5 reasons my PhD belongs to an HBCU

Freshman year- c. 2004 Dr. McClure- 2013

Top: Freshman year- c. 2004
Below: Doctoral graduation 2013

This past Sunday, I finally completed the last leg to what seemed to be a lifelong race to finish my Doctoral program.  Ironically, I could not shake the incessant urge to keep looking back. Perhaps it was to catch a glimpse of my family who seemingly filled an entire section at FedEx Forum.  Perhaps it was more symbolic.  Perhaps it had something to do with the understanding that as I ceremoniously walked into a new future, I knew that it was my past that got me up on that stage.

First and foremost, I am indebted to the University of Memphis (U of M).  My advisors, Dr. G, Dr. Bond, Dr. Smallwood, and Dr. Gasman (from UPenn) all invested much into my success.  U of M provided me with unlimited resources, financial stability, and challenged me to master the craft of a historian.  However, I would not have made it to the U of M had it not been for my HBCUs.  Here are five reasons why:

  1. Much appreciation to that Hampton waterfront where I met my "smiley face" aka my wife

    Much appreciation to the Hampton waterfront where I met my “smiley face,” my wife Tracae.

  2.        1.    Hampton University took a chance on me.

The truth is, I should have never made it to college.  Ms. Brint Martin, an admissions recruiter for HU saw something in me.  Whatever she saw was a trait that could not be quantified by stats or through standardized testing.  She saw something in me that most colleges would have glossed over.  What she understood was that Hampton also had a responsibility (and the reputation) to mold young people into something great.  Hampton University not only believed in me, they gave me a chance to grow and to be successful.  Ms Martin made me promise to make her proud… This PhD is for you!

       2.    “What are you going to do with a 1.75 G.P.A???”

Maximizing that opportunity took time, time I may not have had if I were at a majority institution.  Bad study habits; unfamiliarity with the rigorous demands of the college life, and immaturity landed me with a whopping 1.75 G.P.A at the end of my freshman year.  I was mortified!

I quickly realized that this was not high school and that receiving bad grades was no longer cool.  So many “Big Brothers and Sisters,” faculty (shout out to Professors Foster, Blang, Robertson, Watson, and Calloway), staff, and administrators, pulled me to the side to tell me they expected more from me.  They gave me the tough love I needed.  Still thinking I was going to pledge that following year, one big brother laughingly asked, “What are you going to do with a 1.75 G.P.A?” He reminded me that pledging should have been the last thing on my mind.  Needless to say, I maintained over a 3.0 G.P.A from that point forward (And I pledged Alpha!)

       3.    “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Life at an HBCU is a struggle! The “Hampton run-around” as we liked to call it, certainly prepared me for graduate school struggles.  We may not have had the most up-to-date technology, (maps or smart boards in MLK for example), comprehensive financial packages, or academic resources, but we learned to build mansions with stones.

       4.    I learned what it meant to be a Black Historian

At North Carolina Central University, I learned the long history of the Black Historian.  Here, the importance of social responsibility and academic excellence was reaffirmed.  I learned about the significant contributions of George Washington Williams, Earl Thorpe, Helen Edmonds, Sylvia Jacobs, Benjamin Quarles, John Blassingame, Hubert Harrison, and John Hope Franklin.  Moreover, I learned that it was ok to tell ourstory.

       5.    Benefits of the real Social Network

I constantly benefited from the social network that exists amongst alumni of Black colleges.  In fact, if it had not been for Dr. Arwin Smallwood, an NCCU alum, I probably would not have been accepted to the U of M.  There, I met other HBCU graduates from Xavier, Florida A&M, and Tennessee State University.  Without their support and camaraderie I would not have made it through.

Walking across that stage was a culmination of educational experiences.  I must emphasize however, that it was an HBCU that gave me an opportunity when no other school would.  Peers, mentors, and faculty at HBCUs provided me with the much-needed tough love and shaped me into the young man I am today.  My struggles gave me character and perseverance.  There I learned the craft and benefited from the vast social network.  I may have walked across the stage to receive my degree from the University of Memphis, but this accomplishment will forever memorialize my connection to Historically Black Colleges and Universites. 


