Opinion | There is no classic ‘catastrophe’ at Howard University
Cornel West and his co-author made a common mistake when they wrote a recent essay in the Washington Post criticizing Howard University for cutting its classics department. Reducing the decision to a “spiritual catastrophe,” they overlooked a deeper and more pressing problem: the financial constraints historically faced by black colleges and universities and the inequalities that underlie them.
Our approach to this question is based on our perspective as philosophy teachers at Howard who have respect for the classics. Our department offers seminars on Plato and Aristotle as well as compulsory courses on the history of African philosophy. Classical texts have left an indelible mark on modern philosophy and there is no doubt that in an ideal world Howard would have a large and thriving classics department.
But the departments are not free.
The decision to eliminate the department was the result of an intensive effort to determine how best to allocate the university’s limited resources. Departments were assessed on the basis of student interest, costs and benefits, and their overall fit with the university’s mission. No one wanted to cut any programs and none of us were happy about the loss of the ministry, but this change was necessary. Anthony K. Wutoh, the university’s provost and director of studies, explained why, but we’d like to offer some additional insight.
Statements from the ivory towers of predominantly white institutions about what black colleges should do can score political points and attract public attention. But only those of us who research and teach at historically black colleges and universities known as HBCUs – unlike Dr. West, who has mainly worked in institutions with huge endowments – have the kind of understanding that comes from experience.
To put it in perspective: Harvard’s endowment is $ 42 billion, Yale’s is $ 31 billion, and Princeton’s is $ 27 billion. Howard’s costs only $ 712 million. There are reasons for this discrepancy. Almost all of the Ivy League institutions were founded before the War of Independence, while the HBCUs did not start in full swing until well after the Civil War.
These institutions were created to educate black Americans, most of whom, prior to 1865, could not even dream of receiving a formal education. America’s oldest universities may have started building wealth much earlier than that. And as historian Craig Steven Wilder has documented, many of the wealthiest predominantly white American institutions have directly or indirectly benefited from slave labor.
Not surprisingly, both public and private HBCUs remain underfunded compared to their predominantly white counterparts. This year again, Maryland reached a settlement agreement in a federal lawsuit accusing the state of discriminating and underfunding its four HBCUs.
Fortunately, Howard is doing relatively well for an HBCU, but not so well that she doesn’t have to make tough decisions. Although the university has eliminated the department of classics, it has not gotten rid of the humanities. Howard recently referred to Philosophy, English and History as “core investing” departments that “form the foundation of any great university.” The university recognizes the value of humanistic inquiry.
Let’s be clear: Howard’s students read Parmenides, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau with Angela Davis, Charles Mills and Frantz Fanon. Students will continue to read Shakespeare and Walt Whitman alongside Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. In short, Howard students read required texts in majority white institutions more the black thing.
There is no spiritual catastrophe on Howard’s campus. On the contrary, our campus, our students and our faculty are in the midst of a Renaissance filled with all the spiritual and intellectual affirmations that go with it. The administration decided to do away with the classics department, but it also started majors in interdisciplinary humanities (which incorporates courses in classical studies), bioethics, international affairs, and environmental studies.
While the largest white-majority institutions rarely need to consider eliminating departments, the better HBCUs struggle to do whatever they want to do for their students. This is the real spiritual catastrophe.
Brandon Hogan is the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Jacoby Adeshei Carter is the Chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Howard University. They are both graduates of HBCU.
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