Monday, November 15, 2010

An Interview with Professor Marybeth Gasman

Professor Marybeth Gasman's Bio:
Dr. Gasman is an historian of higher education. Her work explores issues pertaining to philanthropy and historically black colleges, black leadership, contemporary fundraising issues at black colleges, and African-American giving. Dr. Gasman’s most recent book is Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007). She has also written (with Patrick J. Gilpin) Charles S. Johnson: Leadership beyond the Veil in the Age of Jim Crow (SUNY Press, 2003), (with Sibby Anderson-Thompkins) Supporting Alma Mater: Successful Strategies for Securing Funds from Black College Alumni (CASE Books, 2003), and (with Katherine Sedgwick) Uplifting a People: African American Philanthropy and Education (Peter Lang, 2005).  
In addition to these works, Dr. Gasman is the editor (with Benjamin Baez and Caroline Sotello Turner) of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Triumphs, Troubles, and Taboos (Palgrave Press, 2009) with Christopher Tudico.

Dr. Gasman has also published many peer-reviewed articles in journals such as Teachers College Record, the Journal of Higher Education, the American Educational Research Journal, Educational Researcher, the History of Education Quarterly, the History of Higher Education Annual, and the International Journal of Educational Advancement. Dr. Gasman's research on Historically Black Colleges has been cited in various media venues, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, National Public Radio, Inside Higher Education, U.S. News and World Report, and CNN.

So Educated: Joining me is Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor of higher education at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Gasman is also a contributor to So Educated and an advisory board member for our sister blog, Policy Diary.Thank you for accepting my invitation to chat. I would like to talk about your research, some current events, and where you see HBCUs are headed.

Marybeth Gasman: Thanks John.  I am happy to be talking with you and the readers of “So Educated.”


SE: You and I recently took a trip to Brownsville, Texas where we learned about school districts and universities that are struggling through some unique challenges: families where English is a second language, high drop-out rates, and migrant families that lack steady incomes, just to name a few. What did you take away from the experience that you feel you wouldn’t have been able to if you had not gone?

MG: The visit to Brownsville, Texas was focused on learning more about Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), including the unique role they play in higher education and the challenges that they face.  One of the most important things I learned has to do with the way that these border institutions engage the families of their students in understanding how college works.  Because many of the families don’t speak English as a first language, are often migrant workers, and tend to lack formal education, it is vital to help them understand the higher education process -- what is possible and available to their children.  

The HSIs bring conversations about higher education to the Latino community and they also bring the Latino community to the campus, using a two-pronged approach to engaging the family.  This strategy could be very beneficial to other Minority Serving Institutions as well as majority institutions wanting to engage students of color.  I also noticed that the higher school and higher education systems in South Texas are committed to talking to one another and creating a seamless feeder system for students.  This is another approach that would bode well in other states -- with HBCUs, for example.

SE: How are the relationships with HBCUs and predominantly white institutions (PWIs)? Which schools can you identify that have attempted to make strong connections with HBCUs?

MG:  Well, that’s an interesting question.  There are not strong relationships between HBCUs and PWIs but there are some good examples.  Spelman College of Atlanta, Georgia has a great program with Georgia Tech in the area of engineering.  Tougaloo College has had a student and faculty exchange program with Brown University since the 1960s.  Here at Penn, we have a program that I helped start in 2003.  It’s an HBCU/HSI Weekend and we invited the top students from about 10 HBCUs/HSIs to visit the campus, attend a class, learn about graduate school, and meet current students.  Penn covers the travel, hotel, and expenses while the students are here in Philly. Our hope, of course, is to recruit students into our graduate education programs, but we also want to give student opportunities to learn and ask questions about graduate school in general.  When I arrived at Penn, I started this program because I know that HBCUs and HSIs produce students who do well in graduate school. We have research that shows this to be true.


SE: Bullying has been in the news a lot lately due to various incidents spread across the country. On your Chronicle of Higher Education blog we wrote an article together several weeks ago regarding bullying and what colleges and institutions can do about it. But what about K-12?

MG: I won’t claim to be an expert on K-12 issues, but the issues in higher education do start in the K-12 setting.  And, I am the parent of an 11 year old girl so I think about bullying quite a bit.  I think that as a society we don’t do a good job teaching our children about the dignity of human life.  We don’t teach our children to respect others and their choices.  We also don’t teach them about the consequences of their actions.  I was just asked to serve as the Educational Advisory Board Chair for Success for Kids, Inc. (  This organization is dedicated to increasing the use of social-emotional learning in schools.  There is a link between children’s social-emotional learning and making good decisions.  I really think we need to make sure that children understand the ramifications of their actions.  We need to instill a sense of empathy in each child so that they treat others with respect.  Also, adults need to stop tolerating bullying and need to stop bullying themselves. Bullies are merely insecure people who need to put others down in order to feel good about themselves.

SE: Is there a point where some of these school systems can overreach? I read in The New York Times how the “cultural wars” of old are firing up again because some feel anti-bullying programs are a backdoor to teaching children to accept homosexuality. What are your thoughts on this?

MG:  This is a complicated question.  I am someone who has taught my daughter that being gay or lesbian is completely acceptable.  I have explained to her that some people love people of the same sex and others love people of the opposite sex so anti-bullying programs that offer this message don’t bother me personally.  However, I think the best thing for schools to do is to teach students to respect other students regardless of their sexual orientation.  If someone’s religion tells them that being gay or lesbian is wrong, I can’t control that.  People have a right to have that belief even if I don’t agree  However, they don’t have a right to discriminate against others or mistreat them or bully them.  The best approach is to teach young people that every other child has dignity and goodness in them.

Policy and Administration

SE: Do you believe the new Republican House majority will have an out-sized effect on higher education policy? If so, for better or worse?