5th Quarter

HBCUs are historically known for educating African Americans during a time when they were not afforded a postsecondary education elsewhere; account for 3% of postsecondary institutions but award approximately 20% of African American undergraduates; serve as the foundation for many African American Doctorates and Professionals; house Black Greek fraternities and sororities; and engage in friendly athletic rivalries. But the pulse of HBCUs are their BANDS. HBCU bands differ from Non-HBCU bands based on their soulful musical compositions, dance, and precision. The 5th Quarter is the time where you can see HBCUs perform.

If Pandora were to create a HBCU Band station, it would sound something like this…




StateofHBCUs Top 5 HBCU Presidents

Within the past few years, leadership at our nation’s HBCUs have come under a firestorm of criticism.  Last year around this time, there were approximately sixteen open HBCU presidencies across the nation.  This conundrum led University of Pennsylvania scholar Marybeth Gasman to ask “What’s Going On?”

My soul rejoiced this morning after stumbling across a posting by HBCU Digest honoring their top five “Greatest HBCU Presidents.”  Rather than pointing out leadership’s shortcomings, constructing positive dialogue concerning the breadth of advancements and accomplishments of HBCU presidents proves to be a much more efficient and productive practice.

So, in the spirit of furthering that discussion, I have compiled a list of my top five influential HBCU presidents of all time.  My criteria for this list is simple- those who demonstrated the ability to fundraise, those who proved to be academic innovators, those who resisted and pushed back against political opposition, and those who fostered an atmosphere conducive to community building, social, political, and economic advancement.

1.  Booker T. Washington: Tuskegee Institute, 1881-1915 — Ok, maybe the fact that I have devoted the past three years of my life to reading and studying everything about Washington does in fact have something to do with him being rated number 1…  In reality, he tops the list for his uncanny ability to fundraise, to recruit students domestically and globally, and for his influence as an academic innovator, which was and arguably remains unmatched.  How many of you could turn a $2,000 appropriation into a million dollar institution while fighting Jim Crow?


2. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson: Howard University, 1926-1960 — As a proud Hamptonian it kills me to name a Howard president in the number two slot.  HU pride aside, Johnson, the first African American president of Howard, moved the University from having zero nationally accredited programs, to boasting ten schools and colleges (all fully accredited), 6,000 students, and an $8 million dollar budget.  Through Johnson, Howard stockpiled some of the most intelligent and accomplished faculty ever to exist in one institution, names such as: Sterling Brown, E. Franklin Frazier, Rayford Logan, Charles H. Houston, Eric Williams and Merze Tate.  Under his tutelage, Johnson mentored and produced generations of successful and influential young scholars.url-8

3. Johnnetta Cole: Spelman College, 1987-1997; Bennett College, 2002-2007 — As if being the first African American female president of Spelman was not enough, Cole took her talents to help develop and advance the mission of Bennett College.  Two accomplishments help land her in the number three slot.  Cole has maintained a commitment to the humanities (Maybe another self-admitted bias as a Doctoral candidate). Cole became the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African American Studies at Emory.  Most recently, she successfully pushed for the creation of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History.  Secondly and maybe more importantly, Cole created a model of excellence and access for countless Black women.


4. Robert Moton: Tuskegee Institute, 1915-1935 — This spot could have gone to either Frederick D. Patterson, or Moton. Anyone attempting to fill the shoes of Booker T. Washington automatically belongs on this list.  Moton took over the presidency at one of the most critical moments in American history.  He navigated through, maintained, and advanced the standing of Tuskegee amid a rapidly changing landscape spurred by World War I, the Great Migration, and the emergence of the New Negro Movement.  Dr. Moton led Tuskegee to a multi million-dollar endowment, nearly doubled school enrollment, and transitioned Tuskegee from an Institute to a University.


