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Los Angeles Times Interview

Walter Massey

The Advantages of Separateness At an American Black College

August 04, 1996|Amy Wallace | Amy Wallace covers higher education for The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — A generation ago, when the best black high school students pondered where to go to college, America's more than 100 traditionally black institutions were not necessarily among the top contenders. For many of the most promising black students, whose predecessors had fought to gain entrance to majority-white schools, the best education was an integrated education.

But now the children of those students are going to college, and according to Dr. Walter E. Massey, the president of Morehouse College, some are making very different choices. "This generation seems to want to go back and experience some of the older traditions," said Massey, who runs the nation's only historically black, all-male, four-year liberal arts institution. "In many cases, their older siblings or parents didn't have the greatest experience at a majority-white school. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't what a Morehouse can offer."

Massey is well-suited to make such comparisons. During his 30-year career, the 58-year-old physicist has held a range of academic and administrative positions at public and private institutions from Brown University to the University of Chicago. A former director of the National Science Foundation, the government's lead agency for support of research and education in mathematics, science and engineering, Massey was for two years the provost of the University of California--a position second only to the UC president in responsibility and prestige.

But in the summer of 1995, as he was being considered as a candidate for UC's top job, Massey took his name out of the running. Instead, he said, he would go to a place where he and his wife, Shirley, felt they could make more of a difference. Massey became the ninth president of Morehouse. And in doing so, he went home.

Four decades earlier, Massey--a native of Hattiesburg, Miss.--had enrolled at Morehouse straight out of the 10th grade. There, on the Atlanta campus, he discovered a love for science and graduated in 1958 with a degree in physics and mathematics. But Morehouse--where Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent black men had studied--gave him something else as well, he said: confidence.

In San Francisco recently on a fund-raising and recruiting mission, Massey sat in the lavish offices of the Bank of America, where he is a member of the board. From 40 floors up, he gazed out at the bay--one of the things he says he misses most about California--and talked about the pleasures and challenges of running a traditionally black college in an era when race and affirmative action are once again on the front burner. There are few times in Morehouse's 129-year history, he said, that it has had such an important mission. His 3,000 students remind him of that every day.

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Question: What do you say to people who believe traditionally black colleges contribute to the Balkanization of America and detract from the goal of integration?

Answer: I've had this question raised and I've had to think about it. Look at the experience that Morehouse students have and what they do with their lives in terms of dealing with a broader society outside the black community. If you compare [them] with students at other schools where I've been--the University of California, Brown University--the students from Morehouse come out much more prepared to go out into a broader world of a majority-white or even foreign culture.

From my own experience, there are two aspects to this. One, the students at Morehouse genuinely leave with real confidence in their own abilities and a sense of who they are. They are not uncertain about their past or their history--and, therefore, when they deal with people in other cultures, they don't deal from a sense of defensiveness.

That's not often true at most of the majority-white schools, where you will find that black or other ethnic students try to create within their institutions that sense of belonging by either asking for separate dorms, forming separate societies or being together to the extent that people criticize them. They try to invent within the majority culture the experience that students at Morehouse have naturally. And many of them leave the majority-white schools a little more resentful--alienated, in fact, from whites--because they've had to work so hard to define themselves and defend what they do on an almost daily basis. Ironically, when they leave, many want to go to a majority-black environment. Our graduates have already had that experience.

Many of our students, if not most, have spent all of their high-school and elementary-school years in majority-white schools. They see these four years as a time to build a sense of self. So, rather than these schools contributing to dis-integration, in fact, I think we can make a strong argument that we produce the kind of people who move easily in many worlds.

Q: So you believe that ethnic minorities need this separateness before true integration can occur?

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