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Diverse Conversations: Leading Successful HBCUs


William BynumWilliam Bynum

Many HBCUs closed over the last three decades and many are in serious trouble financially and in terms of leadership.

Here to discuss this issue is President William B. Bynum Jr. of Mississippi Valley State University.

Q: First, what would you say has been the principle function of HBCUs in the last three decades and what, on a related issue, do you think have been the particular challenges to these types of institutions in the United States?

A: We know that HBCUs were created to deal with the educational gap that existed in the African-American community and to maintain segregation. What is little known, though, is that HBCUs have always been open to and granted access to other races. However, the principal function has been to make sure that there’s an educated population within the African-American race and to make sure that opportunities for upward mobility were afforded to African-Americans. I think Americans knew that it would be in the best interest of the country to have an educated Black citizenry. That’s why HBCUs were created and continue to exist today.

The major issues that are facing HBCUs ― the challenges ― are the low enrollments that we are seeing now. Only 3 percent of Blacks who are choosing higher education are choosing HBCUs. That number is significantly down from where it was pre-1970 before PWIs [predominantly White institutions] began admitting large numbers of Black students.

We’ve come under fire because of our published graduation rates and how we are faring against other types of institutions with greater resources. That has been a challenge. However, whenever those facts and figures are given, they never account for the fact that HBCUs are dealing with a mostly first-generation college population.

When you look at the small amount of resources that HBCUs have been given, we are faring pretty well. One of the facts I like the most is that while we only receive 3 percent of the African American college population, HBCUs are producing between 16 percent and 17 percent of the degrees that are earned by African-Americans.

Q: Given the social shifts we have seen in the last three decades and the challenges to HBCUs, what do you feel needs to be done to preserve these institutions?

A: First and foremost, let me go on the record as saying that there is still a significant need for HBCUs in this country. We are still a relatively young country when it comes to integration and full participation by African-Americans.

For some reason, even though the country passed civil rights laws in the late ’60s and early ’70s, people are assuming that a lot of ground can be made up in the 40 to 50 years since that time. You and I both know, as educators and researchers, that that’s not a long time at all.

HBCUs are still needed and necessary because they still provide African-American students with the nurturing and mentoring that PWIs still are not able to do. Every time I speak to high school students, I make a point to emphasize the fact that HBCUs have an entire campus that is dedicated to their success ― not two or three people who are responsible for minority students.

If HBCUs close, other schools will not be able to serve the students that we serve, who maybe have been underprepared by their high schools, but simply need some remedial work. You can gauge one thing, but you can never gauge a person’s heart and how much that person is willing to put into something once they are adequately inspired. I think HBCUs give people the opportunity to demonstrate that, despite what they may have dealt with in earlier life, if they have the wherewithal and the drive and ambition, they can be extremely successful people.

What we need to do is to stop the conversation about HBCU closures and mergers. We’ve got to be very resourceful. We need to be sure that we are sending the message that we, again, are open to all races. We know there’s no doubt we need to build our endowments. There are only about five HBCUs that have endowments above $100 million. Endowments are what sustain an institution, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re building our endowments.

And, of course, we’ve got to continue to produce high-quality graduates that can compete in a global society. That’s going to be extremely important. One of the other figures I like, which I don’t have the exact percentages for, are the number of African-American Ph.Ds. in this country. A large percentage of those persons started out at historically Black colleges and universities, and because of the nurturing and close relationship with faculty, they aspired and achieved the doctoral degree. That is extremely important.

Finally, the online programs. Because of what is happening in terms of being able to reach those non-traditional learners and students, HBCUs have to be very nimble and really look at improving their online classroom offerings.

Q: Obviously the last three decades saw shifting trends in education, with African-American students and other minority students accepted at a range of higher education institutions, but how have HBCUs responded to these trends in particular?

A: You’re absolutely right. As we just talked about, as I look at that pre-1970 number of our students who went to HBCUs versus the 3 percent it is now, we are facing stiff competition. Obviously, because most young people today have been raised in a totally different era and time, they are used to certain things. They are more open. They are more technologically savvy, and they’re used to amenities that often times are not as available at HBCUs. There’s no doubt that when we’re comparing Mississippi Valley against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, our physical plants aren’t the same. A lot of those students are choosing predominately White institutions because, physical plant-wise, many HBCUs have not been able to keep up the way other schools have.

We say that today’s students make decisions as they’re walking, meaning based on what they see. ‘What type of room am I going to be living in?’ We all know there is a preference for single rooms, not the double-occupancy, small room. We know students want to see wireless all over the place. We know students want to see new student unions and recreation centers.

Unfortunately, because of those low endowments, because of some of the lack of funding received from the state government, we haven’t been able to keep up with predominately White institutions. That’s a major reason why we’re losing students. We need to maintain our small class sizes and the fact that we really do nurture students. We need to stay true to those missions.