5. William R. Harvey: Hampton University, 1978- present — As one of the most recognizable names in the HBCU community, president Harvey has created a “superpower” of an institution (Ok, maybe one more biased listing but whose counting?).  Although he has garnered a reputation as a “business man,” Harvey’s acumen as an academic innovator is also unparalleled.  Most recently, Harvey has become one of the most influential public advocates for HBCUs.  In 2010, Harvey was appointed Chairman of the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  Earlier this month, Harvey used his influence to pressure Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to act in favor of HBCUs facing increasing financial crises.


Honorable Mention:  Frederick D. Patterson, Benjamin Mays, Mary McLeod Bethune, and James E. Shepard.  

Once again, this list is in no way exhaustive.  It is however, a reflection of HBCU presidents I believe have significantly advanced institutional brands, and contributed to their students’ social, cultural, and economic advancement.  We want to know what your list would look like!

HBCUs Face Financial Hardships

During the 2012-2013 academic year over 14,000 students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were denied aid from the Parent PLUS Loan. As a result HBCUs experienced a $160 million decrease in institutional revenue.

This event is characterized as one of the worst HBCUs face. In response organizations such as the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), and Thurgood Marshall College Fund are working diligently to address these financial difficulties.

Take a glimpse of President William R. Harvey of Hampton University and Chair of President Obama’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs, address on the current financial barriers HBCUs face and recommendation to work with the federal government to overcome these setbacks.

Today’s Youth DISCONNECTED with HBCUs


Often I, and many HBCU alumni, become shocked when today’s youth often ask, “What is a HBCU?” It becomes quite shocking to us because we grew up with family members who attended HBCUs or were knowledgeable that HBCUs served as the only option for Blacks to receive a Higher Education less than 60 years ago. From this I began to ask myself how is it that today’s youth are so unfamiliar with HBCUs?

I always argue that things are connected through history. Before the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) over 90% of Blacks attended HBCUs. Today, however, less than 13% of Blacks attend HBCUs. So how would today’s youth know or become aware of HBCUs when there is such a drastic decrease in the number of Blacks enrolled at HBCUs? Many parents of our current youth sought out the opportunity to attend integrated institutions and the resources available at those institutions. This could possibly have resulted in today’s youth having teachers or mentors that are not HBCU alumni, which also results in the lack of discussion about HBCUs.

From this proposition it becomes even clearer why HBCUs must actively recruit heavily for students in order to create an interest within today’s youth of these institutions. More importantly it makes our responsibility, as alumni, just as notable to discuss with today’s youth about attending a HBCU and why it could be the better possibility for many students in regards to their higher education. The ignorance of today’s youth about HBCUs is not their fault. But when these institutions are introduced to them, a keen interest is created and possible desire to attend. If we, as alumni, do not create discourse about HBCUs with today’s youth, how do we expect them to attend in the future?

White Saviors of Black Colleges? Samuel Armstrong and Hampton Institute

Were there white founders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities? Yes.  Does this fact contradict the legacy and mission(s) of these colleges? Absolutely not.  Following the Civil War (1865), the only entity with the resources and financial backing that could help accomplish this goal was the Freedmen’s Bureau.  Officers of the Bureau by nature were ex-Union officers, like Oliver O. Howard and Samuel Armstrong.  Were some of these officers self-seeking, sure they were.  However, the majority were well-intending Christians, honestly interested in equipping freedmen with the tools and training to elevate themselves socially and economically.  A major proponent of this idea was Samuel Armstrong.