MG: The Obama administration has done a lot of good for higher education, especially their funding of Pell grants.  President Obama has also given much needed funds to Minority Serving Institutions and programs that help prepare low-income and racial and ethnic minorities for college.  As someone who cares deeply about equal opportunity and providing an education to all children and youth, I do worry that the Republican House majority may try to roll back some of Obama’s gains and that they may cut important higher education programs.  It is always my hope that policymakers will think about all children and not just their own--who often benefit from immense privilege.  Unfortunately, given the platforms of the Republicans who ran for public office, this does not seem to be the case.

SE: If you were president of an HBCU what would be first three things you would do and why?

MG: Wow! What a question!  First, I have no desire to be president of an HBCU or any college or university.  I love being a faculty member -- it’s the last truly great job -- lots of freedom and tons of time to think!  But, hypothetically, if I were president of an HBCU, I would:

1.) I would meet with small groups of the faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the local community and listen.  Listening is so important as is learning the context in which you lead.  I would ask these groups about their concerns, hopes, and how they contribute to the success of the institution.  I would ask them what they need to do their jobs in the best possible way and if they could create any programs to enhance the institution and increase degree attainment, what would they be?  As part of this approach, I would empower administration, faculty, and staff to do their jobs in meaningful ways with as much autonomy to make decisions as possible.

2.)  I would assess the board of trustees in terms of fundraising capacity and have a serious conversation with them about their obligation to give or get for the institution.  I would look for the weak areas of the board and quickly make recommendations to improve the strength of the board.

3.)  I would do an assessment of all of my connections and contacts throughout the country and internationally, if applicable.  I would use these connections and contacts to bolster the success of the institution -- especially the areas of strength.  

Funding and Leadership

SE: I’ve begun reading your book Envisioning Black Colleges (Editor’s Note: The focus of which is on the history of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and how instrumental they were in increasing Black social progress, specifically in regards to higher education.)

In the book you note how industrial leaders such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Peabody and others donated money more so “for their own benefit” and that “curriculum they favored produced graduates who were skilled in their own enterprises.” My question is this: Do you find at times in the modern era there is a disconnect between funding organizations and minority serving institutions (MSIs)?  If so, what is the cause? How can that be resolved?

MG: I’m glad you’re reading my book!  I think there was a disconnect between foundations and MSIs for a long time.  However, recently there has been initiatives on the part of foundations to spend more time listening and understanding MSIs.  There have also been frank conversations between funders and MSIs, which I think are productive.  It’s important for foundations to follow their missions but it’s also important that they don’t impose an agenda on MSIs.  There needs to be flexibility and they need to work with MSIs to determine the best projects to fund -- those that meet the goals of the foundation while also promoting the mission of the institution.  Funding infrastructure and programs that lead to greater stability and sustainability should be a top priority.

SE: A big part of your work is minority leadership. What time period in our (relatively) short history of allowing minorities to attend college would you say had the most significant minority leadership when it came higher education?

MG: Hmmm....that’s an interesting and complex question.  I would say that the strong African American leadership within higher education came into full in the mid-1940s at Black colleges.  These presidents had many issues to contend with during the time and during the 1950s and 60s.  They often had to compromise, but I always remind people that we don’t know what it would be like to be president of a Black college (which many people didn’t want to exist) during a period of Jim Crow in the South.  That’s not an easy job -- some presidents caved too often but others fought hard for the educational experiences of their students.  

In terms of HBCU leadership today, there are some remarkable presidents who are innovative and fresh.  There are others who need to move on -- and age has nothing to do with it.  Those presidents who will be remembered as great leaders will have taken stands on important issues, built their campuses, empowered their faculty and staff, and ensured their students have the best education possible.  Of course, there has been some growth in the number of Black presidents at Historically White Institutions, as well as those of other racial and ethnic minority backgrounds, but it has been limited.  There are people of color in some interesting and prominent places, For example, Ruth Simmons at Brown University, Freeman Hrabowski at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Shirley Jackson at Rensselaer Poly Tech, Mildred Garcia at Cal State, Dominguez Hills, and the new president of the University of Maryland, College Park Wallace Loh.  There has been progress but there’s a long way to go.

There are a lot of young African Americans who really want to lead HBCUs, but the older generation has to be open to this change.  These younger people have often done their graduate work at Historically White Institutions and undergraduate degrees at HBCUs.  They have innovative ideas and want to contribute to the institutions that groomed them.  I hope to see these young people lead HBCUs soon.

SE: While we’re on the subject of leadership. Looking forward, let’s say, 10 years, where do you see HBCUs? What investments will hopefully have been made in that time? What will still be the challenges?

MG: In 10 years, I think that some HBCUs will be much stronger -- especially if they learn from one another and share their most successful strategies and practices.  I think that others will have a very difficult time surviving unless their leaders determine an educational niche and work to develop it.  I hope that all HBCUs thrive because we really need more access to higher education for African American students and others.

In terms of investments, the state and federal government as well as foundations and corporations should invest funds into the fundraising infrastructure of HBCUs.  This is a good investment because it will grow funding.  They should also invest in the grant procurement and management area as more HBCUs should be securing grants.  They need the infrastructure to maintain these grants.  Also, programs that help HBCUs collect data on their success and programs that promote degree attainment should be supported.  These areas, if supported, should help to bolster and sustain HBCUs.

SE: Thank you so much for joining me. Is there anything you would like to add?

MG: My pleasure John.  I really want young people who are interested in becoming professors to know that there is a great deal of research that needs to be done on the issues MSIs face and I hope that they will consider becoming faculty members.  We need more people of color doing this research. For me, my legacy as a professor is my students and my mentees.  Their impact continues long beyond that of an article.  I want to see these young people do great work and succeed and I’m always happy to help them.


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