Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the Environmental Challenge

The Declaration, Volume 5, Number 2: May 2002  [Feature]

This article is excerpted from a keynote paper presented at “Teaching for the Environment in Higher Education: The Promise of the Earth Charter,” an academic symposium sponsored by The Chewonki Foundation with support from the Center for Respect of Life and Environment. The symposium was held in Wiscasset, Maine on May 17-19, 2002. The complete paper will be published in a volume of proceedings from the symposium in fall 2002.

By Collette M. Hopkins and Trevor A. Turner

Role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) began life in the years after the Civil War as private institutions of higher education established by black and white citizens with the help of the Freedman’s Bureau and church agencies such as the American Missionary Association and the Freed Men’s Aid Society of the Methodist Church. Their mission was to serve the newly enfranchised African American population through the preparation of teachers and pastors and the provision of industrial and agricultural skills. As racial apartheid became the official policy of the southern states following Reconstruction and educational institutions became subject to the so-called “separate but equal doctrine,” states established colleges for “colored” students, such as Tuskegee University, established in 1881 by the State of Alabama, and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), established in1887 by the State of Florida; or they converted private schools into state institutions, such as Lincoln University, established in1877 by enlisted officers and men of the 62nd and 65th Colored Infantries and taken over in 1879 by the State of Missouri, and Lincoln Normal School, established privately in 1867 in Macon County, Alabama, which became Alabama State University in 1887. Today, there are over one hundred HBCUs still serving primarily the higher education needs of the African American population but whose doors are increasingly being opened to a student body of all races and ethnicities.

Environmental Literacy and Environmental Intelligence in Institutions of Higher Education
While the main concern of this paper is with the treatment of the environment in HBCUs, it is well to consider the status of these studies generally in higher education. There is evidence that in a few universities environmental studies have been widely embraced with a strong institutional commitment driving instructional activities in the field. In others, research and teaching in the field are sporadic activities undertaken by a few committed individuals who may happen to have access to funding and facilities to support their efforts. But in most institutions of higher education the environment and, more formally, environmental studies have yet to appear at the table where instructional priorities are being considered.

Despite their visibility in the deliberations at the level of national policy-making and in the political debates in some states, environmental issues have not generated the burning interest in academia comparable to concerns over standards and accountability in education or application of technology in professional studies. Dangers to the human condition posed by mistreatment of the environment are enough to occupy the attention of academics in a variety of disciplines – the physical sciences, engineering, education, sociology, business administration, and political science. But while threats to the environment are admitted, their impact does not have the immediacy to raise the concern of the faculty in these fields to the level of commitment to action. In some cases, solutions to environmental problems are seen as the responsibility of agents other than members of academia, or while teaching about the environment may go some way towards raising general awareness of the issues, it is not perceived as a viable solution to environmental problems. The pressing demands of other priorities such as accreditation issues, or improving the technological infrastructure of the institution, or meeting the challenges of newstandards and cries for accountability make it less likely that the administration and faculty of institutions of higher education will give extensive consideration and on-going commitment to the cause of environmentalism.

Occasionally, a lone individual on a campus may try to give leadership to the incorporation of environmental studies into the curriculum or environmental principles into campus buildings or campus purchasing. However, instead of seeing the necessity to lend support to a cause requiring inter-disciplinary collaboration, other faculty may quite simply label the individual as their ‘resident expert’ in the field and, in the climate in which research in higher education is conducted, leave the field to the specialist while ignoring the holistic nature of the discipline.

Differentiating Characteristics of HBCUs with Respect to Environmental Studies
HBCUs share with other institutions of higher education a general indifference to environmental studies. But there are some conditions that characterize HBCUs that should encourage them to take a stronger interest in the field. The population served by HBCUs is to a great extent the urban population of African Americans. It has been shown that this population, compared with other ethnicities, is more negatively affected by environmental hazards. African American children in urban areas suffer disproportionately from asthmatic conditions aggravated by air pollution in the cities. Older African Americans are similarly disproportionately affected by hypertension partially caused by living in the stressful social and physical conditions of inner cities. But it is not only in the urban centers that HBCUs find their communities negatively affected by environmental conditions. The quality of life of African Americans in rural areas is also severely degraded by the placement of landfills and establishment of industrial estates in or close to their neighborhoods.

It would normally be expected that issues such as these would have high priority in the academic agenda of HBCUs. However, the low visibility of environmental concerns in these institutions could be due to the other differentiating factor affecting HBCUs: their relative lack of resources to go beyond conventional preparation of students in existing degree and certificate programs. Of the 107 HBCUs currently in operation, only 6 are listed among the 610 colleges and universities surveyed by the National Association of College and University Business Officers in 2001 with endowments of over $1,000,000 and only 4, Howard University, Spelman College, Morehouse College and Hampton University, have endowments of over $100,000,000. No HBCU appears among the top 100 institutions earning federal government research and development funds in 1999 and 2000. HBCUs depend heavily on student tuition for operating funds and have little discretionary funds available to develop new programs or encourage research in environmental issues.

