Opinion | There’s No Classics ‘Catastrophe’ at Howard University

Cornel West and his co-author made a common mistake when they wrote a recent essay in The Washington Post chastising Howard University for eliminating its classics department. Reducing the decision to a “spiritual catastrophe,” they overlooked a deeper and more urgent problem: the financial constraints facing historically Black colleges and universities, and the inequality that underlies them.

Our approach to this issue is based in our perspective as philosophy professors at Howard who have reverence for the classics. Our department offers seminars on Plato and Aristotle alongside mandatory courses on the history of Africana philosophy. Classical texts have left an indelible mark on modern philosophy and there’s no question that, in an ideal world, Howard would have a large, thriving classics department.

But departments aren’t free.

The decision to eliminate the department was the result of an intensive effort to determine how to best allocate the university’s limited resources. Departments were assessed based on student interest, cost and benefit, and overall fit with the university’s mission. No one wanted to eliminate any programs, and none of us cheer the loss of the department, but this change was necessary. Anthony K. Wutoh, the university’s provost and chief academic officer, has explained why that is, but we’d like to offer additional insight.

Pronouncements from the ivory towers of predominately white institutions about what Black colleges should do may score political points and draw public attention. But only those of us who research and teach at historically Black colleges and universities, known as H.B.C.U.s — unlike Dr. West, who has primarily worked at institutions with huge endowments — have the kind of understanding that comes from experience.

To put things in perspective: Harvard’s endowment is $42 billion, Yale’s is $31 billion, and Princeton’s is $27 billion. Howard’s is only $712 million. There are reasons for this discrepancy. Almost all Ivy League institutions were founded before the Revolutionary War, while H.B.C.U.s did not get into full swing until well after the Civil War.

These institutions were established to educate Black Americans, most of whom, before 1865, could not so much as dream of receiving any formal education. America’s oldest universities were able to begin to build wealth much earlier than that. And as the historian Craig Steven Wilder has documented, many of America’s most storied predominantly white institutions directly or indirectly profited from slave labor.

Unsurprisingly, public and private H.B.C.U.s remain underfunded relative to their predominately white counterparts. Just this year, Maryland reached a settlement agreement in a federal lawsuit that accused the state of discriminating against and underfunding its four H.B.C.U.s.

Fortunately, Howard is doing relatively well for an H.B.C.U., but not so well that it doesn’t have to make hard decisions. While the university did eliminate the classics department, it did not gut the humanities. Howard recently designated philosophy, English and history as “core investment” departments that “constitute the foundation of every great university.” The university recognizes the value of humanistic inquiry.

Let’s be clear: Howard students are reading Parmenides, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau along with Angela Davis, Charles Mills and Frantz Fanon. Students will continue to read Shakespeare and Walt Whitman alongside Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. In short, Howard students read the texts required at predominantly white institutions plus the Black stuff.

There is no spiritual catastrophe unfolding on Howard’s campus. Quite to the contrary, our campus, students and faculty are in the midst of a Renaissance replete with all the accompanying spiritual and intellectual affirmations. The administration decided to eliminate the classics department, but it also started majors in interdisciplinary humanities (which incorporates classical studies courses), bioethics, international affairs, and environmental studies.

While the top predominantly white institutions rarely need to consider eliminating departments, the top H.B.C.U.s struggle to do everything that they wish to do for their students. That is the real spiritual catastrophe.

Brandon Hogan is the director of undergraduate studies and Jacoby Adeshei Carter is the chairman of the philosophy department at Howard University. They are both H.B.C.U. graduates.

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