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The “Dome of Security” at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The “Dome of Security” at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

In September 2016, I interviewed Dr. Michael Watson, Associate Professor of Physics at Fisk University. I have known Michael as a student in my Calculus classes at Hampton University in the mid-1980s, and later as a fellow Ph.D. student in Hampton’s Physics program. I studied theoretical particle physics, Michael studied plasma physics. I was at Fisk University to talk to Michael, a Black Physics professor who graduated from an HBCU - Hampton University, and is now teaching at an HBCU – Fisk University, about his thoughts and his experiences attending an HBCU and later returning to an HBCU as a professor. The part of Dr. Watson’s story I am sharing here is his experience as a student at Hampton University.   

After finishing high school at a predominantly white high school in Ohio, Watson decided to attend a predominantly white university (PWI) on a track scholarship. He didn’t do well during his freshman year for a number of reasons. He described the university as Old South where during his year there a fancy-dress ball was held with a Civil War theme. It wasn’t until he transferred to Hampton University after his freshman year that he realized what was at the core of his academic issues. Watson felt that at the PWI he always had to be on guard or cover himself with an umbrella as he put it.  His ‘body sense’ always had to be on. He called it a ‘nebulous intangible feeling’ that affected his ability to focus on his studies and kept him aware that his actions reflected on all Black people, not just himself. In contrast, he described being at Hampton University as having a ‘dome of security’ around him.  I let him tell it:   If I am, getting back to what I said before about that umbrella body sense of what’s going on, if I am always on guard, I am not listening to anything you are saying, I am tense because I have to look out for everything. I am not hearing anything. I am unable to hear. However, if the dome is on, I am feeling safe, it's no big deal, I can act stupid or be good or whatever, I am just me being human. Now if you say something to me, it’s like…huh, ok, you may have to repeat yourself, but now I can hear it. If somebody is not available to hear, it doesn’t matter what you say, you can say it over and over and over again.  You have to get rid of that umbrella. You have to get rid of that thing. That's where HBCUs come into play, because HBCUs give Black students a place where they can relax and be people.

Watson expressed that what made the difference in his success was what he called the social support structure, which basically meant for him being around people who understood him and who he could relate to. During the discussion, he revealed that this social structure included his peers, professors, the culture of the HBCU campus, the culturally relevant context in his classes, cultural, social, and sports events – in short, everything that makes up campus life.

The literature lists reasons that HBCUs are so successful in graduating Black STEM majors such as research experiences, a nurturing environment, caring professors, and a sense of belonging [1], [2]. However, no one has ever expressed to me as clearly what that sense of belonging actually means as Dr. Watson has. His statements were on one hand so basic as far as what it took for him to succeed, yet also so deeply profound. Feeling secure and being allowed to be oneself is at the core of Dr. Watson’s experience at the HBCU and he now tries to give his student at Fisk University that same ‘dome of security’.

I will write more extensively about the experiences of Dr. Watson and others as Black physics professors at HBCUs, but I wanted to share this story at this particular time in our history, where some Black students are exposed, still and again, to racism on white campuses. Dillard University President, Dr. Walter Kimbrough, links the recent enrollment increase at HBCUs to racial tensions on white college campuses [3]. Even in the absence of overt racism, what Watson described does not seem replicable for Black students at PWIs, as those institutions have been set up for centuries to provide the dome of security for white students, something they are not readily willing to change. While efforts in diversity at some PWIs have succeeded, efforts in inclusion and moreover in equity are largely falling short.

When I sent this blog to Dr. Watson for his approval, he asked if my intent was to start a revolution. That got me thinking that a revolution is what it well may take to achieve inclusion and equity for all students at all institutions of higher education.

[1] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2019. Minority Serving Institutions: America's Underutilized Resource for Strengthening the STEM Workforce. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[2] Institute of Medicine 2011. Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation:
America's Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads. Washington, DC: The
National Academies Press.