Howard, director of the Freedmen’s Bureau appointed Samuel Armstrong to lay the foundations of Hampton Institute. Armstrong was born in Wailuku, Hawaii, to American missionaries, Richard Armstrong and Clarissa Chapman.  It was here in Hawaii that Armstrong was introduced to missionary work.  A major influence in his life was his father, as minister of public instruction, the elder Armstrong was in charge of building 500 Hawaiian free schools and schools of higher educational work.  This example left a lasting imprint on the young Samuel.  Of this impression he recalled, “it meant something to the Hampton School, and perhaps to the ex-slaves of America, that, from 1820-1860, the distinctly missionary period, there was worked out in the Hawaiian Islands the problem of emancipation, enfranchisement, and Christian Civilization of a dark-skinned Polynesian people in many respects like the Negro race.”[1]

Armstrong graduated from Williams College in 1862, and by August of that same year entered the Army as Captain of the 125th New York Volunteers.  It was here that Armstrong was first introduced to the Black race, taking command of the Ninth U.S. Colored Troops.  His first impressions were mixed.  In a letter to Archibald Hopkins in December 1862, Armstrong wrote, “I am a sort of Abolitionist, but I have not learned to love the Negro.”  This comment is important in gaining a complete picture of Armstrong.  Critics have categorized Armstrong as a racist, who was only interested in developing submissive industrial workers.  While it is true that Armstrong’s familiarity with Blacks before founding Hampton Institute was minimal, Armstrong’s perceptions of race rapidly evolved, maturing during his tenure as commander of Black troops.[2]

By January 1863, his views were steadily changing.  He wrote, “as Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel of the Ninth and Eighth Regiments of U.S. Colored Troops… my experiences convinced me of the excellent qualities and capacities of the freedmen.  Their quick response to good treatment and to discipline was a constant surprise.”  Armstrong was more ignorant than racist.  Certainly his two years experience working with Black troops completely altered his unenlightened and previous prejudices toward Blacks.  He concluded that their enslaved conditions were only preconceived barriers, and that they deserved as good a chance at making their own way as any other people.  By September 1863, Armstrong had committed himself to assisting freedmen in finding a place in American society.  As George Foster Peabody, the second president of Hampton Institute, recalled of Armstrong in 1918, “the work to which his later life was dedicated was not based on emotional sympathies, nor on traditions of abolitionism but on a maturing view of life and duty.”[3]

Armstrong was responsible for approximately 35,000 free Blacks, primarily for overseeing the distribution of nearly 20,000 rations per day.  His duties also consisted of visiting and reporting on the conditions of the freedmen, reuniting scattered families, settling legal disputes, and maintaining overall order.  Armstrong observed that “trouble was expected but there was not a ripple of it… their resource was surprising; the Negro in a tight place is a genius.”  These conclusions pushed Armstrong more and more to the idea of creating a permanent school for the purposes of educating the freedmen.[4]

After the war however, Armstrong found himself unemployed.  Armstrong eagerly wrote a letter to Oliver Otis Howard, soliciting work.  Howard obliged.   Armstrong was placed over the Fifth sub-district of Virginia, covering ten counties, with its headquarters at Hampton.  It was here that Armstrong united with the efforts of Mary Peake, and the “Standard of Excellence” was put into motion.

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was initially created to fulfill a specific need as well as to meet a unique social and economic condition.  Armstrong’s plan for educating Blacks was, “to train selected Negro Youths who should go out and teach and lead their people, first by example, by getting land and homes; to give them not a dollar that they could earn for themselves; to teach respect for labor, to replace stupid drudgery with skilled hands, and in this way to build up an industrial system for the sake, not only of self-support and intelligent labor, but also for the sake of character.” Armstrong was vehemently committed to community building, and providing the means for Blacks to become self-sufficient.[5]

For Armstrong, self-sufficiency could only be accomplished by first establishing strong examples of Black independence.  Armstrong elaborated on this concept stating, “it was to be an institution where “in the home, or the farm, or the schoolroom, students were to have the opportunity to learn the three great lessons of life, how to love, how to labor, and how to teach others.”  It was to be a socially conservative, yet an academically progressive Institute.  Meaning, as students matriculated through Hampton, the wider American society would be forced to accommodate, politically, economically, and socially to the emerging “new Negro,” thereby forcing the creation of new opportunities and upward mobility.  Through this progression, Hampton would gradually come to include more and more academic majors to the curriculum in supplementation of manual training.  Armstrong wrote, “this Institute should, I think, be polytechnic, growing step by step, adding new industries as the old ones shall become established and remunerative.”[6]

