Apathy plagues black student organizations

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — In the havoc of the 1960s — and even in the quieter times of the ’70s and ’80s — Penn State’s Black Caucus was right there, staging sit-ins, making demands.
The ’90s have been a different story.
At the group’s March meeting, only one of 350 members showed up. And two weeks later, when a deadline passed without a single candidate for president, the leadership laid down an ultimatum: If no one stepped forward to lead Black Caucus, it would be dissolved.
“We made the stakes high,” president Nikitra Bailey said. “It’s the only way to get people to listen.”
Apathy has set in at black umbrella organizations that had been known for their militancy — not only at Penn State, but at campuses across the country.
“A lot of students now believe that the whole struggle is over, the notion that we shall overcome. They believe they have arrived,” said Walter Kimbrough, director of student activities and leadership at Old Dominion.
“Black students are getting involved in mainstream culture, and they don’t see the need for those groups,” he said.
The Black Caucus and other groups like it grew out of a need for representation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With the success of the civil rights movement came an influx of black students to predominately white institutions.
“It was relatively easy to form the group,” said Larry Young, the director of the Robeson Cultural Center at Penn State and a longtime adviser to the caucus. “There was a tangible need. Students could look around and see the problems that they faced collectively and that was stimulus.”
Students demanded classes on black culture and history, taught by black professors, with students on black scholarships attending. In reply, universities created African studies programs and built cultural centers for black students, said Deborah Atwater, the head of the department of African and African American studies at Penn State.
Through the ’70s and ’80s, the number of black students on American campuses increased and so did their power. Slowly they began to make their mark in mainstream student government associations. At the same time, the number of specialized black organizations grew, reaching 30 today at Penn State for 2,700 black undergraduates.
“They may be a victim of their own success,” said James Stewart, vice provost for educational equity at Penn State.
“When you do a good job and are able to make improvements, some people may think you don’t have to work to keep those gains in place. They become complacent. There’s no perceived crisis, no burning issue.”
At the University of Iowa, the Black Student Union is now one of the smallest of 21 black organizations on campus. Phillip Jones, the dean of students, said the group has had mixed success adapting to changing times.
“They have found it difficult to be a catalyst force,” he said.