Even if the administration of these institutions states a commitment to the incorporation of environmental studies into the curriculum of the college, resources to support the commitment are very scarce. Faculty members with an interest in environmentalism are therefore left to depend on their own efforts to secure supporting funding. If they are fortunate enough to obtain funding from a foundation or government to help in the development and implementation of a program in environmental studies or to support research activities in the field, the program or research is likely to die when the funding runs out or if the faculty members should leave the institution.

Highlights of Environmental Instruction in HBCUs
Despite the disappointing movement towards environmental studies in HBCUs, there are a few encouraging signs that progress is being made and that points of light exist that can with some help expand into a much brighter picture. A study done of 56 HBCUs shows that a foundation exists on which further work can be built. Of these institutions, 15 (27%) offer a major in environmental studies and of these, 6 offer both a major and a minor in the field. An additional 3 state that they have an environmental studies program without offering either a major or minor. Environmental courses were more popular, with 42 (75%) stating that they offered such a course. Similarly, undertaking special projects in environmentalism was also quite popular among these schools with 38 (67%) having such projects in place. Although only 21 (37%) have established environmental clubs and organizations for students, there is obviously some work underway in a few of these HBCUs that can serve as a model for others.

Enhancing the Work at HBCUs
It is clear that the work of moving forward environmental studies in HBCUs cannot be left to chance or to the individual efforts of well-intentioned faculty. Like the development of all interdisciplinary programs, establishing environmental studies as a viable program will demand the attention and efforts of the administration and faculty across departments. Several factors will have to be considered in order to ensure effective implementation of such a program. The following are some of the more critical:

The Crowded Curriculum
A major factor mitigating against the implementation of new programs is the perception that the curriculum is unduly crowded and there is no room for additional courses or programs. At the undergraduate level, colleges are increasingly facing criticism of the length of time required for completion of programs. Institutions of higher education are mindful of their mission to educate and to give a distinct identity to their graduates. This identity may be built on a particular worldview or on the perception of oneself as an integral part of a group, community, or ethnicity. To do this, they develop a general or core curriculum that is mandatory for all students.

On the other hand, the professions for which students are being prepared are also increasingly demanding that students be exposed to a wider array of information, skills and dispositions that should make them more effective on the job. Teachers-in-training, for example, must now know not only the subjects that they are to teach and the pedagogy related to the particular subject, but also the legal and ethical issues impacting their work, how to communicate with parents and the public especially in environments characterized by ethnic diversity, and the effective application of computer technology to instruction. Preparations for other professions similarly require attention to more than the core aspects of the profession and demand inclusion of legal and ethical issues, communication with the media and the public, and technological applications.

Between the demands of the general core curriculum and the requirements for professional preparation there is little room left for additional interests. The more effective approach to this problem taken by curriculum developers is that of infusion of additional concerns into the existing curriculum. But infusing environmental studies into existing curricula will not be as simple as adding more information to a biology class. It will require the collaborative effort of faculty across disciplines for development and implementation of an effective environmental studies program with its interdisciplinary ramifications.

Promoting Faculty Collaboration
While faculty members acting individually may incorporate themes, concepts and information on environmentalism into their courses, experience has shown that it is almost impossible to get environmental studies accepted as a program approved by a faculty senate and offered consistently across departments without the support of a critical mass of faculty. Mobilizing the faculty means responding to their needs for career advancement, resource support, and peer recognition. They will want to know if supporting an infusion of environmental studies into the curriculum will increase their workload; provide opportunities for research; bring access to funding sources; or be an additional demand on already scarce resources.

These issues are even more critical for faculty in HBCUs where resources are distinctly more limited but the pressure to publish in refereed journals to support applications for tenure and promotion are no less intense than in other research universities. HBCUs will have to develop innovative organizational structures for the use of faculty time and find creative ways of financing these structures to be able to encourage the collaboration among faculty needed for successful environmental programs. Funding can be sought for the establishment of institutes or centers to which faculty can be attached as research fellows for development of interdisciplinary programs such as environmental studies.

HBCUs should also consider the law of comparative advantage in developing structures and programs for environmentalism and seek to establish partnerships among themselves for the most efficient use of their limited resources. Consortia of colleges can teach courses in different aspects of environmentalism using faculty expertise that exists among them where a single college acting on its own could not afford to do so. Current developments in communications technology facilitate this sharing of expertise through websites and online instruction.

