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Success of HBCUs Means Looking Forward, Not Backwards

by Dr. James T. Minor

Success of HBCUs Means Looking Forward, Not Backwards

As a scholar and observer of higher education, I am sometimes concerned about the future of historically Black colleges and universities. Policy discussions about HBCUs are overwhelmingly based on rather romantic notions of what they were in the past. As a HBCU alumnus,
I am first in line to defend the honor and tradition of this institutional sector. However, given the current context in which public HBCUs operate — in an era of race-blind policies, limited public resources and intense competition for the top students — building a case for support based on historic valor and survival is hardly enough.

Before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, intended to integrate public education, HBCUs enrolled 75 percent of all Black undergraduates. Since then, the world and the enterprise of higher education have changed significantly. Today, HBCUs enroll approximately 14 percent of all Black students and compete with community colleges and predominately White institutions for students.

For example, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, a predominately White public institution, enrolled nearly 3,000 Black students in 2002, compared to 327 Black students in 1972.

Another significant change is the evolution of litigation and public policy concerning the place of race in public higher education. The American public and judicial officials are upholding affirmative action polices with a weakening arm. Any benefit based on race or perceived to be race-related is likely to be subject to legal scrutiny. What does this mean for historically Black public institutions?

Undoubtedly, HBCUs play a valuable role in higher education and society. HBCUs are responsible for educating an overwhelming majority of the Black students who earn graduate and professional degrees. Nonetheless, HBCUs struggle to garner the type of public or private support necessary to increase their institutional capacities. State-sponsored discrimination and inequitable funding practices are only now being redressed in some states, and even a White House Initiative on HBCUs has produced limited results. Exacerbating the problem is genuine confusion on the part of many higher education leaders and legislators about what the role of public HBCUs should be.

The continued success and sustainability of public HBCUs depends on leaders using a contemporary set of lenses to view complex challenges and uncovered opportunities. Much of the ambiguity concerning the role of HBCUs in public higher education is related to the organizational and ideological transition from what they were historically to what they might become. Two issues are pressing:

– Strategically analyzing the relationship between degree programs and enrollment growth at public HBCUs, and
– Recalibrating public HBCUs to become a viable educational option for all students. 

To be clear, I am not suggesting that either of these issues lead to HBCUs becoming “White institutions.” At the same time, the strategy of using history as a shield against external pressures is no longer a good defense, and it provides little time for any offense. These issues are intensified by the legal climate and accountability pressures present in higher education today. Last year, 11 states were still being monitored by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for compliance with desegregation orders. Legal proceedings intended to remedy institutional disparities have produced few benefits for public HBCUs. The institutional capacity at many public HBCUs remain largely unaffected by three decades of litigation. If anything, HBCUs now feel the strange burden to desegregate their student populations despite the staunch reluctance of White undergraduates to attend. The combination of institutional relevance, purpose, stagnant enrollments, legal pressures, competition and a changing context require an imagination for contemporary Black colleges and universities.

New language represents one opportunity. There is an undeniable connection between public discourse and public policy. The way issues are defined, framed and associated have tremendous influence on policymaking. The affirmative action debate is a classic example. Arguably the biggest fight has been over public perception, and discourse is the sword of choice. From a contemporary standpoint, one would easily recognize that the landscape of higher education has changed and see that HBCUs can ill afford to continually use the same mantra they have for the past three decades.

In order for HBCUs to remain viable, proponents will need to capture the discourse on HBCUs and work to define (and re-define) their meaning relative to the needs of public higher education. Framing why HBCUs are still necessary and demonstrating their relevancy in a contemporary context will likely enable more support and fewer romanticized conversations about what they used to be. The fact that public HBCUs lack a modern definition represents an opportunity to define the role they will play looking forward. HBCU champions must effectively communicate their character and contribution to external constituents or risk having it interpreted for them.

— Dr. James T. Minor is an assistant professor of higher education at Michigan State University.

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