Land of the Lost

A couple of weekends ago a friend and I saw Will Ferrell’s new movie Land of the Lost, which is based upon Sid and Marty Krofft’s classic Saturday morning TV series in the 1970s.  The movie hit all of the right notes: it paid the appropriate amount of homage to its source material and contained enough wry self-mockery to keep the viewer from getting too nostalgic for the days when dinosaurs, obese black kids, and talking Great Danes were about as raunchy as cartoon fare got.  The capstone of the cinematic experience was, of course, Will Ferrell, whose reverence for and mastery of physical comedy makes him an indisputable heir to such legendary comedians as Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Don Knotts.  Indeed, Ferrell’s gleeful willingness to use his flabby, pasty, middle-aged body as his central prop was a welcome reminder that human actors will always be superior to their CGI counterparts, no matter how amazingly life-like the latter may be.

The premise of the film is simple: disgraced scientist Ferrell and his companions are stranded accidentally in a place where time has no meaning and where creatures and artifacts from other eras and planets are dumped as casually as a fast food wrapper.  Our heroes must then survive the myriad of perils confronting them in this “land of the lost” and find a way to return home, restore their reputations, and make a fortune through self-promotion.  I laughed.   I cried.   I wondered if a world like the Land of the Lost could actually exist.  It did not take me long to realize that this alien dimension was, in fact, quite real.   We know it, however, by a different name: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Now before fire and brimstone begin to rain down upon my head—and I assure you, Dear Reader, that it will—let me make a few things clear.   First, my parents and nearly all of my siblings graduated from HBCUs, as have many of my closest friends and most valued colleagues.  I began my academic career at one of the most respected HBCUs in the country.  And I have spent most of my professional life working on behalf of HBCUs by helping secure the financial, human, and intellectual resources they need to achieve their collective mission of providing education and opportunity to a population whose needs and potential have been ignored and underserved by majority institutions of higher learning.  Indeed, it is my wide experience with HBCUs that gives me the confidence to say that they embody some of the signature traits of the Land of the Lost.

For instance, the Land of the Lost is ruled by a cantankerous dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed “Grumpy”.  Likewise, many HBCUs are governed by “tyrant kings”—presidents whose philosophies and leadership styles are tragically out of step with the needs and responsibilities of the modern university.  They foster cults of personality (theirs), eschew transparency of process, and stifle debate and the free exchange of ideas among the faculty.

And what of the faculty?  They are the Sleestak, the lizard-like humanoids who inhabit the Land of the Lost.   Like the Sleestak, which are confined primarily to their subterranean realm, HBCU faculty members are prisoners of crushing teaching loads and the demands of innumerable departmental and university committees.  Rarely are they able to escape these duties and engage in the research and scholarship from which new knowledge flows.

That leaves the students at HBCUs and the prickliest analogy of all.  They are the Pakuni, the primitive, ape-like creatures who resemble human ancestors. I do not nor would I ever suggest that HBCU students—or any students, for that matter—are apes.  For me, the Pakuni represent innocence and potential.  When exposed to the right opportunities at the right moments, the Pakuni demonstrate the capacity to learn, adapt, and excel beyond what would normally be expected of them.  By and large, such has been my experience teaching and working with students at HBCUs.  However, they have also exhibited some of the less favorable traits of the Pakuni: a profound reluctance to defy group (or parental) expectations, a suspicion of new ideas that challenge established systems of belief, and a selfishness that is too often promoted and rewarded by society.

Brighter minds than mine have debated whether HBCUs still have a role to play in our “post-racial” society.  Both sides have made compelling arguments; and I doubt that I could add much.  I do believe that HBCUs should compete in the modern educational marketplace.  However, these institutions can no longer rely solely upon their historical and moral mission to survive in the twenty-first century.  HBCUs must embrace the best practices in leadership and governance, institutional advancement, faculty development, and student retention.  They must be relentlessly creative in making education relevant and continue to be a fearless advocate for those whom society would consign to the abyss of hopelessness.

If HBCUs fail in these vital tasks, they will be trapped forever in a time-warp.  And they would deserve to be.

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting post. I plan on responding to it at length on my blog at Diverse Issues in Higher Education – The Academy Speaks (www.diverseeducation.com).

