Not So Sweet Home Alabama?

Soon to be home, sweet home Alabama?

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Whomever said getting there is half the fun never drove to Huntsville, Alabama.  There’s nothing fun about it.  It’s a long, dull trip whose sole virtue is the speed limit is 70 miles per hour so at least you’re getting through  Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama at a good pace.

Otherwise, I can’t say much good about the trek.  As my wife was bringing us through the last miles through the darkness, she was sweating bullets trying to stay out of the way of the idiot in a Dodge truck hauling a trailer that was fishtailing back and forth.   To say it was nerve-wracking is to put it mildly.  Then we got hopelessly lost once we got into Huntsville trying to find our hotel.

The things mommies and daddies do for their darling daughter who wants to see the university she’s been accepted by.   She was excited, but by the time we finally rolled up to the hotel we were too whipped to even think about finding somewhere to go for dinner.   All I wanted was to collapse into bed and despite lunch being a distant memory, I was happy to scarf down some potato chips and call it a night.

We visited Alabama A&M this morning at 11:00.  It’s nicknamed “The Hill” and that’s not just hype.  As part of our tour, our guide led us up a hill to visit the dorms. Our daughter said her legs were sore afterward and I was gasping like a dying fish, but my wife’s knees wouldn’t cooperate with her to go on with that part of the tour.

What I saw of the campus was a  “C”, except for the women’s dorm which was an easy “D”.  I can’t describe how ugly, dreary and old these rooms were. I’ve seen nicer jail cells.

I wasn’t knocked out by the visit.  Certainly not enough to pack my daughter up and send her four states and one time zone away.  James, the senior who showed us around was friendly enough, but less than totally forthcoming.  He showed us the area where activities were held such as outdoor concerts and plays, but no classrooms, cafeterias or the library.  He probably wouldn’t have shown us the dorm if I hadn’t asked.

When we asked about any crime problems on the campus, James shrugged it off with, “Oh, there’s no crime problem here.”  Later we would find out that wasn’t exactly true.

A 2009 article in The Daily Beast ranked the 25 colleges with the highest crime rates and Alabama A&M came in at #21, right behind Harvard at #20.

A historically black land-grant university in Normal, Alabama, Alabama A&M was established in 1873 by the state legislature as the State Normal School and University for the Education of the Colored Teachers and Students with 61 students, two teachers, and a yearly budget of $1,000. Now the school has 6,000 students. Nearly all crimes happened on the campus, which is located close to Huntsville.

Digging a little deeper, the information got worse, not better.

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — More people have been robbed on campus at Alabama A&M and Alabama State universities in recent years than at any other schools in the state, according to a Birmingham News analysis of the last six years of crime data reported by Alabama colleges and universities.

Alabama A&M leads the pack, with 63 aggravated assaults on campus over the six-year period, plus 29 robberies, 16 sexual offenses and 463 burglaries. On a campus with an average enrollment of about 5,500 students, that makes for a violent crime rate of about 19 incidents per 1,000 students over the time period.

News reports show that police have been called to A&M several times in recent years, including a shooting in January 2010 that left three students hurt, and a melee outside a dormitory in October 2010 involving about 25 students. One student was taken to a hospital after that fight, which police said at the time was retaliation for an earlier break-in at a dorm.

The facts paint a picture not as pretty as James the tour guide would have us believe.  I don’t know if it bothers me more that he thought he could b.s us or we weren’t smart enough to do our homework.

HBCUs operate at a considerable financial disadvantage compared to behemoths like Ohio State, so most comparisons to them are unfair and don’t paint a flattering picture. Yet while I would prefer my daughter attended college closer than 500 miles away, a factory like OSU can chew up and spit out students who aren’t ready for the demands placed on them.  If Alabama A&M come off as slightly shabby that is in part because HBCUs are usually underfunded and can’t compete with White counterparts for the latest technology and the creature comforts that come from a deep pool of alumni with deeper pockets.

We are looking at places like A&M  because we don’t want our daughter to get lost on a campus too large and  impersonal. If all we wanted was for our child to receive an education from a prestigious institution with a big name we would send her to one. My hope is that my daughter will not simply be a consumer in society but a contributor to society and among other like-minded students, a HBCU may give her the tools to become a woman who changes the world.

There are many factors to weigh when choosing a school and Alabama A&M didn’t do enough to close the sale.  I haven’t ruled it out, but neither have I ruled it in.  I won’t send my daughter anywhere she will not be safe, has no support system, or will struggle to thrive.

She has her mind set that her happiness depends on allowing her to go to A&M.  While I care about her happiness making her happy won’t be my primary concern when the final decision is made.  We indulge our children, but as long as we’re paying the way we will choose the destination.

It's not a good sign when the football stadium is newer than the dorms.