Definition of Environmental Studies
One of the difficulties faculty members are likely to face in any effort to develop a program of environmental studies is the question of meaning in environmentalism. Curriculum development consists of a set of choices of content, sequencing of information and methodology. Limits have to be placed on the amount and type of information that can be presented at any one level of education. Interdisciplinary programs present special problems in development because of the difficulty of placing limits on the information that can be properly accommodated under their broad ambit. In the case of environmental studies, disciplines from art to zoology can appropriately be charged with responsibility to incorporate environmental principles into their content. Decisions on limits, balance and emphases in content for environmental studies can only be made by faculty from different departments acting collaboratively. For HBCU faculty, such decisions would most likely be affected by the particular environmental threats to the population that they serve.

The definition of environmental studies extends also to the extent of infusion of such studies into existing curricula. An institution may ask if there can be an environmental studies program without it being a discrete, stand-alone set of courses serving as a major or minor in a degree program. Or can an institution do justice to the cause of environmentalism by simply adding modules on environmentalism to existing syllabi or, even less, having the principles taught only through examples used in instruction and in student assignments and research papers?

Definitions of environmental studies must also address the thorny issue of values. Is a course in earth science that teaches the elements of the physical environment sufficient as an example of environmental studies if it does not raise issues of concern over the depletion of irreplaceable natural resources, destruction of habitat, or pollution of air and water? And is a course that raises such concerns sufficient for environmental studies if it shows the problems that are likely to flow from the mistreatment of the environment for the mass of humanity but fails to go further and issue a call to action through service learning, or earth day recognition or some such educational capstone activity? Given the daily and immediate environmental threats to the populations that they serve, HBCUs must accept the concept of value formation through planned activity as an integral part of any program of environmental studies that they may develop.

Administrative Commitment
It is generally admitted that proposed programs need the commitment and support of administration in higher education for quick approval, implementation and maintenance. Without commitment, proposals may be given a sympathetic hearing but may simply be ‘tabled for future consideration when resources may allow’, which is usually a euphemistic way of dismissing the idea outright.

True commitment from the administration for environmentalism must mean therefore not just speeches from a president or provost in recognition of Arbor Day or their presence at a conference or function celebrating the environment. It must, more significantly, be demonstrated not only through support of instructional programs but also by way of activities that are directly within its area of responsibility such as purchasing of supplies and equipment, construction and maintenance of buildings and waste treatment. In purchasing, for example, is the Purchasing Department mandated to “buy green” such as purchasing locally grown produce for dining services, or biodegradable utensils for use in campus dining events? Is the copy paper purchased for use by academic departments and the administration also biodegradable? Are vendors encouraged to use easily biodegradable packaging materials in supplying equipment and materials to the campus?

For construction and maintenance of buildings, all institutions of higher education need to look closely at buildings such as Oberlin College’s Adam Joseph Lewis Center or Middlebury’s Bicentennial Hall, which are the latest examples of sustainable design and construction. For resource poor HBCUs especially, innovations such as photovoltaic energy supplies, energy saving thermal walls and floors, and water recycling, which are all present in the Oberlin building, can serve as models for future campus construction. Other examples of environmentally responsible initiatives in campus waste management, transportation and landscaping abound. Cost benefit and life-cycle analyses can show that funds can be saved from these activities over the long-term. For HBCUs, this should be a strong incentive to increase their commitment to environmental action.

Developing Ecological Literacy and Environmental Intelligence In HBCUs
Despite the formidable challenges faced by institutions of higher education and HBCUs in particular in broadening understanding of environmentalism on their campuses, the situation with respect to threats to the environment is too desperate to be ignored. But, like a journey of a thousand miles that begins with one step, those who are committed to the work must be prepared to accept small initial successes while keeping their eyes on the larger and more distant prize. It might be enough at this stage in the operation of HBCUs to work in courses and programs towards basic understandings of the threats to the environment and acceptance of the need to act at the individual level of the student and faculty. However, planning must go on among the committed to deal with those factors that block wider recognition of the need to act and the lack of institutional commitment as defined here.

To make the jump from ecological literacy to environmental intelligence, HBCUs need a vehicle that can provide support while serving also as a catalyst for change with respect to attitudes and dispositions towards the field. This mechanism could be a center established by a consortium of institutions and supported partly by external funding. This center would serve as a point of data collection on environmental issues and on the work of the HBCUs in the field. It would thus serve as a tracking service on the progress being made in extending the work. The center would also be the motivator in pushing the work forward by disseminating information on a constant basis through a website. It could also provide incentives to keep the work moving forward by offering recognition to those institutions that were making a serious effort towards environmental activism and modeling. Innovative methods of presenting environmental studies could be tested through the center with research on existing programs providing an on-going evaluation of best practices in the field.

Dr. Collette M. Hopkins is Associate Director for Partnerships for the Research Center for Science and Technology at Clark Atlanta University. She can be reached at CHopkins@admin2000.cau.edu. Professor Trevor A. Turner is an associate professor in the department of Educational Leadership at Clark Atlanta University. He served as chair of the department for five years and as dean of the School of Education for nine years, from 1992-2001. Dr. Turner can be reached at trevorturner@attbi.com.

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