By 1880, Armstrong had accomplished one of his primary goals of encouraging land and home-ownership, as over 60 percent of graduates from Hampton owned their own homes and cultivated their own farms.  Indeed Armstrong’s approach to eradicating social problems in America may have had flaws, but his methods yielded unwavering results.  One of his most significant contributions manifested out of the work of one of his students, a graduate by the name of Booker T. Washington.  Washington arrived at Hampton in 1872, and grew to embody the potentiality of what Armstrong envisioned.  Arguably the brightest student to graduate from Hampton, Armstrong contended, “If Hampton had trained no other student in the seven years of its existence, the one now coming to the platform would justify all the costs and the sacrifices entailed by its founders.”[7]  This prophecy proved true in ways Armstrong never imagined.

A year later (1881) Washington founded Tuskegee Institute.  However, none of this would have been possible without the initial help of Armstrong, Howard and the Bureau.  Whether we are looking at the creation of HBCUs or the Civil Rights Movement, it is important to understand the dynamics of interracial cooperation.  Don’t get it twisted, Blacks have always acted as agents and have been autonomous, however, we must stop criticizing institutions/people who have benefited from the assistance of whites.  We can always accomplish more together than we will apart.

[1] The Armstrong League of Hampton Workers, Memories of Old Hampton (Hampton: The Institute Press, 1909), 1.

[2] Peabody, Education for Life, 78.

[3] Armstrong, Memories of Old Hampton, 6; Peabody, Education for Life, 78.

[4] Armstrong, Memories of Old Hampton, 7.

[5] Peabody, Education for Life, 99.

[6] Ibid., 108, 116.

[7] Arna Bontemps, Young Booker: Booker T. Washington’s Early Days (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972), 57.

Black College History Month: Black Colleges and Civil Rights, remembering the greensboro four

In honor of Black history month, every day for the month of February, we would like to highlight ways HBCUs have contributed to the larger American and even global societiey.  Without these institutions, the world would be a drastically different place.  It is unfortunate that so many of our contributions go overlooked and even intentionally dismissed by the dominant powers that be.

First and foremost, homage must be paid to the founder of Black history month, Carter Godwin Woodson.  The second African American to receive his PhD from Harvard, Woodson received his first faculty post at the great Howard University.  There, he served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, published The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, and founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (Shout out to ASALH, try to attend one of their conferences if you can, they are amazing) More importantly, Woodson mentored and challenged numerous black students at Howard and later at West Virginia Collegiate Institute (Now West Virginia State University).

The moral and intellectual training provided by scholars like Woodson at Black colleges directly led to the development of a new type of man (and woman) or what Alain Locke called, the New Negro.  An ever-increasing social and economic atmosphere of disenfranchisement, frustration of returning World War II soldiers created an extremely volatile environment in America, and pushed these “New Negroes” to find new methods of having their demands heard.

One of the first[1] and most important moments of the Civil Rights Movement occurred on this day, February 1 (1960).  Four students from North Carolina A & T University, in Greensboro, North Carolina sent shockwaves through America when they sat-in at a local segregated Woolworth in downtown Greensboro.  After being denied coffee, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., Joseph McNeil and David Richmond returned the next day with even more students to occupy the segregated lunch counters.  In spite of being viscously attacked, humiliated by having condiments thrown and smeared all over them, these students acted with dignity, courage and power.

(Most) Black colleges were breeding grounds for protests movements.[2]  No where in America (except the black church… maybe) were students from similar socio-economic backgrounds, who shared similar goals for their people, were easily assembled.  There were many organizations such as fraternities and sororities (Ice!) that were already established that could serve as nuclei of new protests organizations, or chapters of the SNCC.  Furthermore, students at black colleges naturally created a national network of communication.

