Perspectives: An Open Letter to HBCU Presidents

For more than 150 years, historically Black colleges and universities have been lighthouses of access for students. Today, HBCUs continue to graduate significant numbers of the nation’s African-American students, oftentimes students who are the first in their families to attend college or who come from low-performing school districts and/or low-income backgrounds.

The enduring legacy of HBCUs has been their distinguished mission to serve and meet the unique needs of African-American students — academically, financially, physically, socially, and spiritually.

However, I am deeply concerned and disappointed by the dearth of positive news articles written about HBCUs. Even more disheartening is to hear some higher education reporters — with whom I work closely with as a communication strategist for various higher education organizations — grumble about how difficult it is to get many HBCU presidents and/or their senior staff to agree to go “on record” for a story, even though it may be a positive one.

My guess as to why many HBCUs shy away from speaking to reporters is because of the negative experiences they’ve encountered in the past. Based on my conversations with some HBCU presidents and senior institutional staff, when they tell their stories to the masses the result has been anything but positive most times. Articles that may be perceived as negative or not showing African-American students and HBCUs in the best light naturally perpetuate feelings of distrust for dealing with the media. Many HBCU presidents and their staff recognize that, at times, the media do not always play fair. And because they don’t always know the rules of engagement, HBCUs would rather not play at all.

Fundamentally, there is a misperception about how to communicate the powerful benefits and contributions of HBCUs. Perhaps it is because they have historically faced many institutional challenges. A large majority of these campuses are struggling to maintain their relevancy because of declining graduation and retention rates. Many HBCUs are surviving in a weakened financial condition and there is a turnover of experienced leadership to sustain the legacy of these campuses as well.

This is a problem with what is termed in my field as “messaging,” more specifically, effective messaging. The structure of effective messaging is to always state the problem, the solution and the action. Effective messages provide an in-depth understanding of an organization’s position or issue. They are road maps to take people from where they are to where you want them to go. But, HBCUs must first know where they want to take people.

If I may, HBCU presidents, it is precisely in times of struggle that you must offer positive and inspiring stories. Your institutions display courage and achievement among your students and in your institutional reform efforts. It is essential for you to establish and promote messages that can strategically help people, especially higher education policymakers and philanthropists, to better understand your challenges. You must effectively communicate to them the concrete support you need to help you be more successful. In a nutshell, HBCUs must become more effective and active in messaging that they still matter!

This approach to effective messaging about HBCUs requires discipline and a critical shift from an old mindset. I recom­mend these strategies:

•          Establish a more positive, interactive messaging initiative about HBCUs by beginning a thoughtful and authentic “conversation” campaign targeting media outlets and people across the nation. Each conversation can excite others about the good work being done at HBCUs and convey the critical issues facing African-American students and the innovative ways your institution is positioned to address them.

•          Inspire education policymakers and philanthropists to act on your institutions’ behalf by using strategic messaging that provides snapshots of quantitative and qualitative data about your progress and achievements. Modest or incremental, mixed-method data points about successes may offer en­couragement as well as bring insight about progress being made on your campus.

•          Share stories about institutional issues within the context of national higher education discussions. This is essential. It’s also important not to approach it as sharing your dirty laundry but as putting your position and issues on the national stage. Leverage the Obama administration’s endorsement of HBCUs. The national platform is powerful for optimizing the institutional impact of HBCUs on the national economy, education reform efforts and the workforce development initiatives in the country.

I realize that all of this requires hard work and immediate action from HBCUs. It also calls for reaching out to those who, in the past, may have been biased or may not have been kind (or accurate) about reporting on HBCUs. HBCUs are in a perfect position to begin telling their stories about their value and impact.

My hope is that the whole nation becomes inspired and encouraged by the legacy and contribution of HBCUs in the changing American economic, education and workforce landscape.

— Tia T. Gordon is the founder and CEO of TTG+Partners, a communications firm that has worked with several organizations focused on diversity issues in higher education. For more information, visit TTG+Partners’ web-site at www.ttgpartners.com/.