Conference: Complex Picture Painted of HBCU Challenges

WASHINGTON, D.C. – While some leaders, meeting at a national HBCU conference, depicted their schools as lagging from unequal treatment by state governments, attendees representing HBCU land grant institutions heard tough talk Wednesday about the need to improve their competitiveness for federal program opportunities.

Panel discussions and workshops concluded the three-day National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) 38th National Dialogue on Blacks in Higher Education. The conference was themed “HBCUs & PBIs: Tooting Our Horns a Little Louder.”

The longstanding outcry by public HBCUs over the lack of equivalent state funding and resources to compete at a level on par with predominantly White schools took center stage during a luncheon discussion titled “HBCUs & HWCUs: Still Separate & Unequal.”

“This is not a matter of incompetence of the presidents (of HBCUs),” said Dr. Earl Richardson, president emeritus at Morgan State University, one of four Maryland HBCUs taking on the state of Maryland in a pending “equality” lawsuit that challenges what the HBCUs allege are disparate funding practices.

“This is a function of a problem in our society and the problem is a function of the elephant in the room: Race,” Richardson said.

Richardson likened the funding disparities at HBCUs to a “slow death” version of the recent killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black Florida teenager whose shooting death at the hands of a neighborhood watch captain who deemed him as suspicious—and who has not yet been arrested—has sparked national protests.

Richardson said the public should protest unfair funding policies of HBCUs the same way many have protested the killing of Martin.

But while Richardson and other speakers at the luncheon lamented disparate treatment for HBCUs by their respective states, another group of speakers voiced a different set of concerns that suggested the 1890 HBCU land grant universities had sunken into a noncompetitive posture wherein they frequently let government funding opportunities pass them by.

These set of speakers made their remarks on an impromptu basis during the downtime that ensued when USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack canceled a talk he had been slated to give titled “1890s: Sustainable Solutions to Educate and Feed the World.”

Instead of hearing from Vilsack, conference attendees were briefed by several HBCU presidents and a Department of Agriculture official regarding a short meeting they had earlier in the day with U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

According to the officials who met with the congressman, Thompson had stressed the need for HBCUs to develop a more strategic approach to secure funding, such as developing a list of priorities and sharing them with their respective congressmen. He also stressed the need to meet more frequently with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as federal department and agency officials to see what they have to offer.

Instead, a lack of communication persists even when federal officials reach out to the HBCUs, one of the speakers said.

As a case in point, Carolyn C. Parker, director of the Office of Advocacy and Outreach at USDA, said USDA heard nothing back when it reached out to the 1890 schools to notify them of solicitations to take over a dozen USDA Agricultural Research Service laboratories slated for closure.

“We contacted each 1890 institution with no response,” Parker said. “How do we make sure we get e-mails to the people who need to get it for a response?”

Parker suggested the incident was not atypical.

“We work with Hispanic serving institutions, Native American institutions, and we’ve just been asked to work with Asian institutions,” Parker said. “All of those groups have somehow managed to have a meeting with Secretary Vilsack and say collectively: This is what we want.”

“This has not happened from the 1890 community,” Parker said.

Dr. Gilbert Rochon, president at Tuskegee University, said the ARS laboratories represent a prime opportunity for HBCUs collectively to take over the labs, which he said they might not be able to run individually.

“These laboratories are absolute gems,” Rochon said, noting that the labs could be used for an array of agricultural research purposes, including student internships, fellowships, sabbaticals and faculty training.

“This could be a unique opportunity for us,” Rochon said, suggesting that the labs could be secured under the auspices of NAFEO or UNCF or a new nonprofit created specifically to take over the labs.

Rochon also suggested that HBCUs seek to have greater input into the Farm Bill legislation.    

“How much can we attain through the Farm Bill since it’s in the final stages and our degree of benefit, as written into the current bill, is rather miniscule,” Rochon said. “There are ways in which, if we’re going to develop some inputs, now would be the time.”

Dr. Henry Ponder, interim president at Langston University in Oklahoma, suggested that many HBCU leaders have been discouraged from competing for federal grant funding because of roadblocks they encountered in the past.

“Things are different in Washington today than it was yesterday,” Ponder said. “Yesterday, we almost had to beg to get what we were getting. When we sent proposals in, there was always something wrong with them. You had to bring in consultants to help you.”

“That’s not necessarily true today,” he explained. “Today, if you get a proposal in, we have persons in Washington now who are on our side, and, if we send that to them, if there’s something wrong with it, they’ll help you tweak it to get it right.”