Students at schools like A & T, and NCCU, Howard and others used these networks to their benefit.  That March, ten Black students from Wiley and Bishop Colleges occupied Woolworth lunch counters in Marshall, Texas.  Largely organized by, Rev. Harry Blake, a 1959 graduate of Bishop College, Blake had been influenced by SCLC President, and HBCU alum (Morehouse) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.[3]

By the end of February, protests had begun in over 31 cities.  Thanks to the effort of black colleges (and many other contributors) by July, Woolworth’s had completely desegregated its lunch counters throughout the entire South.  So on this first day of Black history month, let not thier sacrifices and the humiliation that our ancestors had to endure be in vain.  Let us remember their achievements, the lessons they taught us and use them for good.

[1] Not considering the Long Civil Rights Movement.  Also, by first, I mean events to be nationally recognized.

[2] Administration at more conservative black schools often warned their students to avoid protest movements.  Schools like Spelman, Shaw and Hampton.  However,many students from these schools still participated.

[3] See Donald Sears article on Bishop-Wiley Protests movement

Should HBCUs STILL exist?

During my research and discussions about my research, I am often asked the question of “should HBCUs still exist?” Yes. shockingly, as a graduate of an HBCU, initially I found it quite difficult to understand why anyone would question the existence of our institutions. I wondered if they were ignorant of the fact that although HBCUs account for only 2% of postsecondary education, they are ultimately responsible for producing over 20% of African American graduates. Although HBCUs access and financial resources may not be equal to PWIs across the board, research has shown that students learn more if not the same as their counterparts at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) in spite of these inequalities.

But still there’s this question of whether HBCUs should exist? Although I may have ill feelings towards this question it is one that should be asked. Through demonstrating the importance of our existence through our historical achievements and student academic gains we strongly support the existence of HBCUs. Below are examples of how people have questioned the existence of HBCUs:

  • Brown vs Board of Education allowed African American admissions into PWIs; as a result, enrollment at HBCUs decreased and HBCU enrollment has not increased since.
  • The better and brighter African American students and faculty attend PWIs (I beg to differ)
  • HBCU graduation rates at HBCUs are sub-par (Yes…but we must IMPROVE THEM!)
  • The federal government should not support HBCUs due to their diversity efforts at PWIs; thus seeming contradictory.

Yes, these are the arguments being made on the existence of HBCUs. I believe that some are valid and others invalid. However, my overall goal is to support the argument that HBCUs should exist because they serve a population of students that otherwise would not be afforded an opportunity to higher education. In doing so I ask you to ask more questions about HBCUs existence! Ask others outside of the “HBCU World” why should we continue to exist? What can occur within our institutions to improve our graduation rates and financial attainments? More importantly, what can we do to better ourselves as Alumni? Through these discussions we are better able to educate others about HBCUs and prove our existence.

What you should know before seeing Red Tails

Before you all flood movie theaters to go see Red Tails next week, there are a few things you should know.  Why in the world were pilots trained in Tuskegee, Alabama?

By 1940, the question of the United States entering World War II was not a question of if but when?  African Americans nationwide jumped at the opportunity to “prove” themselves worthy of citizenship by defending their country.  Although Blacks were allowed to enlist, they still faced unparalleled discrimination, segregation and were marginalized to service jobs.

Black newspapers, Civil Rights leaders and especially black colleges placed enormous pressure on Roosevelt and the American government to provide Black soldiers the opportunity to pick up arms and fight.  They were particularly interested in joining the U. S. Army Air Corps (AAC) training programs.  As early as 1939, Roosevelt gave the go ahead on a plan that would double the size and strength of the AAC, however, blacks did not immediately benefit from these efforts.

