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Black colleges seek role in desegregated education

Pat Harris, slim, attired in a couturier-fashioned, form-fitting jump suit enhanced by a crisp, modish hair style, her face adorned in a touch of makeup to give it the "natural" look, scrambles up three flights of stairs in a tired, faded, red-brick building in a far corner of the campus, flops into her chair, flips off her shoes, and relaxes in her stocking feet.

Now comfortable and "at home," Mrs. Harris -- a recruiter for Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., founded in 1865 to educate former slaves -- whispers:

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"It is hard to sell a black college to anybody, especially to kids or to prospective donors indoctrinated with the 'bad mouth' on black colleges. They are told black colleges do not offer quality education."

A graduate of Shaw -- after two years at another college and "only after my husband convinced me I should come here" -- Harris arranged with a Boston minister, the Rev. Thomas Payne, and a community education outreach worker, Janice Withrow, to have a busload of 42 Boston high school students tour the Shaw campus in mid-February.

As part of the same trip, the Boston students visited predominantly black North Carolina Central University (NCCU), a public college in Durham, N.C. NCCU is a prospering campus of nearly 5,000 students, more than three times the size of Shaw.

Shaw and NCCU were among 14 black college campuses the Boston students visited in an eight-day bus rush through four states and Washington, D.C. They compared what they saw with what they know about the 67 colleges spread through the Boston area.

In an interview, NCCU chancellor Albert N. Whiting expressed apprehensions that desegration suits could make schools like his an "endangered" species.

Public black colleges face the challenge of a US District Court ruling that they are as obligated to desegregate as are white public colleges in the 17 states that once enforced segregation in education.

Many Southern blacks, especially alumni of these colleges, fear "white takeovers" that will destroy their black educational roots. Although North Carolina Central and Shaw are fully-accredited institutions, they both suffer the typical ailments of most black colleges, public and private:

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* Students unprepared financially and academically to go to college.

* Aging, unpainted, and unattractive facilities -- with a few new structures sprinkled in.

* Overworked and underpaid faculty members, many of whom do not hold doctoral degrees.

* Administrators overburdened with the trials of raising funds, appeasing disgruntled students and faculty, and appealing to foundations and government agencies for desperately needed help.

Private black colleges are especially strapped for a consistent flow of funds. Their most generous donors -- private foundations and white philanthropists -- are cutting back on their gifts. Most of these colleges have little or no endowment cushion.

Through alumni, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), and the private sector, especially at the local level, they hope to tap adequate sources of operating funds -- as well as for special and capital funds.

Thirty years ago, in the staid world of "separate but equal," the Southern black colleges educated 90 percent of the nation's black students. Twenty years ago, in the heat of the civil rights movement, they enrolled 67 percent of these collegians. Today their share has dropped to only 16.5 percent, according to 1978-79 figures supplied by the National Advisory Committee on Black Higher Education.

Despite the drop in the share of black students, enrollment has increased steadily in the "historically black" colleges.

This is because total black enrollment in higher education has spiraled to 1. 2 million, a 275 percent increase.

Major colleges and universities have siphoned off much of the "talented tenth" --the youth Dr. W. E. B. DuBois called black leaders of the future. These are the blacks with offers of scholarships, grants, and opportunities black colleges cannot match.

Two-year colleges, most of them urban, have absorbed many of the black students with no money and no credentials.

Meanwhile, criticism of black colleges still rolls along. A Feb. 9, 1981, Newsweek magazine article titled "Can Black Colleges Survive?" described "rats and roaches" and gymnasium "leaks" at Alabama State University in Montgomery, comparing it unfavorably to the predominently white Auburn University campus across town. The article also claimed that black colleges "lag academically," a stigma bestowed on black college through the years.

Nevertheless, advocates are quick to defend black colleges. Last fall two events in Washington, D.C., unified supporters.

Declaring that black colleges were established to develop black leaders and raise ex-slaves above bondage, Dr. James E. Cheeks, president of Howard University, the nation's largest black college, said at the 113th convocation last September:

"Now we come face-to-face with a serious and concerted effort to destroy these resources -- the foundation stone of our past, our present, and our future. To destroy them by starving them to death. To eliminate their racial identity despite the fact that in America today nothing loses its racial identity."

Three days later, 8,000 people participatedin a Black College Day march organized and led by Tony Brown, host of the syndicated television program "Tony Brown's Journal."

And black college officials have their own pitch for prospective students which emphasizes the benefits of a degree from their institutions:

* Black colleges take a special interest in seeing that their students earn degrees.

* Financial aid is given to more than 75 percent of students enrolled in these colleges. (Paine College in Augusta, Ga., subsidizes 90 percent.)

* Special services -- remedial studies, tutoring, and counseling -- are offered to help students make up deficiencies of inadequate schooling in grades 1-12.

Chancellor Whitting makes another kind of appeal. He pursues dollars from state legislators, new programs from state university regents, and grass-root support from community, commercial, and industrial resou rces in behalf of NCCU.

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