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Symposium: Education Leaders Recommend Priorities for HBCUs

DURHAM, N.C. – In the view of the Obama administration’s top education official, historically Black colleges and universities face two looming challenges as they look to define themselves in the 21st century – preparing students to be the next cadre of minority teachers and improving their retention and graduation rates.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out these priorities Thursday at the North Carolina Central University Centennial HBCU Symposium in Durham, N.C. Duncan headlined the conference and discussed the importance of these schools in educating young minority men and women, and many of the steps the Obama administration is taking to bolster these academic institutions. 

“Children only get one chance at a good education,” Duncan said. “The responsibility for providing it is in our hands, and we simply cannot wait to make changes that will give them a nurturing environment and a chance to succeed.”

More than 400 participants from schools nationwide gathered Thursday at the HBCU Symposium to discuss the most challenging issues facing these academic institutions and to share best practices in educating students and preparing them for future success. Convening faculty members and administrators for in-person discussions is imperative for HBCUs to have a productive future, said Dr. Charlie Nelms, chancellor of North Carolina Central University (NCCU). The symposium concludes today.

“HBCUs are providing a service to the nation,” Nelms said. “As this is NCCU’s centennial and the HBCU community is relatively small, we wanted to provide an opportunity for all of us to reach out to each other, to share ideas, and to discuss ways we are working to remain as just as relevant in higher education as we were decades ago.”

Maintaining HBCUs’ status is a priority for the Obama administration, Duncan said. President Barack Obama has called for the United States to lead the world in the percentage of college graduates by 2020, with HBCUs expected to play a major role in reaching that goal. To aid that effort, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 enacted in March earmarked $40 billion to increase the number of Pell Grants awarded annually – 60,000 of which will go to Black male students in the hopes that many will choose to become teachers.  Black men account for less than 2 percent of the country’s 2.3 million teachers, Duncan said.

But as important as allocated funding is to providing the best educational experience for minority students, it is equally as important to maintain quality leadership in HBCUs, said Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). She recommended institutions invest in transformational leaders – those who inspire positive changes in those who follow them. Having a passion for working with students is fundamental, she said.

“If you’re not passionate about working with students, you’re in the wrong job,” Wheelan said. “As leaders, it’s our responsibility to be role models, not just for our students, but also for the other people in our organization. We have to create opportunities for everyone to learn about leadership so there will be people to come after us.”

That’s the reason why Dr. Chanta Haywood, dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research at Florida A&M University, came to the symposium. She wanted to learn from other schools how they are providing opportunities for students and faculty and opening up new pathways for learning.

“I came here today because the issues being discussed have never been as important as they are now. HBCUs have to refocus and add to their efforts to be competitive in this world,” she said. “It was heartening to see how committed [Secretary] Duncan was to making sure that HBCUs get the support and resources they need to offer expanding resources to students and faculty.”

Haywood said she is an HBCU success story. As a high school student, she didn’t test well and wasn’t accepted to many colleges. However, throughout her career, she has authored and published books and now holds a high-level administrative position. All HBCU students need, she said, is a chance.

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