Historically black colleges: Offering support, fostering success

Student affairs professor highlights challenges black males face in higher education in two new books

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Jonathan Cohen
Robert Palmer

Robert Palmer felt a sense of ease when he interviewed for admission into the doctoral program in higher education administration at Morgan State University, a historically black college. For once, he, a black male, felt welcomed — respected, even — at an institute of higher education.

“There was this unspoken sense,” says Palmer, an award-winning researcher and author experienced in writing about racial and ethnic minorities in higher education. “It was like the professors knew you had the potential. I didn’t feel that notion of proving someone wrong.”

A decade later, Palmer, assistant professor of student affairs administration, is publishing two books on the experiences that black males face today as they enter historically black colleges, predominantly white institutions and community colleges.

Poring over 300 articles, reports and book chapters for the monograph Black Male Collegians: Increasing Access, Retention, and Persistence in Higher Education (Jossey-Bass, 2014), Palmer and colleagues J. Luke Wood, T. Elon Dancy and Terrell L. Strayhorn found that black males who attend predominantly white institutions often have challenging, unhealthy and unsupportive relationships with faculty and feel that they have to work harder to dispel stereotypes.

“When you’re a black male at a white institution and you walk into a classroom and the professor’s white, there’s this psychological sense the professor might not think highly of you,” Palmer says.
Black men who attend historically black institutions, on the other hand, are more likely to enter a more supportive, nurturing and welcoming environment, Palmer says.

“Faculty at historically black colleges are known for going above and beyond to really support students,” he says. “The community takes the approach that ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ Everyone within the school works together for students to be successful.”

Palmer and Wood offer critical and detailed recommendations for predominantly white schools to better recruit, retain and support black men in Black Men in Higher Education: A Guide to Ensuring Student Success (Routledge, 2014). Believing that predominantly white schools need to be more intentional about cultivating an environment conducive to the success of black men, Palmer suggests that these schools partner with historically black colleges to learn how to more effectively support the growth and development of black males in, as well as outside of, the classroom. He also notes that they should conduct campus-climate surveys and offer cultural competency training to institutional officials.

With future student affairs professionals attending his classes, Palmer is dedicated to ensuring that his students go on to cultivate nurturing environments for black males and students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“I want them to be intentional about creating a meaningful environment and work toward fostering the holistic development of all students,” he says. 