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Perspectives: The Future of Public HBCUs Depends On Exceptional Leadership

One of the great looming questions facing American higher education in the 21st century is the fate and future of Black colleges and universities. This country’s Black institutions of higher education, in spite of their size and stature, have proved their mettle, yet they face new challenges to survive.

I spent more than two decades in majority research (that is, White) universities and decided to give back by devoting the last ten years of my career to two historically Black institutions. I am a product of Grambling State University and know well the history, organizational culture, threats and opportunities at HBCUs.

Although a handy referent, lumping all Black institutions under a single rubric is misleading. They do not constitute a monolith. Of the 103 institutions, fewer than half are independent or private.

Withal, Black institutions render an invaluable service to this country. Their influence is felt far beyond their numbers. HBCUs constitute only 3 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities but produce 23 percent of African-American college graduates, National Center for Education Statistics data reveals.

Were it not for Black colleges there would be no African-American middle class. Without America’s Black colleges there would be fewer Black Ph.D.s, pharmacists, engineers and generals. Xavier University of Louisiana, for example, sends more graduates to medical school than any other university, Black or White, according to the American Medical Association. Surely, Black institutions add value to American higher education. The question is how can they contribute more?

American colleges and universities are in fierce competition for students, faculty and resources. Several are currently involved in multi-billion dollar campaigns. Typically, the larger, better endowed universities suck up available monies leaving little to be had by colleges of fewer means. This feeds a situation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Marybeth Gasman, a brilliant and prolific researcher and author at the University of Pennsylvania recently published “Envisioning Black Colleges.” It is a thoughtful, incisive history of the UNCF that chronicles its evolution, how the Fund defined, disciplined and marketed itself to advance the cause of its member institutions. Because of its well-honed slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” the public has a better sense of the role and mission of the UNCF. That’s not so for the remaining 60 odd public Black colleges that must compete for funds with White sister institutions, several of which are located in the same city or region.

There is a role for HBCUs: in producing graduates who can compete and foster diversity in every field of endeavor; in stemming the tide of African-American males who seem “tracked” from the lower grades to drop out and go to prison; in sparking a spirit of entrepreneurship among students; and in transmitting African history, culture and expectations for the future.

The pathway to achieving these aims may vary from institution to institution and could include streamlining the curriculum and expanding technology for instruction and administration; creating a strategic alliance with a nearby majority college or university; or creating an articulation agreement with a nearby community college to boost enrollments.

Above all, what’s needed is bold, aggressive, think-out-of-the box leadership. Black colleges like any successful organization must go the extra mile for talented leadership.

Despite the challenges, some HBCUs will survive and may even thrive in the future. The likely candidates are to be found in a recent listing by U.S. News and World Report, which for the first time ranked Black colleges in an exclusive category. The top 10 colleges are all independent, perhaps reflective of UNCF’s focused mission and its ability to attract strong leadership in management and on governing boards. UNCF also deserves some credit for fostering the kind of clarity of purpose and organizational culture that enables its member colleges to flourish. Consequently, UNCF may offer a template that will benefit public HBCUs as they seek to become more competitive.

Ultimately, greater attention must be paid to leadership and governance at HBCUs since in many instances political factors appear to carry greater weight in appointments, particularly at public colleges and universities. This must change. For institutions, whether independent or public, and where the risks are inherently high and the margin for error is small, failure to recruit exceptional leadership in the presidency and on governing boards can prove too high a price to pay.

Alvin J. Schexnider is former Chancellor of Winston-Salem State University and former Interim President of Norfolk State University.

Alvin J. Schexnider

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