When HBCU Faculty Promote Anti-HBCU Rhetoric, Everybody Loses

Lincoln University of Missouri journalism professor Will Sites writes for MediaShift today about a new drone journalism program at the university, which is exposing undergraduates to a new element of reporting in a quickly changing global news media environment.

How an HBCU Found a Game-Changer in Drone Journalism

Everything about the grant-funded initiative speaks to what HBCUs urgently need now and in the future – private funding for training that helps students get jobs once they graduate. But what is heartbreaking about the piece is Sites’ consistent referral to how bad Lincoln journalism students are, and how the drone journalism won’t make them better, but gives them a more enjoyable learning experience.
A few quotes:
“Lincoln is an open-enrollment university. Every high school graduate is given a chance to succeed – we don’t turn anyone away. The majority of students come from inner-city Kansas City and St. Louis – two cities known for failing public schools. Many are first-generation students, arriving with almost no understanding of college life. Journalism majors often struggle to shed bad writing habits or learn the value of newswriting and AP style. But, that’s the bad news.”
I’ve watched many broadcast students struggle with writing-intensive courses. These students thrive by watching or interacting through hands-on instruction. Drone journalism allows students to actually see journalism in action, to experience the link between documenting and disseminating the news. Students are realizing drone journalism may be a new path to skills and opportunities, and at least one veteran news photographer agrees.”
There are a few other borderline remarks showing Sites’ perceived deficiencies in Lincoln’s mission and operations, but the highlighted points above are the most harmful. As well-intentioned as Sites clearly is about his work and protective of his students, the problem is that he clearly doesn’t know he just submarined them, their program and the university in just a few lines.
These are the takeaways from Sites’ article about Lincoln students:

  • From pipeline of underperforming school districts
  • Hard to break of poor writing habits and do not understand the art and science of journalism and journalistic standards
  • They struggle with course rigor, and are better served with hands-on training in skills beyond traditional requirements for entry-level work in journalism

That’s a Lincoln professor who teaches much of the school’s introductory and advanced journalism curriculum, and oversees its school newspaper – in his own words. For any hiring manager at a broadcast, digital or print outlet who happens upon Sites’ feature, why would they consider looking to Lincoln as a place to recruit minority journalists – something the entire industry is looking to do?
Why would foundations like Knight-Ridder, McClatchy, Poynter and others find Lincoln’s journalism program worthy of funding, when one of its professors essentially says “we’re too tradition-addled to accept any semblance of change in the way we train our students, who are unprepared when they arrive and largely unwilling to adapt?”
If there are any groups that would be willing to support Lincoln mass communications after such a publicly damning review from one of its stakeholders, it wouldn’t be the kind of transformative support that moves a department to stronger recruitment, self-sustaining grant making, or competitive advancement against other peers.
This is not an indictment of Sites because he is white. He teaches at one of a handful of HBCUs with a sizable population of white students and faculty. This in an indictment of a select number of HBCU faculty, of all races and who at all levels of discontent, screw over their students and their HBCU experience.
HBCUs have for decades quietly suffered a unique phenomenon powered by a small but persistent and powerful group; faculty who plainly do not understand or who vehemently reject the idea of open enrollment and the students served by its construct. This phenomenon isn’t just for white professors at HBCUs; it is more commonly found among faculty members hailing from African Diaspora nations, who cleverly disguise their disdain as “tough love” in the name of adequately training up the black leaders of the future.
Many students accept poor and harsh treatment from this small number of professors and add their experiences to the chapters of campus lore, usually titled “Professor XXX is mean,” “tough but fair,” or “I can’t stand that motherf*cker.” Most of those students who hate it are immature, unprepared and unwilling to work, but it also negatively shapes the classroom environment for mature students who want to work hard but need academic support, and those who are acutely ready for college curriculum.
At its best, this HBCU sub-culture gives students a bad learning experience, and feeds low morale among faculty. At its worst, it becomes public vitriol for sites like RateMyProfessor.com, Twitter and Facebook rants, and professors’ public musings about the declining nature of HBCU competitiveness.
Institutions of all types, from community colleges to Ivy League schools, let in a percentage of students who aren’t ready to be there. The less selective an institution is, the greater the likelihood for students who can’t understand the lack of compassion from professors, and professors who can’t understand the lack of grit from students when it comes to subpar academic performance.
But beyond all of these cultural issues is this article, which if it had been published in the Kansas City Star would have caused an uproar among HBCU advocates. Sites would have been called a racist, students would have been viewed as academic pedestrians, and Lincoln viewed as an academic wasteland.
All of those charges would’ve been unfair and without context. But all of them would have been born out of a distorted view of the HBCU mission, who it serves, how it works, and how its deliverables are defined.
Sites doesn’t seem to be a racist and Lincoln students don’t seem to be dummies. The professor’s article seems to inadvertently read that way. It should prompt all of us to work towards a bird’s-eye view of why HBCUs remain an essential part of our communities, and how we all can do more to perfect their missions.
And we shouldn’t need a drone to reach that kind of cultural vantage point.