Black leaders fought vigorously for inclusion.  Taking the lead as activists were presidents of Wilberforce, Hampton, and Tuskegee.  By late 1939, Congress passed the Civilian Pilot Training Act.  With a budget of four million dollars this act authorized the creation of hundreds of flight training facilities that were to be placed at colleges throughout the countries.  Needless to say, blacks continued to face more and more discrimination.  Only CPT programs at Hampton, Howard, A&T, Delaware State, West Virginia State College and Tuskegee allowed Blacks an opportunity to participate.

Unfortunately, by 1940, black participation was still minimal.  These training programs had only created 124 licensed black pilots, seven held commercial pilot ratings, and only one was enlisted in the AAC.

Increased pressure to boost black enlistment continued and was lead by the NAACP, under A. Phillip Randolph, Robert Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier, David Ward Howe of the Chicago Defender, and the successor to Booker T. Washington and Robert Moton, Frederick D. Patterson, president of Tuskegee.

Finally their efforts paid off, when on September 16, 1940, White House Press Secretary Stephen Early announced the AAC would soon begin training black pilots.  The training was supposed to create black organizations in each major branch of service, including aviation training as pilots, mechanics and technical specialists.  Of course Jim Crow reigned supreme as Aviation Squadrons were still conceptualized to be all black, with all-black support units, and trained under racially segregated conditions.

In spite of these conditions, Tuskegee President Patterson lobbied tirelessly to have the program placed near his school.  As a well-established hub of aviation, Tuskegee had already been one of the first to establish a CPT program and many of its alumni demonstrated remarkable success.  Its seemingly endless amount of land provided an ideal place for pilot training.  $1,663,057 later, the Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) was created and blacks from all over the country soon began making their way south to Tuskegee, Alabama.

The Tricky Thing about Hazing: FAMU, Hazing, and the Law

By Anonymous

Recent news of hazing at Florida A&M University has us the nation in a “daze,” and rightfully so. Never should a student lose his or her life over something so silly. College is supposed to be an institution of higher education; a place for students to mature in a controlled environment; a place where parents shouldn’t have to worry about the safety of their children.

BUT, what would be considered an adequate response to this tragedy? Is our response a logical one? What, if anything, can we learn from this situation?  I submit to you that our response to this unfortunate event is extremely overblown. Neither the reaction nor the punishment fit what society has labeled a “crime.”

Does a Hazing Epidemic Really Exist?

Let me say this upfront. Under NO conditions should we excuse actions that lead to death or permanent injury. But the reality of the situation is that death, in particular, is a relatively rare occurrence when it comes to hazing activities. I know you’re thinking, “life is precious,” or, “one death is too many.” Ugh. Please spare me the semantics.

The truth is that we participate in activities with higher risks of death than hazing all the time. According to the NHTSA, the chance of death in a motor vehicle accident is 1 for every 10,000 citizens per year, or 0.01%.[1] Since 1838, there have been roughly 160 deaths related to hazing. This number reflects all hazing related deaths, including those attributable to renegade chapters, non-Greek letter organizations, and deaths of those hazing the pledges. The number of deaths attributable to BGLOs (Black Greek Letter Organizations), their associated renegade chapters, and HBCU bands total approximately, 12.

Tebow's haze cut

Let’s assume each organization in the divine 9 has 150,000 members.[2] That’s a total of 1.35 million members since 1906, or 12,800 people becoming members of BGLOs each year. 12 deaths over this period means that one’s chance of death for participation in hazing activities is 0.0009%. Driving a car is 11 times more dangerous than joining one of these organizations.

Of course, not all members pledge or experience hazing. If 25% of all members of these organizations do fit into the pledged/hazed category, we should expect to see 33-34 total hazing related deaths for BGLOs (including bands, sports teams, and renegade chapters). But we don’t. We have 12.

