something that people are, you know, academics and also the broader public have been discussing - with some emotion - is the argument that college is the place to open yourself up to new experiences. And so is that necessarily a good thing?
KIMBROUGH: Right. No, I agree, and I think that you can have those kinds of experiences at HBCUs as well. It - you know, I guess the question becomes we really only apply that question or that standard to African-American students. When I was president of Philander Smith in Little Rock, we had a white female student who comes to Philander Smith. She's one of a handful of white students. She joins a historically black sorority. She's very engaged. She doesn't act like someone that she isn't. She's fully engaged in the life of a campus.
So there should be more students who are looking for that kind of experience as well. But it always seems that we expect black students to be the ones that will have to go out and experience, you know, these diverse environments. And so I think that you can get that in an HBCU. You can get that at a majority institution as well. In the end, I think the student wins if they go to the place that's the best fit.
MARTIN: That was the president of Dillard University, Walter Kimbrough. He wrote in The Washington Post education blog Answer Sheet about why HBCUs, a number of them, are seeing large increases in student enrollment after some years of decline. He was kind enough to join us from member station WRKF in Baton Rouge. Now, President Kimbrough, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KIMBROUGH: No problem, thank you, any time.
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