Ron Brown: The Study of HBCUsBy Jill Anderson
Doctoral student Ron Brown, Ed.M.’01, has always had an appreciation for education.
As a teenager, an A Better Chance scholarship afforded him an opportunity to study at a college prep school. From there, he enrolled in Brown University where he concentrated in African American studies and pre-med. But it was when he took a job as assistant dean of student life at Brown that he fully realized the potential of education to radically change a person’s life, and so decided to pursue his doctoral studies in the field of education.
Brown’s search for a doctoral program that offered both an interdisciplinary method and an education focus led him to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He enrolled at HGSE with varied interests including higher education, African American studies, organizational behavior, and institutional leadership. During his coursework, Brown discovered a topic that combined these interests in the study of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
At the time there was no course offered on HBCUs at the Ed School and Brown negotiated with Professor Charles Willie to incorporate his interests into one of Willie’s courses. “He took the time to help me develop my interests,” Brown says, calling Willie a “consummate mentor.”
Willie’s willingness to engage Brown’s research interests came in handy when the Southern Education Foundation based in Atlanta asked for research on HBCUs. Willie recruited Brown to join him and Richard Reddick, Ed.M.’98, Ed.D.’07, on the project, which resulted in the 2006 book entitled The Black College Mystique. Brown hadn’t even submitted his qualifying paper and yet he was already signing a book contract for a publication on his research interests. “It all crystallized in that moment,” he says. “It made me think that I’d like to [research and write] again.”
Following the book’s publication, Brown decided to devote his dissertation to the study of HBCUs. He characterizes the last 50 years as a crucial period of transition for these schools, which before desegregation were the only higher education option for the vast majority of African Americans. Today there are 106 HBCUs in the United States; Brown’s research closely examines three of these schools and the president’s role at each in institutional decisions made over the past three years. As part of his research, Brown visits the schools and conducts interviews with presidents, faculty members, administrators, and other campus constituents in order to gain various perspectives on the impact of presidential leadership in decisionmaking. Ultimately, Brown plans to use each college as a case study as well as analyze and compare the three.
While Brown is still in the data collection phase of his research project, he is developing insight into whether the fact that these colleges are HBCUs plays a role in institutional decisionmaking. “Preliminarily, it seems that being HBCUs may be a central component of their institutional identities, but certainly not the only nor the most important determinant of institutional decisionmaking,” he says.
Ultimately, Brown hopes to create a better understanding of these institutions and establish more awareness of the outstanding work they’ve done, the role they currently play, and their potential to have even greater impact in American higher education and beyond. In addition, Brown hopes that on some practical level his research can contribute something of value to policy, research, and practice in higher education.
“I have always thought and continue to believe that education is the long-term solution to every social problem we face,” he says. “I would be thrilled if my project, even in some small way, contributes to the discussion.”