Between August 1980 and June 1984, I was a student at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. As an alumnus of Stillman it was with deep sadness that I read the article A Dream Lay Dying by Bill Maxwell. But in all honesty I have to confess that I’m not surprised.
When I started attending Stillman, Dr. Harold N. Stinson was the president of the college. Painfully out of touch with the students Dr. Stinson seriously neglected some of the fundamentals necessary to help keep students focused on their college studies. Several dormitories were seriously dilapidated and in need of some serious renovation, the school library was in need of major repairs and would be closed for the majority of the weekend, the workers in the registrars’ office were allowed to bring their televisions to work so they could watch their soap operas during business hours, various classrooms were in serious need of maintenance and repair all across the campus, and far too many people working at the campus had developed a serious contempt for the teaching environment. But most telling of all was the fact that the college recruited far too many students who used the school primarily as a young adult daycare.
Shortly after I arrived I joined a student group who came together to help bring the attention of the board of directors to the school’s condition. Out of a population of not quite seven hundred students there were about eight of us trying to get the other students to sign petitions for change and I was the only freshman. An announcement was made that the board was coming to the college for an investigation in a matter of days and we wanted to make a presentation of how the students felt about college conditions. The majority of students wanted no part of our campaign. The Student Government Association refused to support our cause. But nevertheless we managed to get about two hundred signatures. That may not sound like much but it represented nearly a third of the student population. We made our presentation and felt like we made a difference. But truth be told the board had probably made their decision long before I had set foot on campus. Dr. Stinson was dismissed.
Dr. Cordell Wynn came to the college and made sweeping changes. The dilapidated dorms were closed and completely renovated, the library was renovated and the hours extended, the televisions in the business office disappeared, classrooms were repaired, don’t know about the nutritional value but at least the taste of the food in the cafeteria improved, and student enrollment numbers increased significantly. But the quality of the students being recruited stayed stagnant.
When I attended Stillman I was the biggest nerd on campus. I went to Stillman thinking I was going to be an architect. Although Stillman didn’t offer an architectural degree I entered a program where I could complete the majority of my general studies at Stillman and then transfer all my credits to the Tuskegee Institute and complete the architecture studies. So I spent a lot of time in the Math / Science building. The school was just beginning to develop a computer science program and I started hanging around the biggest sophomore nerd on campus. The only computer we had access to was a Radio Shack TRS-80 with all of 16k of RAM and a cassette recorder as the only data storage device. But I was hooked. The following semester the school purchased a DEC VAX 11/750, an honest to goodness mini computer and a Scantron scanning machine. With guidance from Dr. Ron Atkinson I actually developed software for instructors to grade and manage test papers, keep track of student’s scores and record their answers to each and every question, calculate grades, and whatever else they could think of. I was in heaven. I declared my major as Mathematics and became, if not the first, the second student to declare computer science as a minor.
But I must admit I had difficulty relating to the majority of students on campus. With the campus being so small everybody knew everybody but I kept a very tight circle of friends (or maybe it was the fact that only a few people wanted to be my friend). I volunteered to tutor other students (and some instructors) in math and the various computer classes. But as a tutor I learned that many of the students didn’t want to learn how to solve the math problems or to write the computer program. For many of the students all they wanted was an answer to the question. Working in the computer lab I was responsible for grading a lot of the computer assignments for Dr. Atkinson. Initially I was surprised to see so many of his students turn in virtually identical copies of programs I helped one student write in a tutoring session. Some students didn’t even bother to change the variable references before turning in their assignments. Dr. Atkinson implemented the policy that students who turned identical programs would receive an automatic F.
I firmly believe that anybody can learn programming and data management skills if they truly want to. But many students didn’t want to put forth the effort necessary to get a descent grade out of the class. Eventually I learned that some people just didn’t want to learn. While some students made it a habit to come to the tutorials and tried valiantly to learn the principles of computers, other students only showed up to get the answers. For many of my peers, I was content just to do the work for them.
In my upperclassman years at the school I was one of two students that served on the committee recommending changes to the school curriculum for the following year. Many of the students being recruited to the school were having difficulty meeting the math requirements. The curriculum required a minimum of two years of math. At the time remedial math was not applicable to the minimum requirements. The committee recommended nearly unanimously for making the remedial math course eligible as part of the minimum standard requirements. I was the only dissenting vote.
Now all of this happened before there was a 50 Cent, Nelly, Biggie, 2pac, and before some people who’re rapping now were even born. Nigger, bitch, and variations of the word whore were popular slurs for some people on campus. However, I don’t recall ever hearing those words in music and I know I never heard them over the airwaves at that time. The other students and I listened to the same songs so hip-hop wasn’t even close to being a separating factor for us at the time. I wasn’t the best student. I hated going to many of my classes just as much as anybody else. But since I was able to help many of my instructors with their testing processes, I was able to earn extra credits that allowed me to earn A’s and B’s in subjects that I would’ve otherwise gotten B’s and C’s. Nevertheless, I had some difficulty relating to the majority of my peers. I found some students hostile. I learned a lot about myself and my sense of community. But after being at the school for four years I was more than happy to put Stillman College behind me.
For a long time, Stillman College has been a direct reflection of a segment of the black community that finds itself in a state of perpetual struggle. It is very true that many students are squandering their opportunity for an education. But the desire to learn was lost long before they showed up on campus. For a lot of people it’s very easy to point to the student and blame them and their family as being the only one’s responsible for not taking the student’s education more seriously. Yet, such standards of responsibility rarely apply to the white community when they step over the line. The educational problems of the students who attend Stillman College is indicative of historical, systemic, subjugation of black people educationally, economically, socially, legally, and medically.
While many people make college sound like a necessity for every young adult, it may not be the immediate answer for many who graduate from high school. If a student didn’t enjoy or take full advantage of the learning environment of high school what makes college an attractive option? College is an environment that is supposed to continue the development of intellectual thinking. College should not be expected to be an environment to initiate or stimulate intellectual thinking that wasn’t there before. Some people, who have honestly taken their desire for a college education to heart, can make the transition. But for many others it can be a huge waste of time. As Stillman continues down a path of lower academic standards it tarnishes its reputation. This is the same school that was instrumental in producing some of the finest doctors, lawyers, and other black professionals.
Regardless, if the administrators at Stillman want the school to survive then they need to make a change. With a graduation rate of just twenty-nine percent it should be obvious that most of the students that Stillman is recruiting are not exactly traditional college material. Instead of trying to educate these young adults with intellectual studies maybe what they need are technical skills studies. Maybe Stillman should consider adding a technical program to go along with the intellectual program. Welding, carpentry, plumbing, and other skills are valuable assets these days. And none of these jobs are at risk of going overseas or running. I don’t know if it’s doable or even if Stillman administrators, board, or whoever would even consider such an option. But something needs to change.