Often, what has happened is that a lot of HBCUs have changed their mission and their focus by trying to chase other schools, and they really just need to stay true to their mission. For instance, there are schools that I know about and have been affiliated with who had good retention and graduation rates, but yet have sought to ‘recruit’ a better quality student. They have changed their admission standards in order to go after a higher SAT or GPA or ACT score student. In turn, they are not looking to serve students who have historically done extremely well at those institutions.

I think we have to be very careful at HBCUs. Again, we need to get back to the basics and get back to our foundation. We need to really understand we have a certain niche, and our niche is being able to work with students and prepare students, give them the support and individual attention and nurturing they need, so that they can, indeed, really prosper and graduate. What has happened instead is too many HBCUs put emphasis on SAT and ACT scores, which we know our students don’t do as well on and factually are not the best determinants for graduation for Black students.

We’ve got to be very careful how we respond to some of those trends, but in the case of Mississippi Valley, we’re going to stick to our foundation. We’re going to stick to our mission in terms of what we were founded to do. We’re going to continue working with students who desire higher education and who understand, ‘I may not be as prepared as I needed to be for college; however, I’ve got a heart, I’ve got a willingness, and I’ve got a desire to learn. If I’ve got a caring, dedicated, committed faculty, while I may enter at one point on the entryway, I’m going to be even with those students at Ole Miss and Mississippi State by the time I exit.’

Q: Although you just started your tenure at Mississippi Valley State University, you have been very successful in righting the ship through a number of different policies and programs. What, in general terms, has been your approach to preserving the legacy of MVSU, while making much needed changes?

A: What I’m trying to do is refocus faculty, staff and students on why we really exist, why we’re here. That is, being more student-centered and making more decisions in terms of what is best for our students.

My approach has been laying out expectations, creating an environment of transparency and producing a collegial working atmosphere. My vision for MVSU incorporates individuals working across the board to achieve our goals. I don’t believe in silos. I believe we indeed have to work as a team and across division lines if we’re really going to make sure students persist and graduate.

The vision, in case you haven’t heard it yet, that we’ve set, is something that already existed on the campus. I’m just putting a new twist and a new emphasis and making it crystal clear what we mean. That vision is ‘One Goal, One Team, One Valley.’

The One Goal is student success. We’re going to be about student success ― enrollment, holistic development, retention, graduation and career advancement. All decisions that we make need to be made with students first and foremost in mind. Not for ourselves as individuals, but what’s best for our students.

The One Team is the university and community working together. It is extremely important that the university, especially a university like Valley, makes inroads and makes it very clear that we want to partner with community stakeholders who are interested in this institution and see us as an asset. We’re going to do that and make sure I’m reaching out to folks and letting folks know, ‘We want to be your educational institution of choice.’ For this area, this region, we want to be that institution.

Finally, the One Valley, that is students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the institution actively demonstrating school pride and spirit that is second to none. The spirituality is intentional in the sense that that’s one of those foundational things we need to reconnect to in terms of an HBCU. When a student is connected spiritually — and I’m not talking about any specific religion; I’m talking about to a higher being, and a different energy source ― a student then gets grounded. They have a new perspective. As a result, they tend to persist longer and aspire for greater things, personally and professionally, in life.

Q: What do you think is the most important strategy for HBCUs who are experiencing difficulties, but are looking to right the ship?

A: If we’re true about who we’re serving, first and foremost, we’ve got to find a way to become more affordable for the students we are serving. We’ve got to make sure, if we’re serious about serving that base as well as, of course, reaching out to other races, we’ve got to make sure we’re affordable. That’s first and foremost.

We’ve got to do some different things in order to make sure HBCUs, especially the private ones, are more affordable. Let me give a quick ‘for instance.’ In terms of coming in the door as a new president and speaking with the commissioner of the Mississippi Institutes of Higher Learning, Dr. Hank Bounds, the question was ‘What is your number one priority? Do I sink money into the budget to build buildings, or do I sink money into making the education more affordable?’ The immediate and easy decision was we’ve got to make the education more affordable. I can have nice, pretty buildings, but if the price tag is a detriment and it’s keeping students away, then I’ve defeated the purpose for my existence.

What we’re trying to do is maintain affordability. We’re looking to keep the tuition rate at Valley flat for the next couple of years. Knowing the region we’re in and knowing the student population that is most likely to attend, we’ve got to make sure that affordability is priority No. 1.

The other thing, as I mentioned before, is we’ve got to learn to shift with the times. There are a myriad of different things going on in higher education. We’ve got to provide access to higher education, maintain relevant programs that students can immediately use to join the workforce, and of course, we’ve got to make some information technology enhancements in terms of what students are able to do while they’re on the campus and in terms of wireless access, as well as online education, which I mentioned earlier. And we’ve got to figure out a way to grow our enrollments despite the stiff competition from PWIs.

That concludes Part I of my interview with President Bynum. In Part II, President Bynum will continue to dispense expert advice on how to lead a successful HBCU.

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