A Black History Education Quilt Special 2011
An Interview with Dr. George C. Wright: ‘Accounting for Accountability’
Dr. George C. Wright
By Arelya J. Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief
The Mid-South Tribune
And the Black Information Highway
It wasn’t the first time Prairie View A&M University President George C. Wright has been asked if Black colleges and universities—otherwise known as Historical Black Colleges and Universities and aptly abbreviated as HBCUs—are relevant in today’s post-integration era where a nation has even elected its first African American president who had just made his arrival (1961) in the world during the tip of a tumultuous Civil Rights Movement.
Dr. Wright, as so many other African American prexies of HBCUs, display a combination of emotions which can range from irritation to being outright verbal (However, with the demeanor of a highly-disciplined professor) knowing that the undertone of such a question implies that Black institutions of higher learning just don’t stack up to their white counterparts. But the one thing Wright is not and that is defensive about the relevancy of HBCUs in the world where all race relations are supposed to be null and void now that the country has its first Black elected president, which somehow is supposed to be the one-hundred percent proof that all is well in the western world.
“[Society] believes that it is a contradiction to still have Black colleges,” begins Dr. Wright, expounding on the fact that the whole purpose for the Civil Rights Movement was to ‘integrate’ and therefore what was founded as a Black institution of Higher Learning should now go by the wayside. He wastes no time in getting to that other perception that Black colleges are ‘inferior’ to their white counterparts which are usually older and have historically had more access to funding.
Standards have to be defined as far as Dr. Wright is concerned, and these standards cannot be defined in a vacuum. As an example, he points out a tradition that the Texas State Legislature has in which a day is given to colleges to come in to make their case state funding. He recalls one year that he had to make his case behind Dr. Robert Gates who was then president of Texas A&M and presently serves as President Barack Obama’s Secretary of Defense. Dr. Wright said that one year Gates had a fundraising goal of about a billion dollars for Texas A&M; whereas, he as president of Prairie View had a goal of $30 million. Sure, Gates made his goal, Dr. Wright acknowledges, but he points out that he, a president of a Black college, made his, too. And on the scale of things he and Prairie View should not be judged with the same yardstick as Gates and Texas A&M.
“How can you compare us?” he asked rhetorically. Well, almost rhetorically, because in essence he says this is exactly what is being done when it comes to what Black institutions are supposed to achieve or not achieve; what Blacks institutions are supposed to be doing and not be doing in terms of fundraising, and too many times this comparison under the guise of a color-blind accountability are used to justify legislatures and others not providing funds or rather not providing funds with the same enthusiasm as they would a non-HBCU.
“How can you compare us?” he asks again and this time with that proverbial logic of comparing apples to oranges. “We had a goal of $30 million that year and we made about $32 million. We had tapped into people who had not accumulated the kind of wealth in America that Texas A&M had been doing—but we were doing things that would benefit our university for years to come. And given where Prairie View started [with a Jim Crow disadvantage], this was an accomplishment our people can be very proud of. You can’t use for us the same model you use for Texas A&M no more than you can use the same model for Texas A&M that you use for the University of California,” and he brings up the latter in saying that nobody ever looks at a model of comparing white institutions of higher learning to other white institutions of higher learning; yet, when it comes to Black institutions of higher learning, apples and oranges are compared arbitrarily to measure progress under that elusive subjective term called ‘accountability’. Dr. Wright hammers on the fact that this is not authentic accountability, and it has no place in being used to measure the legitimacy for the existence of HBCUs.
“In other words, it puts us – Black college presidents—in a situation where we look like we are always complaining and apologizing,” he says, citing for example that accountability measures don’t add up when it comes to Ph.D programs and other post-graduate programs that a Texas A&M had in place in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when Prairie View is now just beginning to implement such programs 60 or 70 years later.
“But, of course, back then they [the powers that be] were not measuring like they are ‘measuring’ now,” he asserts sarcastically.
Furthermore, Dr. Wright says: “It’s very acceptable in this country to have institutions that are solely one-sex or one religion or a military university and no one questions that, but when it comes to having a Black institution then it becomes a controversy.”
Dr. Wright says that Prairie View has long prepared students who wanted an education and wanted to go on to get a higher degree at an institution that offers post graduate degrees or other programs that Prairie View does not offer. But he reasserts that Prairie View and other Black colleges set a foundation that builds up a student’s self-confidence which translates into a self-esteem while providing a good education.
“I can give examples of students who finish Prairie View and other HBCUs. I can show you people who will do great things,” he says then tells of a student named Johnny Jones. “Johnny came from Arkansas and he went on to go the LBJ School of Public Affairs…he is not a stereotyped student. He wears a bow tie and he has so much confidence that he’s not bothered by what anyone thinks of him… He’s either going to be governor of Texas one day or he’ll be governor of Arkansas,” Dr. Wright predicted like a proud ‘papa’ who has mentored many African American students to go on to achieve.
He adds that HBCUs have allowed many African American students to be the first of their generation to go to college and get a degree. “Students who now come to Prairie View are following in the footsteps of someone else in their family who went here. This helps the community by encouraging more to come.” He says that when that first of a generation graduates it serves as an example of bettering the economics of that family and a way out of welfare, if that’s the case. “It’s easy to blame the victim,” he says, emphasizing that getting a college degree cuts down on many African American students being economic ‘victims’ in what has not always been an even playing field.
“Also, anytime I start off a Black History Month presentation, I ask the question ‘Is Black History Month necessary?’ And I try to do it in a humorous way. Whenever I do, someone will ask ‘why don’t we do White History Month? But it has been so ingrained in us to question our history month not realizing that every month we have White History Month. It’s called American History, and then I go into why Black History Month is so important and why Black institutions are still important.”
Link to Prairie View on the HBCU Lane or the Education Lane on the Black Information Highway or The Mid-South Tribune ONLINE.