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Commentary: Black colleges are church's gift to higher education

6/27/2001 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: A head-and-shoulders photo of Julius S. Scott Jr. is available. For a related story, see UMNS #294.

A UMNS Commentary By Julius S. Scott Jr.*

The historically African-American institutions sponsored by the United Methodist Church began in extraordinary circumstances. They have survived and excelled with extraordinary leadership and imagination, and are nurtured by the extraordinary concern and care of the denomination.

The 11 institutions -- 10 colleges and universities and a medical science university -- all accredited by regional and professional agencies, currently enroll 15,561 students and produce a significant number of leaders in the church and the professions. They are among the denomination's and the nation's most valuable assets and are instrumental in the church's mission.

The outstanding achievements of these institutions are in large part the result of the extraordinary care of the United Methodist Church and its predecessor, the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed 4 million slaves. Although free, they were illiterate and educationally distressed.

The Methodist Episcopal Church's interest became manifest a decade before the Emancipation Proclamation. For example, the Cincinnati Conference opened Wilberforce University in 1856. The denomination, in 1864, recommended the establishment of the national Freedman's Bureau, which was approved by Congress in 1865. The church later established its own Freedman's Aid Society, which was recognized by the 1868 General Conference. The society was the most important instrumentality for higher learning for blacks in the nation.

At the 1908 General Conference, initiatives for the education of blacks were broadened through the Freedman's Aid Society, for "the establishment and maintenance of institutions for Christian education among the colored people of the Southern states and elsewhere." The society provided direct dollar support for this cause, and the 1912 General Conference established 1913 as the year of Jubilee, during which the denomination would raise half a million dollars for the institutions. This was followed by the Centenary Movement in 1918, then by Race Relations Sunday, the second Sunday in February, and the Negro College Advance.

As a result of the report of the Commission on Black Colleges to the 1972 General Conference, the denomination created the Black College Fund, representing the most dramatic support of any denomination in the nation for the education of blacks. Between 1972 and 2000, the fund raised $168.8 million for operating expenses and $10.8 million for capital purposes, for a total of $179.6 million. Giving has improved from 67 percent of the denomination's apportionment for the fund in 1973 to 89 percent in 1999.

The magnificent performance of the United Methodist Church in the Black College Fund was exceeded splendidly by the action of the 2000 General Conference, which authorized a plan to raise $300 million during 25 years to increase the current $215 million endowments of the fund's colleges. The plan will provide money to support technological advances, libraries and faculty development, "to enable these academic institutions to sustain their long-term institutional viability and effectiveness, and to advance their mission in partnership with the United Methodist Church in preparing a new generation of leaders for our church and society."

The Black College Fund institutions are important to higher learning and to the United Methodist Church. Why? First, they are critical agents for fulfilling the church's mission. They continue to recruit and hone the abilities not only of bright and promising students but also of those who, without these institutions, would in many cases be unable to attend college.

The institutions routinely set aside a major portion of their fiscal resources to provide funds for the largest possible number of students. These schools continue to reach out in mission to the needy and the neglected; they express the caring and concern of the church for balancing the social scale. They provide access.

Second, these institutions are important to the church and the nation because of their emphasis on moral and spiritual values. They affirm the transcendent nature of knowledge, that intellectual life is truncated until values and responsibility are taken into account, and that scholarship is fragmented unless theological insights are brought into focus. These institutions are important because they insist that the purpose of education is not to make a living, but a life.

Third, these schools are important because of their emphasis upon a humane universe of discourse. They promote liberal learning and critical thinking. They emphasize the liberal arts as the appropriate context and setting for learning.

Fourth, the Black College Fund campuses are democratizing influences. There, interracial and international faculties teach in an atmosphere of openness and inclusiveness, where students are invited to live and learn. In a nation still struggling with racial tensions, these campuses are bulwarks of democracy in action and models for interracial harmony.

Fifth, these institutions are vehicles for the production of the black professional class. They confer the symbols and convey the models of status and prestige. Statistics provide evidence of the fact that high percentages of black professionals are alumni of these and similar institutions.

Finally, these institutions are vital because they provide models worthy of emulation for students and the community. Outstanding faculty and administrators with impressive credentials and leadership qualities provide key examples of effective and worthwhile lifestyles. The college officials' success has an important impact on students' abilities and destinies.

The historically black colleges of the United Methodist Church are worthy of the denomination's extraordinary care because they are the church's extraordinary gift to higher learning.

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*Scott is president emeritus of Paine College, Augusta, Ga., one of the 11 historically black colleges and universities related to the United Methodist Church. He also is a former executive with the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville, Tenn.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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