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Perspectives: Capacity Building Initiatives Can Shift Perception of Private HBCUs From Dire to Exciting

Within the American cultural imagination, with a few notable exceptions, private historically Black colleges and universities have rarely occupied their deserved status among this nation’s colleges and universities. Founded in the 19th century and maturing in the 20th century, these institutions have played an integral role in the development of this nation and the collective achievement of African-Americans. They have done so while operating with limited resources, discriminatory public policies and the restrictive label of “developing institutions.”

During the period of de jure and de facto segregation, private HBCUs thrived as the only higher educational choice of college-bound African-American students, as well as the only workplace options for talented minority faculty and administrators. Changing social and cultural dynamics, however, have occasioned a re-imagination of the enormous potential of HBCUs in the face of the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. Despite an ever-present cacophonous chorus of naysayers, HBCUs remain the colleges of choice for many African-American students, and increasingly other minority students as well. These students will expect and demand the same innovative academic programs, well-trained faculty, state-of-the-art facilities and the organizational efficiency that are evidenced at most majority institutions. For private HBCUs, this presents an opportunity for institutional transformation and renewal.

There is an excitement and enthusiasm at many private HBCUs, as a sense of hope and possibility has replaced dire predictions of extinction and rendered absurd the persistent questions of relevance and purpose. A willingness of some campus leaders to examine the challenges and opportunities that await their institutions has resulted in the adoption of capacity building as an important activity for institutional ascendancy. The result of this focus on capacity building has profound implications for the future of private HBCUs and the potential to shape the discourse on the higher education of African-Americans. Additionally, the lessons learned have applications beyond this specific community of colleges and universities. Every college or university can benefit from an activity aimed at building, strengthening, redefining and sustaining institutional capacity.

Although the term has gained increased usage in the higher education lexicon, the unfamiliar might ask, “what is capacity building and how is it done?” Capacity building is a systematic, intentional and strategic process that results in the strengthening of infrastructures, programs, systems, policies, procedures and practices that support and sustain an institution’s mission. Capacity building is a proactive exercise that draws on the foundation of existing institutional strength and potential. At the core of capacity building is the recognition that strategic thinking and action about both an institution’s weakness and potential are critical to its effectiveness and sustainability. While there is no one way to undertake capacity building, the most effective approaches include three stages: assessment, planning and intervention.

Once a college or university commits to engaging in capacity building, it must undergo a comprehensive evaluation of current institutional capability. This involves an unfiltered examination of institutional strengths, deficiencies, challenges and opportunities. The data gathered during this phase provides the foundation for the development of an implementation plan, which is not to be confused with a strategic plan. While some activity in this phase may be similar to the analysis often undertaken in advance of developing a strategic plan, the intent and purpose are very different. Strategic plans are indeed useful in the process of capacity building as they provide a map of an institution’s desired future end state; capacity building ensures a strong and sustainable institution as an important outcome. Effective strategic plans might include a capacity building implementation plan as an important subtext.

In the planning phase of capacity building, the implementation plan is developed, which addresses the identified deficiencies and challenges and the intention to explore, develop or expand potential opportunities. The implementation plan outlines detailed strategic steps for remediation and correction and may focus on such institutional operations as fundraising, enrollment management, curriculum, facilities, fiscal management, leadership and governance. An implementation plan that becomes a vital, dynamic institutional document with active support from the leadership and key constituents defines the intervention that is the final phase of capacity building. In this phase, the implementation plan is undertaken with financial, technical and consultative support in a process that involves administrative management and oversight, benchmarking, scheduled reporting and formative and summative evaluation.

Pursued earnestly and with integrity, capacity building can result in transformation that is real and on going. Through this process, a college or university declares its intention to take full and complete control of defining who they are and who they wish to become. It is work that reclaims their future and signals, for private HBCUs, an unwillingness to be defined solely as a “developing” institution. Capacity building has the potential to create formidable institutions fully prepared to sustain themselves and confidently face the challenges of the 21st century as equal and noteworthy members of a vast and diverse community of colleges and universities.

— Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard is the executive director of the UNCF Institute for Capacity Building. 

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