Why Morehouse Must Transform Into A 21st Century HBCU

Morehouse intends to enroll transgender men next year. It’s an opportunity to transform HBCUs as we know them.

I admit it. I was attracted to exclusivity.

When I applied to college, I had to be convinced to attend Morehouse College. At the time, I was on the way towards an illustrious career in engineering, and Georgia Tech or the University of Michigan’s prestigious undergraduate programs held all of my attention. I thought to myself: professionally, what could a small all-male black college do for me?

My opinion changed when I stepped foot on the campus. I was allured by the students’ character, by the opportunity to learn from aspiring Black men, and to be a part of the “Morehouse Mystique”. I remember Morehouse sold a different type of exclusivity: as one of the top HBCUs, it offered an opportunity to transform into a better self. The message was clear: when you leave this institution, you’ll be a part of a special community known for changing the world. As an alumnus, they expected nothing less than the same from me.

Little did I know I’d work to change the institution right back.

Who is an institution for?

If you’ve been paying attention to HBCU news recently, you might have heard about Morehouse and its brand new transgender policy. The policy is clearly making waves: for some, it’s a welcome change; for others, it doesn’t go far enough. For Morehouse graduates old enough to remember, the most recent national news related to this topic wasn’t as progressive. As outlined by Tre’Vell Anderson in Out Magazine,

‘My freshman year, the college instituted an “appropriate attire policy.” This dress code, which banned sagging and limited wearing hats and durags among other things, became a national news story because of another tenant that restricted wearing “clothing usually worn by women.”….

A year later, Vibe published an article about a handful of current and former students who shared their experiences navigating the homophobic and transphobic environment of the school, and broader society, as people whose gender presentations sometime bucked conventions. Titled “The Mean Girls of Morehouse,” it jump started another conversation about the brand of the college, what it means to be a “Morehouse Man,” and how we treated GBTQ+ students.’

You can see the old attire policy here.

When Morehouse instituted the #dresscode a decade ago, I remember being on the fence. Morehouse and other schools with similar values espouse a theory of change that requires its black male students to change their mind, body, and soul — and learning to dress well was always a part of the formula.

Like many others, I became entranced by this formula, and what it might hold for my future success. They way they told the story, Morehouse students faced two choices: allow people to dress how they liked and dull the school’s luster, or institute the policy, and restrict the freedom of speech of Morehouse’s GBTQ+ faction.

After I transferred to Michigan, I found a new perspective.

As a dual-degree engineering student, I had the chance to experience a different type of exclusivity through fresh eyes. I found that Morehouse’s formula was alluring, but not universal. Some of my engineering colleagues wore a hoodie and sweatpants to every single class they attended and still excelled.

I also noticed the freedom and power that gender and sexuality-based groups held across campus. Queer communities had entire houses, funding resources, even pride celebrations that were more strongly celebrated than any I had personally seen. The changes were simple, yet revolutionary: offer space to shine, and you’ll see how brightly the communities blossom.

However, the impact of the Morehouse attire policy didn’t really hit me until I debated the topic with someone from the outside. He was a distinguished Ivy League grad; I recall thinking he could have been my Morehouse brother in another universe. It’s also why I remember his words so well:

“I’ll never send my son to #Morehouse.”

I instantly entered debate mode. Sure, the policy is problematic, but Morehouse still has its merits, right? Its history, its position as a multidisciplinary feeder school, and its ability to transform students into world-changers are formidable arguments. That should count for something.

Here was his response:

“I know my son will be black, but I don’t know if he will be gay, trans, or whatever. What I do know, is that this policy has consequences. It doesn’t matter what the intent of the policy is; its purpose is to discriminate. And I won’t send my son to an institution that thinks those policies are okay.”

It finally clicked.

Regardless of the policymakers’ intent, the policy harmed real people every day it was instilled. People like Tre’Vell Anderson and Tatiana Rafael, who have tirelessly advocated for safe spaces in a needlessly toxic environment. Whether they admit it or not, Morehouse has always had gay and trans people on its campus — they’ve just rarely felt safe enough to make their presence known.

Now, I recognize the policy as a master class in redirection: the policymakers veiled its purpose behind limited student focus and upholding Morehouse’s legacy. But, what legacy is being upheld? Is Morehouse an intellectual bastion of civil rights through history, or a growing oxymoron supported by conservative fear apathy?

What is the cost of exclusion?