  2. […] written by a colleague who has worked in the HBCU community for many years. He titled the post “Land of the Lost“ — after the Sid and Marty Krofft TV show and more recently, the movie.  At first glance, I […]

  3. After reading the post I’d like to make several points. I’ve worked in the HBCU system for most of my professional career and have to agree with some of the statements the writer makes. The HBCU system has afforeded me great opportunities and I have to acknowledge that as well as say that I’ve worked with and known some wonderful people.
    But, I think at some point you just get very frustrated with the system as a whole because it protects it’s own dysfunction and chides anyone who challenges it. I must also say that although Dr. Gasman’s work is extensive in the area of HBCU’s, and I applaude her work. But I’m tired of White people becoming authorities on our own experiences. Maybe this will push me to be more active as a scholar. But as the writer points out, I’m bogged down in “stuff” and the demonic culture of the institution that I can’t really work as I’d like. I’d also like to point out that white faculty are regarded in a whole different way that Black faculty are in our own institutions–I’ve seen them get away with murder just because they were White or Middle Eastern and the insitution didn’t want to get in a lawsuit with them. So I’ve got to give my brother a thumbs up!

  4. I’m gonna be straight with you here, my fellow Philadelphian, and say that I think you’re talkin out both sides of your mouth. You claim personal, professional, and familial allegiance to HBCUs and then–basically–proceed to completely diss them! Really? But I guess you got us reading and talking, right?

  5. I do not claim to be an authority on HBCUs in any capacity, but what I’d like to explore; make inquiry to the possibility of HBCUs competitiveness in the modern educational marketplace resolve. Is it not as the author noted:leadership styles that are tragically out of step with the needs and responsibilities of the modern university, that which contributed to financial difficulty of several HBCUs in past decades?
    I believe the HBCUs are not leveraging the technological resources available today. What can make them more viable is research and unique programs that lend themselves to a more global community. This takes leadership and “can do/yes we can,” pioneering faculty. Leadership fails when there is a lack of support. And support does not preclude leadership skills and initiatives to take “stuff” as Marianne Q. mentioned and turn it back to defeat the demonic culture and/or an antiquated regime. Utilize your leadership and management skills, captialize on human capital strategies. Network with other faculty to implement new research projects via technology. HBCUs need academic distinction along with their historical Black status for recruiting and retaining students. And if you don’t do it, who will. The threat is not in talking about the problem, it is in finding a solution.

  6. ….”However, they have also exhibited some of the less favorable traits of the Pakuni: a profound reluctance to defy group (or parental) expectations, a suspicion of new ideas that challenge established systems of belief, and a selfishness that is too often promoted and rewarded by society”

    First, I would like to say – how sad. How sad that a different analogy than “Pakuni” could not have been used. Taken in the most positive, open vein, this statement still reeks. Had a white person stated this, even the author of this article would have been up in arms. My question is, when will people like the author of this article get out of the racist stronghold thinking that has perpetuated in America? When will we evolve?

    I know you needed to fit the students into your “Land of the Lost” analogy, but please, – stop. Stop for the sake of my son and all of his peers who are doing GREAT things at his HBCU. Take a look at the 2008-2009 Howard University “Whos Who” section and read the “out of the box” tremendous endeavors that these students have engaged in and will continue to engage in. Are they “Pakuni?” This can be stated for all the HBCUs.

    Your article seeks to stir up people, but it is generalized and can be applied to any institution of any color. My question to you is “what are you doing to make a difference in the institutions that you are criticizing?” If you are not part of the solution, you are DEFINITELY part of the problem.

    Readers, don’t believe the hype. Critical dialogue is always welcome and engagement to improve institutions is always needed; but when we have derogatory generalized statements about our kids coming out of an educated man’s mind, we have to stop and certainly not drink the kool-aid in any shape, form, or fashion. These kids are in college, would we prefer that they stay in the hood or seek quick money? Calibrate your criticism author.

  7. Interesting post. I need too see this movie to fully understand the analogies, and particularly how they only relate to HBCU’s, if not all C/U’s. GREAT writing style!

  8. After my first semester at this HBCU (my 2nd experience with an HBCU – the first not so great, which is part of the reason I am here), I do identify with the student comparisons. I recognise in myself a yearning to be creative but I fall short when I begin to question my originality, the beauty of my creation and my limited pool of ideas. I am convinced that the advent of smart-phones will aggravate this problem and our frustration – to whom do I say “I need help thinking” when my own colleagues no longer look me in the eye? Once was a time when the elder community seemed so foreign; our worlds, lands apart. Now the generation gap has bridged and I find myself craving the more meaningful interaction that is seemingly rare with the overburdened professors around me.

    I agree though that these issues are not unique to HBCU’s but I respect the opinions and admire your ability to express your thoughts so eloquently. I do hope you decide to resume this blog, I take great pleasure in your writing.


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