HBCUs must celebrate and mobilize – Historically Black Colleges and Universities - Higher Education

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HBCUs must celebrate and mobilize – Historically Black Colleges and Universities

by Major R. Owens

More than $1 billion has flowed to historically Black colleges and
universities (HBCUs) through the Higher Education Act Title IIIB
program since its passage in 1986. One billion dollars worth of federal
support is an occasion to celebrate.

Common sense and survival instincts require that we take time out to
examine the benefits of the past ten years and to plan for increases
and improvements in the next ten years. A strategy to overcome new
threats is also vitally necessary.

The tenth anniversary of this targeted delivery of dollars also
presents a prime opportunity to answer those who foolishly accuse the
Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) of being a low-achieving body. Title
IIIB was a masterful political coup engineered by the CBC with enduring
benefits for a needy, deserving, and pivotal constituency.
Unprecedented unity within the Congress, in concert with the African
American higher education community, produced this lasting cash
monument.

The institutional recipients of these appropriations are spread over
twenty-one states and the Virgin Islands. Alabama, with fourteen HBCUs,
has the largest number; North Carolina is second with ten. The 1996
list of allocations shows that Texas Southern University received the
largest annual grant, $2.5 million; Grambling State University received
$2.4 million: and Florida A&M University received $2.3 million.

The schools are not all located in the deep South. Pennsylvania has
Cheyney and Lincoln Universities; Ohio has Central State and
Wilberforce Universities: Missouri has Harris-Stowe State College and
Lincoln University; and Oklahoma has Langston University.

Some of the better financially endowed schools with high national
visibility are also recipients: Tuskegee, Clark-Atlanta, Hampton.
Spelman, Morehouse, and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

That this crown of diverse jewels geographically spread over a large
number of congressional districts has great potential political clout
is self-evident. The CBC has consistently protected the HBCUs from
extreme punitive actions related to student loan defaults. Even the
budget-cutting zealots pushing the “Contract with America” were kept
away from these appropriations.

However. HBCUs have usually received unsolicited protection from the
CBC. When this higher education conglomerate of HBCUs is compared to
institutions which vie for other federally financed programs such as
TRIO, it emerges as a politically limp dinosaur guilty of a great
measure of complacency. One purpose of a year-long tenth anniversary
celebration would be the lighting of fires beneath this slumbering
giant because there are serious problems which must be confronted.

The leadership of the HBCUs must assume a more collaborative role
with the CBC and a more assertive role in general. It must be
understood that no appropriation in the federal budget is ever entirely
safe. The HBCU appropriation has not kept pace with the escalating
costs faced by these institutions. Too much reliance on White House
paternalism and the executive budget perspective can sometimes retard
the growth of a worthy program. to merely maintain level funding, it is
necessary that increasing needs be continually highlighted. At present,
there is a danger that pressures will lead to an “opening” of Title
IIIB to new categories which may take us back to the old amorphous term
of “developing institutions” – which allowed Harvard to apply for Title
IIIB funds before the law was amended.

Since the Title IIIB program began, five institutions have lost
their eligibility for funding and there are rumors that several more
may follow. Vicious and distorted desegregation “remedies” now threaten
many state-financed institutions. Within the constellation of more than
3,000 colleges and universities in America, is it not possible for the
African American community to maintain at least 100 HBCUs?

As we celebrate, we must mobilize. Among issues to be confronted is
the high student loan default ratios that represent a dormant virus
which could trigger a cutoff of federal aid to many schools. Low
student performance on national and state tests is being critically
reviewed with greater intensity. The concerns of HBCU presidents and
faculties often seem too parochial with scant engagement on
high-visibility public issues. There are only feeble connections with
the African diaspora and the larger global community. Among the HBCUs.
there are too few outstanding institutional achievements related to
research. education reforms, culture, and current national initiatives
such as charter schools and technological literacy.

Within the African American community, this tenth anniversary of
Title IIIB must shout out the joy and thanksgiving. Let’s have a great
homecoming and family reunion. Let us also speak critically to each
other in language that is plain, blunt and honest. Overwhelming unity
is the only way we can continue to overcome. Over the next ten years. a
critical mass of the leaders is needed for tomorrow’s African American
community, $1 billion from the federal treasury will not be enough.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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