Public fallout from hazing tragedies have led to society labeling hazing as a crime without the cost-benefit analysis appropriate for such a decision (See recent remarks from Florida Governor, Rick Scott).  I don’t know whether the results of said analysis would be favorable or unfavorable for hazers or hazing “victims.” What I do know is that the existence of tragedy cannot, by itself, mean that an activity isn’t worth doing. If you don’t agree, ask coal miners or skydivers.

Does Society’s Response Make Sense?

Perhaps the most troubling issue isn’t that these activities exist in the first place, but instead how society responds. For instance, hazing related deaths are by no means new occurrences, dating back to 1838 by one account. Nor are they limited to one particular type of organization, including sports teams, fraternities, sororities, bands, and school classification (freshman versus upperclassmen).

Accepting that these activities currently do and will continue to exist, are hazing laws in their current form adequate? I suggest that they are not only inadequate, but they are extreme overreactions. Society already has laws for assault and battery, what makes hazing laws any different? The problem with using assault/battery laws to deal with hazing deals with the issue of implicit consent on behalf of the “victim.” I use quotes when calling recipients of hazing “victims” because I believe continued participation on their part amounts to some kind of implicit consent. The vast increase of hazing laws seemingly reflects society’s answer to the reasonable retort by hazers, claiming, “how can I be held legally accountable if he/she agreed to participate?”

Hazing Laws are Paternalistic

Hazers have a point here. Why should the law step in and provide a remedy for someone that is unhappy with the terms of his or her agreement? Here, the law takes on a disturbingly paternalistic tone, suggesting that regardless of what a “victim” agrees to, the law actually knows what’s best for them.

Yes, it’s true that the law does occasionally strike a paternalistic tone, but these instances usually involve groups of people unable to adequately protect themselves. Some examples include our rules regarding statutory rape for children younger than an age at which we believe they are capable of consent, or regulations aimed at consumers who are at an information disadvantage. I therefore find it absurd that hazing laws give adults a mulligan on their initial decision, or alternatively, a chance at vengeance. Most often the participants are over 18 years old and capable of entering into legally binding contracts. These “victims” aren’t in the same category of individuals who we believe are incapable of making proper decisions for themselves.


Is justice really served by punishing hazers? If our true goal is to protect people from making poor decisions, providing “victims” a legal “way-out” seems counterintuitive.  There is no disincentive for participation. As long as there are people wanting the “pledge experience,” hazing laws are there to provide a safety net for when the “experience” ends up being more than they expected. Using the justice system to clean up bad decisions made by willing participants is also a waste of our limited fiscal resources. A more appropriate approach would involve making it clear to participants that they are participating at their own risk. Only by forcing people to internalize the consequences of their own actions will we achieve our goal of preventing people from making uninformed decisions to pledge.  Individuals who continue to participate will be the ones knowledgeable of and comfortable with the risk they are taking. These educated decision makers will make more informed decisions and will be less likely to turn to the law in the event that the risk they voluntarily took, takes a turn for the worse.

I am by no means a psychologist, but one cannot help but note the relationship between society’s responses to events like these, and a generation for whom common descriptive terms include, “sense of entitlement,” and “instant gratification.” These are the kids who each received a trophy regardless of whether they won or lost. This is the group whose parents decided, “no one will tell my child what to do, except me.” These are the children of the parents who have made America into a highly litigious society, with their children threatening to sue each other instead of fighting it out on the playground.

The easy question is whether those responsible for hazing others should be punished. The harder question instead involves us considering what role personal responsibility should play in our society, and to what extent we’re comfortable shifting that responsibility off of those upon whom it traditionally has fallen. I’m prepared to concede that it may be too late…. but me, personally, I want that old thing back.

[1] The number of fatalities is divided by the entire US population to get the 1 per 10,000 ratio. I will assume that the entire US population is a proper denominator and represents an accurate number of people who travel by motor vehicle.

[2] This number is an extremely low estimate. It does not including the number of people participating in renegade chapter activities, or band/sports related hazing. The resulting numbers will, therefore, be highly inflated in terms of one’s chance of death due to hazing activities.