For all of the progressive history of HBCUs, one could argue the institutions have a conservative culture. A study in 2008 on Black Conservatism and its impact on black male undergraduates at HBCUs revealed that students from twelve flagship HBCUs experienced systemic oppression concerning sexuality and sexual orientation, self-presentation, and positional subordination (feeling disempowered by staff and professors). For example, an anonymous student at Morehouse was asked to predict the response on campus if they were to announce they were gay or bisexual. They replied:

“Are you joking?….Coming out at a homosexual would undo everything I have accomplished as a leader on this campus.”

The world’s transformed a lot in the past decade. Gay marriage is legal, Janet Mock, TS Madison, and Laverne Cox are only a few of many trans personalities in the national spotlight, and Mayor Pete, the gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is a strong contender for the 2020 presidential race. Though there are many strides to be made, it’s clear that queer politics have become a powerful force in mainstream culture and politics.

Similarly, Black culture has become even more mainstream. Beyonce just re-released Homecoming on Netflix and your favorite audio streaming service. Killer Mike, the esteemed Morehouse graduate, developed Crip-A-Cola with Atlanta street fraternities. The recent death, of Nipsey Hussle revealed a man who, by Morehouse’s measure, shouldn’t have been successful. Though his queer politics were problematic, he never lost his street identity and culture, but still continued to educate, empower, and uplift the communities he encountered.

So, where does Morehouse, and other HBCUs as well, stand in this new world?

It’s clear our institutions read radical transformation.

Scholars nationwide debate if black students are better served by desegregated majority-serving institutions, or if college is even necessary because of the encroaching student debt bubble, more people are asking questions about the value of minority-serving institutions.

In this context, black colleges have struggled to stay open. For instance, Inside Higher Ed reports as follows:

Kent John Chabotar, president emeritus of Guilford College and a college finance expert, has found that colleges with 1,000 or fewer students, in rural areas, without large endowments and without market niches, are on the path to closure….Within the last two years, SACS has put eight HBCUs on warning or probation.

Admittedly, the discussions about HBCU’s worth remain firmly lodged in the past. Dr. Maybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, which specializes in the history and context of HBCUs, argues that “many people see [HBCU institutions as] vestiges of the past rather than one of many college choices that African Americans have at the higher education level.” I agree; when Morehouse alumni, staff, and current students speak on HBCU excellence, they harken back to old days of Howard Washington Thurmond, Martin Luther King Jr., or one of the countless other famous alumni. However, HBCUs do themselves no favors by prioritizing the past. Today, by framing much of the discussion on Morehouse’s past victories, we lose the space to determine how Morehouse will transform black intelligentsia in the future.

Fortunately, there is a clear opportunity for reframing the need for HBCU education. With the rise of global white supremacist and nationalist movements, there is a clear opportunity for minority-serving institutions to make a better name for themselves. HBCUs state they develop essential spaces for black students’ psychological safety, which allows them to grow as full humans who contribute to the world. However, this argument is yet another exercise in exclusivity. We must look at this argument with an intersectional lens: Who is allowed to call the schools home? Is it the poor black kid that doesn’t find that respectable dress disqualifies them from intellectual debate? What about the queer kids who rarely feel safe to express, let alone change, the school for their benefit?

An institution’s policies represent its values.

By instilling a ‘talented tenth’ vision of Black Excellence that breeds a monoculture of Black classism, HBCUs lose the opportunity to include, reframe, and innovate for academic excellence in the 21st century. By excluding queer identities, they lose the chance to welcome a community that could help bring its institutions further into the mainstream.

As a design and innovation scholar, I’m bred to look for wicked problems, and opportunities to address them. Needless to say, there are few problems as inherently complex as empowering LGBTQ communities in black institutions. Every national discussion, every new policy, every school representative (including myself) has the opportunity to redefine what the school contributes to our society. By emphasizing admission without including specialized resources, novel coursework, network collaborations, effective reporting systems, innovation opportunities and more, Morehouse will lose the opportunity to leverage a growing community for their benefit.

We have countless questions to answer. What does the 21st-century minority-serving institution look like? What is Morehouse’s (and other HBCU’s) role in this conversation? Who, and how, do these institutions serve?

Let’s start the conversation.

You made it! I can’t thank you enough.

Progressing through professional life is difficult. Believe me, I know.

If you want to talk it through, come talk to me. We’ll find ways to help each other.

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