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Setting the Agenda for Tennessee’s HBCUs

Brittany L. Mosby is in the role of her dreams as the nation’s first director of HBCU Success for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC).

Brittany L. MosbyBrittany L. Mosby

In marrying her passion for historically Black colleges and universities, higher education, diversity and inclusion and state-level policy research, Mosby is setting a strategic agenda to move the state’s seven HBCUs forward and give them a seat at the table in higher education conversations.

“I’m excited about the things that we’ll be able to get done as a state in the name of HBCU success,” said Mosby, an HBCU graduate. “Being the first one in the role, and then also not really having any peers in any other states, a lot of [the work] has just been learning the landscape and laying a foundation for future work.”

With the Tennessee Promise and Reconnect Scholarship programs available for high school graduates and returning adults to complete their degrees tuition-free, and the state’s overall focus on innovation, collaboration and completion in higher education, it is a “good time to be in higher education” in Tennessee, Mosby noted.

Among the initiatives and efforts Mosby is developing, raising HBCU awareness and elevating the stories of HBCUs tops the list.

“Right now, it’s a prime opportunity for HBCUs to step up and to share the stories of the good work that they do with those students who would be thought of as ‘risky students,’” she said, referencing data from the nonprofit education advocacy organization Complete Tennessee. The data indicates that Tennessee HBCUs outperform their predictors compared to every other public institutions and some private institutions.

Telling these stories will be crucial as states look to higher education for economic and workforce development, Mosby added. “HBCUs are the missing puzzle piece there.”

This point is not lost on Mosby, who said her own experience at Spelman, an HBCU in Atlanta, “uniquely prepared” her to serve as Tennessee’s first director of HBCU success, a role she has served in since January.

“Spelman was a place where I could really grow into myself uninhibitedly and I think that’s true, in general, of HBCUs,” Mosby said, recalling her time as a math major. “All of my peers were Black women, and it never occurred to me that I was a minority in the field. It never occurred to me that it was off-limits or out of reach for me.”

This sense of empowerment from Spelman – along with nurtured soft skills such as networking and professionalism – followed Mosby into her graduate studies, where she pursued a master’s degree in mathematical sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.

Now she is earning an Ed.D. in higher education leadership and policy at Vanderbilt University.

In her first few months as director, Mosby visited all seven of the state’s HBCUs: Tennessee State University, American Baptist College, Fisk University, Knoxville College, Lane College, LeMoyne-Owen College and Meharry Medical College.

“I called it my ‘listening tour,’” she said. In some instances, Mosby said, her visits have been the first time the state has officially been on campus. Six of the seven HBCUs in Tennessee are private.

“So, it’s been a historic moment in the making,” she added.

Other planned initiatives from Mosby’s office include raising HBCU awareness for K-12 students and counselors by partnering with THEC’s College Access and Success division. These groups can visit to learn more about the college selection process. In addition, guidance counselors will have access to training around HBCU choice.

“A common thing that we run into is that many counselors just aren’t aware of HBCUs and the benefits they can provide to certain demographics of students,” Mosby said. “We want to make sure that the full slate of options are available to students as they’re making their choices, and that will help with recruitment and enrollment that are common issues” at HBCUs.

Mosby’s office also will encourage dual-enrollment opportunities for students as well as articulation agreements and partnerships between Tennessee’s HBCUs and local community colleges, 12 of which are Achieving the Dream institutions out of a total of 13. Making sure the transfer pathways from community colleges to larger institutions are “as smooth as possible” will be important, she said.

Similarly, working on public-private partnerships between HBCUs and industry, business and government sectors will be “vital,” as they are the “currency” moving HBCU sustainability forward, Mosby added. She is working to replicate and expand existing career pathway opportunities and bring them to the state’s HBCU students so that they can graduate with not only a degree, but a job offer or job prospect.

Some current partnerships include Middle Tennessee State’s medical pipeline partnership with Meharry, and Tennessee State’s, LeMoyne-Owen’s and Fisk’s participation in the United Negro College Fund Career Pathways Initiative.

“The pipeline doesn’t end at the institution, it doesn’t end at graduation,” Mosby said. “You have to think about the entire life-cycle of students, from pre-K all the way through adulthood. Having institutions that are ready for students in whatever form they come in is very important.”

Serving as an advocate for HBCUs, equity and inclusion and higher education overall, Mosby views her role as that of a collaborator or convener – someone who brings the “right stakeholders and contributors” to the table and encourages conversations, she said.

“It could have been very easy for this position just to be a figure-head piece,” she said. “I’m incredibly grateful to the higher education commission for allowing me the space to really build this position out.”

The support of the state legislature and THEC’s executive director Mike Krause has been central to Mosby’s work. Krause is “one of the people who understands that the state cannot reach its education goals without HBCUs,” Mosby said. “He understands that all of this work is truly integrated.”

Mosby plans to create opportunities for the state’s HBCUs to convene and share best practices amongst each other, while also serving as a diverse institutional cohort for predominantly White institutions to learn from.

She also plans to develop an executive-in-residence program where she will be able to inform “my perspective of the work I do by having that boots-on-the-ground experience.”

The program will alleviate a challenge for administrators she recalls from her time serving as a community college faculty member: the higher you move up, the more you lose touch with what’s happening at the campus level, she said.

“I want to avoid that sort of leadership,” she said. “I want to make sure that the policies, the agenda, that we set makes sense for the folks who are in the day-to-day work.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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