Review:The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education and Black Issues in Higher Education

by Mark J. Drozdowski

Popping open a Diet Coke, I sat down recently to pore over the mail’s latest delivery: The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. I must admit that, upon first glance, it’s rather intimidating–160 oversize pages, chock full of text and framed by a stark white cover featuring a lengthy table of contents. I took a deep breath, sipped my soda, and waded in.

Within a few minutes I’d learned the following:

  • Blacks earn fewer doctorates than racial parity would dictate.
  • Of the 1,903 doctorates across 49 scientific fields awarded in 2001, a grand total of zero went to African Americans. Only two Cal Tech faculty members are black.
  • The number of African American to medical school has dropped 24 percent over the past six years.
  • Whites are five times as likely as blacks to score well on the Medical College Admission Test, and 12.5 times more likely to achieve a high score on the LSAT.
  • African Americans are largely absent from America’s top art and music departments.
  • Among the 117 head coaches in NCAA Division I football, only four are black.
  • Turning another page, I found this statement from the editors: “Many readers of our journal tell us that they often come away from reading our pages with a sense of despondency or despair.” I can see why. Juxtaposed against these discouraging articles are historical photographs of blacks being lynched or executed in the electric chair.

    But the story of blacks–in higher education and more broadly–is one of gradual progress, and the Journal is equally eager to highlight achievement. For every disturbing photo, we see sidebars noting African Americans gaining appointments to top academic, government and business positions.

    The Journal has been presenting this mixed bag of news and opinion for a decade. This quarterly publication is “dedicated to the conscientious investigation of the status and prospects for African Americans in higher education.” According to Robert Bruce Slater, managing editor, the Journal has about 3,500 subscribers, the majority of whom are faculty members. They pay $36 per year for four quarterly issues.

    Most pieces are staff-written, with about one-quarter coming from outside contributors, many of them notable academics. Running anywhere from one column to a few pages, articles investigate trends and statistics on such issues as affirmative action, standardized tests, grade inflation, self-segregation, enrollment and attrition, and black representation among faculty. Many articles result from surveys conducted by the Journal. While some appear objective, others editorialize (one on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist calls him “a good and thoughtful man”). Editors will often conjecture about roots of problems or possible solutions, but frequently articles simply state findings and presumably let readers draw their own conclusions. Says Slater: “It’s difficult to know why certain trends exist, but we offer as much explanation as we can.”

    Editors are also unafraid to tackle taboo topics and consider conservative interpretations of social issues and data. An article on race and athletics notes the controversial view that suggesting certain races are physically superior leaves open the possibility that some may be mentally inferior.

    Another piece examines the dwindling enrollments of “damaged or demeaned” white students at historically black colleges. Yet another questions Black Enterprise magazine’s ranking of the best colleges for African Americans, calling its placement of Howard above three Ivies, Duke, Stanford and Johns Hopkins “a stretch.” Even the ultimate taboo–the “n” word–makes an occasional appearance.

    History buffs will find much to like. Recent examples include pieces on FDR’s racial views; Harvard’s “forgotten first black student”; Georgetown’s 19th-century black president; and African American pioneers at U.S. military academies, flagship state universities, and leading liberal arts colleges.

    Sprinkled among the meatier articles are mini-profiles of African Americans prominent in the news (e.g. Condoleezza Rice, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates), brief biographical retrospectives on famous black Americans, spot-on caricatures and “Vital Signs,” a compendium of statistics measuring the “state of racial inequality.” You’ll also find a panoply of rankings–the best 25 states for black educational progress, the top (and bottom) 25 elite colleges and universities according to black enrollments, the most frequently-cited black academic authors. And you can discover the educational credentials of African Americans on Wall Street and in Congress. Of course, you might trip over the random bizarre piece, such as “African-American College Students Show Less Attachment to their Pets than White College Students.” In presenting their findings, editors make frequent use of graphs and charts but do not, as is common with most social science periodicals, subject readers to crunched numbers. Then again, this is not a peer-reviewed, academic journal in the purest sense.

    Neither is Black Issues in Higher Education, which arrived in the mail a few days later. Less intimidating than the Journal, this magazine runs about 60-70 pages and is published bi-weekly for about 10,000 subscribers, primarily college faculty and staff. Since 1984 it has attempted to bring readers “in-depth and up-to-date coverage of the diverse education community.” Subscriptions cost $40 per year.

    Inside you’ll find the typical magazine layout, with brief sections (Washington Update, Noteworthy News) preceding feature stories. Articles and opinion columns (40 percent of which are contributed) cover topics such as student activism, divestment, performance gaps between blacks and whites, and the often-featured “Affirmative Action Watch” motif. One piece I found particularly intriguing reveals workplace discrimination based on first names. Evidently the Emilys and Brendans of the world have a leg up on Aishas and Tyrones.

    Differences between the two publications abound. While the journal’s tone is sobering, the magazine is more casual, upbeat. In contrast to the journal’s historical flavor and social scientific bent, Black Issues focuses more on current news and events. Further, the magazine carries far more advertising and job announcements–about 30 pages worth, or almost half the page count. It also targets a broader spectrum of minorities. Despite its title, Black Issues encompasses coverage of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics. Since its establishment almost twenty years ago, the magazine has, according to editor Hilary Hurd Anyaso, expanded its mission to “recognize the commonalities of experiences among all students and faculty of color.” But African Americans remain the magazine’s primary audience.

    This broad focus is evident in the magazine’s popular feature, the Top 100 Degree Producers. These beefy annuals–one for undergraduate schools, the other for graduate and professional education–rank colleges and universities according to the number of degrees awarded to minority students. Separate tables list aggregate numbers by degree level and by field of study. You can find, for example, the top 20 universities awarding Hispanics master’s degrees in English, or the 17 institutions from which American Indians received the most doctorates across all fields. Related articles attempt to draw conclusions on these numbers and recognize trends.

    To be sure, the two publications are similar in various ways. They both offer book reviews, opinion columns, notices of appointments and promotions, and announcements of honors, awards and grants. Both have an on-line presence, but while Black Issues (http://www.blackissues.com) restricts its content to subscribers, the Journal (http://www.jbhe.com) presents a smorgasbord of freebies: samples from the current and archived issues, a quiz to test your knowledge of the history of blacks in higher education, an affirmative action timeline, and the “Race Relations Reporter”–a compendium of “recent racial incidents in the United States.” Readers can also receive the free “Weekly Bulletin” e-mail containing article summaries, relevant news and job announcements.

    They’re also similar in another respect: Neither focuses much attention on adjunct faculty issues. Both editors admit that articles related to part-time faculty seldom appear, and are hard pressed to cite specific examples of such coverage. And don’t look for adjunct teaching ads in Black Issues.

    Still, I highly recommend both publications. They’re insightful, well-written, timely and provocative. Without question, the subjects they cover hold relevance for everyone in higher education, black or not.

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