Students and alumni of Howard University's Department of Radio, Television and Film recently circulated a petition to save the undergraduate program from rumored budget cuts and program merger in the School of Communication. Citing years of financial neglect against its impact and foundation for professionals of color in media culture, the past and future graduates of the program hope to save it from a sweeping trend at HU and other HBCUs in cutting once-popular degree programs.
The department at Howard carries a little more weight than other program cuts we've seen around the country. Few other institutions, HBCU or PWI, have done what Howard has done to produce capable professionals, executives and content creators in the media arts. But even the Mecca is not immune from the challenging realities of the business of higher education. Historically black colleges face economic and political scrutiny to cut costs while increasing value, and lagging academic programs are the primary casualty in the fight to keep minority students enrolled and interested in formerly popular majors in a changing job climate.
HBCUs find themselves in an interesting place. They are the best at graduating minorities who go on to earn advanced degrees in the S.T.E.M disciplines, and this success prompts them to strengthen the profile of the undergraduate programs in the same fields. Sponsored research, public relations, and presidential lobbying all fall in line in the effort to generate more scientists, engineers and researchers that will boost the nation's productivity in a technologically-starved, shrinking global economy.
The result is diminished marketing, faculty and student retention and executive focus on those majors that still shape the identity of the American society. Foreign languages, literary and performance arts, history and philosophy, are commonly the first programs to be quickly and dishonorably laid to rest. They are mourned by students, alums and the bleeding hearts of those who came of age in a nation that once touted opportunity for those of any passion who worked hard at their craft.
Greater than the battle to bolster profitable and popular degree offerings is the HBCU war against predominantly white institutions for diverse student populations. It is not easy to tell a high achieving black student to disavow more scholarship money, better facilities, televised athletics and a vibrant social setting in favor of one out of the four at an HBCU.
And it is an outright difficult proposition to base any recruitment solely on tradition, the benefit of black faculty and networking opportunities, and the HBCU experience that mainstream culture continues to sell as an outdated product in today's "post-racial" circumstances. Given these realities, there is no business sense or academic strategy in keeping majors in which too few students have too little interest.
Some HBCU presidents and provosts don't readily admit or understand it, but there is a very legitimate place in society for strong liberal arts training. As online learning becomes more attractive and available to the learning public, the need for stronger higher ed teaching and administration curriculum will increase. As online media continues to grow in appeal and accessibility, the need for trained minority journalists, editors, television producers and filmmakers will match the demand. And there will always be a need for historians to document the rise of the machine in our culture, be they bloggers or traditional authors.
For now, HBCU leadership is running down the flavor of the month in S.T.E.M. advancement and training, and given these early phases of a global tech surge, its not such a bad idea for HBCUs to be out in front. But for those who wonder where the liberal arts are going and how to keep them rich in HBCU curriculum, the answer starts at revitalizing recruitment processes and updating the liberal arts curriculum, with both reflecting and embracing changing technologies and their career opportunities.
This post was originally published on HBCU Digest.