WASHINGTON — Dr. Lorenzo Esters has spoken resolutely about the “bold, futuristic and intentional” five-point plan launched last month for 18 historically Black land-grant colleges and universities, but he could have easily been summing up his first year as the person tapped by the nation’s oldest higher education association to advance access and diversity among its member institutions.
As the debate over the relevancy of Black colleges continues to swirl inside and outside of academia and troublesome HBCU graduation and retention rates linger, Esters, vice president of the Office for Access and the Advancement of Public Black Universities at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), has this message at the ready for critics: “Success is a longer road for historically Black colleges and universities.”
Esters, 34, celebrates Black colleges for their ability to take and graduate many students who were like him—from low-performing school districts, from low-income households, and the first in their families to go to college. What distinguishes HBCUs, Esters says, is “their legacy of intentionality. They know who they serve and they have a history of doing that well,” says Esters, a product of three HBCUs: Rust College, Jackson State University and Morgan State University.
But it is the group of Black land-grant colleges and universities, known as the “1890s” for the year they were designated by Congress under the second Morrill Act, that Esters says he wants to equip for a new marketplace while helping them meet “the challenges of institutional advancement and academic enhancement.”
Since his appointment in June 2009, the architecture for such a plan has been on a fast track, says Esters. “It’s their plan,” adds Esters of the 1890 presidents and chancellors who have agreed to adopt and implement activities to benefit their network of institutions. When the HBCU leaders met June 23-25 in Little Rock, Ark., for the APLU’s Council of 1890 Universities summer conference, the plan topped the agenda.
It called for:
• Establishing a Graduation, Retention, Enhancement, and Accountability Task Force to address such things as increasing student enrollment, especially among males.
• Establishing international education programs of study and degrees that include hosting international meetings of 1890 and selected African institutions.
• Instituting distance and online learning capabilities and degree programs.
• Launching campuswide curriculum, degree and faculty initiatives focused on science, mathematics, engineering, technology and agriculture.
• Brokering and enhancing articulation agreements between the 1890s and community colleges to support degree attainment.
The 1890s, Esters says, “are not waiting for a mandate in order to act. They are holding themselves accountable for results. That is the new agenda, and I’m excited to be a part of the action.”
Dr. George E. Cooper, president of the South Carolina State University and chair-elect of the Council of 1890s, calls these types of initiatives representative of the “new energy and fresh thinking” that Esters has brought to the institutions since he came on board. “His focus on diversity and young Black males has been important to us,” Cooper adds. “(Esters) is our voice in Washington, which is already helping to open doors for us.”
In April, Cooper and members of the Executive Committee of the Council of 1890 Universities met with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Cooper said he and the 1890s are excited about a new partnership agreement with the Monsanto Company, an agricultural biotechnology corporation that focuses on diversity and agriculture while supporting such things as teaching exchanges and student research.
Since increasing diversity in international education is a priority for the 1890s, Esters is brokering a partnership agreement with the Peace Corps. The results of a survey on international education and diversity will be released during the June meeting of the 1890s.
Esters’ portfolio, which includes overseeing the APLU’s Commission on Access, Diversity and Excellence, means working with both Black land-grants and the membership’s Hispanic-serving institutions. Serving as senior adviser to the president of historically Black Dillard University in New Orleans before coming to the APLU, Esters says his first year on the job has entailed reaching out but not always getting the collegial hand of some of the major HBCU policy and advocacy organizations that also count his 1890 institutions among their membership.
When it comes to ensuring the success and future of the nation’s HBCUs, “leadership and collaboration” are sorely needed, especially “on issues of relevance to all of our institutions,” says Esters.
This week, Esters meets in Denver with the APLU’s Commission on Access, Diversity and Excellence to lay the groundwork for a policy agenda that will tackle diversity in the professoriate, the underrepresentation of low-income and minority males in higher education, and the impact of the nation’s economic downtown on low-income and minority students.