Addressing Design Disparities: The Role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

December 18, 2007 · by Mary Anne Alabanza-Akers, Ph.D.

Practitioners and educators, along with the media and other spectators of the design fields, criticize the fact that design professionals do not reflect American demographics.

A database operated by the Center for the Study of Practice at the University of Cincinnati indicates that only 1.5 percent of licensed architects are black, notwithstanding statistics showing that African Americans account for over 12.1 percent of the US population.1 Also discouraging is the miniscule number of minorities in landscape architecture and interior design practice. According to David Rice, founder of the Organization of Black Designers, only about 2 percent of interior designers are black.2 And these percentages are not significantly improving in spite of the AIA, ASLA, ASID and other national organizations’ official commitment to address diversity and inclusivity. How then should the design professions fulfill this purpose?

As we delve deeper into these issues of design disparity and in spite of traditional, mainstream academic institutions’ efforts at implementing strategies to increase the number of underrepresented groups in design education, the question continues to be asked, “Why is there minimal progress in graduating minorities for successful careers in design?” An often overlooked partner that can help to address this disparity in design education and practice are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Of the 117 HBCUs in the United States, seven have accredited architecture programs, three offer landscape architecture degrees, and two have urban planning programs (see sidebar on page 55). Apart from this challenge of a few design programs, HBCUs continue to be the vehicle for successfully producing minority design graduates. For example, the seven HBCUs still graduate approximately 45% of all African American students with professional architecture degrees.3

The importance of an HBCU lies in its pride, credibility, and achievements reflecting the strength of the black community and its contributions to the built and natural environments. Established in the 1800’s, HBCUs have continued to be the primary vehicle for educating and training black and other minority students. For example, studies have shown that African Americans who attend HBCUs complete their undergraduate degrees with greater frequency than those at predominantly white institutions. They also demonstrate greater satisfaction with their college experiences and have higher self-esteem, increased academic self-efficacy, and stronger achievement orientation.4 Along with the nurturing social context that HBCUs provide, these institutions shape minds, impart skills, and prepare students to lead and make significant impact in society.

There are several compelling reasons why design education and practice should recognize the importance of HBCUs in developing a future generation of culturally diverse designers that represent American society. First, HBCUs provide a social anchor that serves as a stabilizer for the black college experience. Feeling comfortable in the learning environments promote students’ academic performance. Critical to design education is the studio culture which requires spending long hours with peers that help establish strong camaraderie and social networks. In mainstream universities, minorities, in many cases, are marginalized and left out of these social interactions and activities.

Secondly, HBCUs have a diverse faculty pool that are very competent and are actively engaged in their own independent and progressive design firms. In five of the HBCUs with architecture programs, 45% of full-time faculty are African Americans while the rest are either Asians, Hispanics, Caucasians or other ethnic groups.5 With their varied experiences, HBCU faculty introduce students to a sundry of perspectives, cultural values, and ideas that students in mainstream institutions miss out on. Considering that minorities will constitute 90% of the US population growth in the next fifty years, HBCU graduates will be better equipped and ready to address the needs of this heterogeneous populace.

Thirdly, the academic design culture at HBCUs encourages students to explore solutions outside of the mainstream Eurocentric framework. Students, who represent a wide range of the socio-economic spectrum, are as diverse as the faculty. Adding to the mix are international students who bring distinct experiences, traditions, and ideas to the classroom. These cross-cultural interactions and relationships foster an atmosphere of openness, awareness, and acceptance, which enhances students’ pluralistic ways of viewing the world.

These are only a few reasons why HBCUs have proven to be an invaluable resource for cultivating and developing future minority designers who will lead and make a difference in society. Unless leadership organizations and mainstream schools in architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, interior design and other design fields partner with HBCUs, their strategies to address diversity may continue to be an uphill battle. Rather than narrowly using the “number of students of color” as a measure of diversity, other creative, innovative, and meaningful criteria should be considered, such as “formalized equitable relationships with HBCUs”. Examples may include collaborative studio projects, joint degrees, shared certificate programs, transfer credit programs, student exchange, and joint faculty appointments. These strategies exemplify only a few possibilities for diversifying design education. Furthermore, from the practice profession, design firms can also significantly benefit by seeking out HBCUs in their quest for diversifying their workforce and soliciting culturally inspired ideas. Ultimately, the call for increased diversity in the design professions should benefit all groups for the betterment of American society.

1,5 Kilmet, Stephen A. “Diversity: What The Number Tells Us”. AIArchitect. Volume 13: October 13, 2006.

2 Riss, Suzanne. “Opportunity knocks - but for whom? - careers in interior design”. Black Enterprise. February 1994.

3 Mann, Dennis Alan and Bradford Grant. “African American Architects and their Education: A Demographic Study”. Working Paper #1. Winter 2007.

4 Cokley Kevin. “The impact of college racial composition on African American students’ academic self-concept: A replication and extension”. Journal of Negro Education. Fall 2002.

HBCUs with accredited Architecture, Landscape Architecture & Urban Planning programs

ARCHITECTURE

LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE

PLANNING

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