Doing More With LessDespite having fewer resources, HBCUs have outpaced majority institutions in producing Black professionals, but experts say strong leadership will be the key to their long-term survival
By B. Denise Hawkins
Since their founding in segregation, the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities have been studies in resourcefulness, contrasts, resoluteness, possibilities and miracles. But have the past 20 years marked the worst of times for these venerable, public and private institutions? Despite their problems — fractured budgets, ailing and aging infrastructures, and revolving door leadership — they continue to do more with less while managing to outpace majority institutions in training and producing the majority of the nation’s Black teachers, preachers, social workers, lawyers, doctors, journalists, engineers and scholars. For the first time in their history, a record number of HBCUs are embroiled in fiscal mismanagement or confronting serious financial problems, among them — Grambling State University, Texas College, Wilberforce University, Fisk University and Central State University. Atlanta’s Morris Brown College and nearly a dozen other HBCUs since the mid-1970s have received warnings or been placed on probation by accreditation agencies, mostly for financial problems or have had to close their doors — permanently. “The point is not to lose any of us,” says Dr. Norman Francis, who has been president of Xavier University for 35 years. “Unless we all can compete, we are all at risk of closing. And every day that we open our doors it’s a miracle because we are doing extraordinary things with so little resources,” Francis says.Xavier University in New Orleans, the nation’s only Black Catholic university, was among a handful of HBCUs in the 1980s that began to set the standard by which other Black colleges and universities would be measured, not by Blacks, but by Whites. Some HBCUs are enjoying unparalleled prosperity, major corporate and foundation gifts, boosting endowments, and successfully recruiting the best and the brightest applicants. In a recent address to United Negro College Fund members, Francis offered a lesson in “Marketing 101” and in staying competitive as a Black college: “Make sure that leaders in industry, business, state and local officials know what you do, and what you contribute … This is a quid pro quo society. “If it is thought that you have no contributions to make, then you must be a liability,” says Francis, whose small university has been the nation’s leading producer of Black medical students and pharmacists. Today they are attracting competitive research and science dollars. Dr. Johnnetta Cole, president of Bennett College agrees. “There is enormous diversity among HBCUs, and there is a core of similarities among us. A large HBCU like a Howard has a string of differences from a small women’s college called Bennett and yet, at the center of each of these institutions is a shared vision,” says Cole, who led a successful $113 million capital campaign during her 14-year tenure as president of Spelman College in Atlanta. Cole, in 1987, snagged a $20 million gift from Bill and Camille Cosby, still the largest ever donated to a Black college. But the reality is that some HBCUs won’t be able to compete and will be left behind, Francis predicts. “None of us is safe because none of us has a huge (fiscal) safety net.”Record low numbers of Black students applying in the 1980s to HBCUs also left these institutions vulnerable and at risk, researchers say. In the past quarter century, the number of Black college students in the nation has increased nearly 60 percent, to more than 1.6 million. HBCUs watched, unable to compete for academically prepared Black students who were being lured away by majority institutions bearing scholarships and grants — not loans — earmarked for them and for other racial and ethnic minorities, says Dr. Leonard L. Haynes III, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. “At the same time that these better-prepared Black students were enrolling in White Southern schools, HBCUs were starting to enroll more and more students with education deficits,” said Haynes, who served as president of Grambling State University. The result was an “explosion” in the early 1980s in remedial education on Black college campuses.“Twenty years later we know how to handle remedial students, but their high numbers remain an issue for many HBCUs,” Haynes adds. Today, HBCUs graduate about 23 percent of the Black students who earn college degrees.
Leading HBCUs in the Next 20 Years, BeyondTough times and financial woes, while not a new phenomenon at HBCUs, especially in the past two years, have contributed to the departures of nearly a quarter of the presidents of these institutions.Leadership is the key to HBCU survival in the next 20 years and beyond, declare some of the longest-serving HBCU administrators and CEOs. For them that means strengthening existing leaders and identifying new ones who bring experience and commitment to students and Black colleges. Dr. Ernest L. Holloway, president of Langston University in Oklahoma, stops short of calling the union between a new Black college president and his institution a marriage that demands responsible leadership and is bound by vows of for better or for worse. “What I’ve observed about many new presidents is that they think that their institution began when they took office.” Not so, says Holloway. “When you take office, you take the responsibility for the university — if that university is in bad shape when you arrive, it is now your problem. You are not going into a perfect environment.”One of the most troubling leadership shakeups to rock the HBCU community occurred in early May. Dr. Frederick S. Humphries, then-president of the National Association of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), was forced to step down along with several other senior administrators of the umbrella association for the nation’s public and private Black colleges after the NAFEO board cited a need to move in “another direction” (see Black Issues, May 20). “(NAFEO’s) leadership has been annihilated,” says Dr. James E. Cheek, president emeritus of Howard University, who helped found the association in 1969. Cheek, like other HBCU experts and observers, is wondering what the future holds for NAFEO and who will be the voice for these institutions. Thirty-five years ago, NAFEO was created to be that voice and that face to the government, to corporate America and to the public, aggressively promoting HBCUs as necessary institutions for ensuring a Black presence in American higher education. Cheek says that voice and the vision that he and other educators had for NAFEO more than three decades ago, blazed until the early 1980s. Today, he says, they have smoldered and are noticeably missing from the Black college landscape.“Ours is neither the time, nor is the historically Black college and university the place for those of faint heart, feeble courage, weak commitment, confused and purposeless ambition or selfish motives,” admonished Cheek in a 2003 address that ushered in HBCU Week in the nation’s capital.Langston’s Holloway agrees. “This is not the time to be headless,” he says of NAFEO and the impact the leadership void will have on an HBCU community that is reeling from problems of two recent decades. “It’s a tough time to be a college president. This is a heck of a job whether you are Black or White, male or female,” says Bennett’s Cole with laughter and exasperation. She should know. The retired anthropology professor came out of retirement two years ago to head Bennett College, the historically Black women’s college in North Carolina, when its buildings were eyesores, its leadership was shaky, enrollment was less than 500, it had a $2 million deficit and its accreditation was in peril. Other Black women are also up for the leadership challenge says Cole who is cautiously optimistic of the modest gains in the number of female chief executives of UNCF’s private Black colleges and universities. In 1999, there were 11 female UNCF presidents. Today there are 23. “That is change, but we are far short of where we need to be.”According to UNCF, African American women hold presidencies at less than 10 percent of HBCUs and minority-serving institutions. In late April, the 60-year-old UNCF took its first steps to mentor and develop future female presidents. Cole, in her keynote address at the inaugural meeting of the Mable Parker McLean Women’s Leadership Development Forum in Miami, issued an urgent message to her fellow sister presidents and those aspiring to ascend to their ranks at HBCUs. “We want to avoid living out the Ethiopian proverb that says ‘if you wait long enough, even an egg will walk.’ As women in higher education, we can’t just sit around waiting for more African American women to move into the presidencies and academic and administrative leadership posts,” Cole said. “We need to be proactive. This conference is dedicated to mentoring — those who are already there must help others to get where we are.”
— B. Denise Hawkins was a senior writer and news editor for Black Issues In Higher Education and Community College Week from 1992-1996. Hawkins, a Howard University graduate, is currently vice president at Hyde Park Communications in Washington, D.C., and a freelance writer.
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