On to Phase II: The Future for HBCUsHistorically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) emerged in a time dominated by black codes and Jim Crow laws. During that time, it was debated whether Black individuals deserved a quality education, or whether such education expenditures represented a good investment. Since then, with courageous sponsorship and farsighted philanthropy in many cases, HBCUs have been faithful to a mission of providing educational leadership for African American individuals, and fitting them for the current American mainstream.
Now, the debate about the need for, or investing in, the education of African American individuals is largely over. Both legally and economically, there is widespread acceptance of an inherent and intrinsic value in educating African American individuals. For example, many non-HBCUs now recruit varying numbers of African American students. This is flattering to HBCUs, their sponsors and their benefactors’ legacy. Similarly, many of the world’s most selective employers routinely pursue HBCU graduates for an array of mutually beneficial career options. This individual-focused phase of the wider HBCU educational campaign has been largely successful.
The future, however, lies with another phase that urgently requires HBCUs’ leadership.
Specifically, the new phase demands that HBCUs provide leadership and new approaches to solve the pervasive and persistent disparities adversely affecting African Americans today. This phase transcends generalized educational opportunities for individuals. Rather, the new challenge is to bring transformational research and expanding graduate education opportunities to African Americans as a means to eliminate American disparities. This phase encompasses a focus on encouraging new institutions and necessary entities not sufficiently present in the current American mainstream.
For example, even with growing numbers of educated Black individuals, it is the case that disparities in employment, health, wealth, housing, education, etc., adversely affect African Americans persistently and pervasively. The solutions require a new paradigm.
Consider, for example, the employment disparity. Overall, Black unemployment rates persistently are twice that of the general population. This relationship has held when the economy has unparalleled strength, or when the economy is in recession, when federal deficits are huge, or when surpluses are great, under Republican administrations, or under Democratic administrations, and without regard to the ruling party in Congress. It even holds when employment and production paradigms shift. For example, in the industrial era, Black unemployment was twice that of others. In the new information age, the relationship is unchanged.
When employment disparities persist so pervasively, so predictably and so permanently, we need new thinking and new approaches. For example, it is wise to consider that for Black employment purposes, existing institutions and entities either are insufficient in number and in variety or were not designed or developed to address these disparities directly. No substantive economic institutions are currently charged with including in their mission, the elimination of these employment disparities. If alternative thinking arises in this matter, then that thinking likely would arise from a focused research agenda at committed HBCUs.
Consider for example, a set of graduate schools of business, which have the collective vision of fostering and permanently supporting no fewer than 1,000 new Black-owned businesses, each of which had minimum annual sales of $100 million. Suppose that was to be attained by 2015. That would be a charge and responsibility for which the historical evidence shows the HBCUs are uniquely qualified.
Such a vision generates an array of very interesting questions. What resources would be required to realize this vision? What are the potential payoffs to this investment? How should this vision be articulated for public and private support? What would be the distribution of these businesses? What non-existent institutions are likely to be introduced to the American economy and to prosper? What are the arguments and positions needed to formulate and frame the ensuing public policy debate? What incentives (taxes or other) would be appropriate to business owners to win their support for this vision? What are the detailed elements of an associated research agenda, and what career incentives and investments are needed for qualified researchers? Clearly, this phase is about formulating questions and then seeking answers. This phase for HBCUs is about research and originality. This phase is about “going to the moon.”
A successful formula in this phase would include some of the strategic elements and alliances that worked earlier. The case — for a unique research focus and widespread graduate education at HBCUs — would have to be developed and sold repeatedly and compellingly. There will be a need for sponsors to help move the case into public consciousness so it cannot be ignored. And importantly, there will be a need for forward-looking philanthropy to support a mission and vision as articulated here.
The future is clearly a bright one for HBCUs. The work is challenging, but the potential payoff for the African American community, and the nation as a whole, seems large. A mission of eliminating disparities through expanding the numbers, and kinds of entities that are viable in the American economy is impressive. The call to courageous leadership could not be clearer; the imperative could not be more pressing. Focused, futuristic HBCUs are needed now more than ever. — Dr. John A. Cole is dean of the School of Professional Programs at Benedict College in South Carolina.
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