Perspectives: HBCUs and the Coming Era of Growth and Service

In recent days syndicated columnist Walter E. Williams has questioned whether historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have outlived their usefulness and viability.

While desirous of affording Mr. Williams all due respect, please let me – as a veteran HBCU faculty member and, now, president – respond. Simply ridiculous.

Mr. Williams focuses his essay on a series of columns written by Bill Maxwell for the St. Petersburg Times in spring 2007. In them, Mr. Maxwell, who is a very well-regarded journalist and social critic, expressed his shock at experiences he faced during a temporary period of teaching at Stillman College.

Here’s what I think happened.  In common with many others and very understandably, Mr. Maxwell’s perspective arose from his own college experiences during the 1960s. The institutions he attended during that tumultuous era nonetheless remained for the most part calm.

Since then, students have changed. Students virtually everywhere did. Sometime in the 1980s, attitudes shifted. The millennial generation now demands greater engagement of faculty and often refuses to afford faculty members the automatic deference and respect they previously had enjoyed.

Ask any experienced educator anywhere in the country about this. The problem was that Mr. Maxwell was a distinguished journalist rather than an experienced educator.

As students changed, so, too, did the world of HBCUs. Perhaps most fundamentally, integration of previously all-White institutions sapped HBCUs of many top-level students, academically as well as athletically. Those schools could offer far more financial aid and, perhaps, an easier introduction into White-oriented circles than could an HBCU.

This did not mean that these same students would not have benefited from the HBCU experience. It just meant that a better opportunity appeared or seemed to appear elsewhere.

Is it hard to perceive that HBCU family members resented this development? They resented, as well, the evolution of a sense of what former Senator Patrick Moynihan described as “benign neglect.” Public and private sources of funding constricted, as did support in other respects.

In time those resentments led to defensive attitudes and, eventually, to an inward-looking status quo rather than a sense of the need for reaching out. Changes going on in higher education generally, to which larger institutions were adapting, slipped by mostly unnoticed.

Thus, by the 21st century’s opening, many HBCUs were struggling financially, academically, and organizationally. Does this mean that they had lost their viability and outlived their usefulness?

The answer is no. Those institutions continued each year to turn out thousands of students who went on to very successful careers in the professions, government, the arts, and all other areas of endeavor. At their most fundamental level, the HBCUs succeeded and, often, succeeded well.

But, many persisted in not adapting, and their reputation outside the African-American community grew worse as the schools mostly declined to engage in a public debate or to emphasize all the very good aspects of the HBCU approach, including mentoring of students who are considered part of the family. I would contrast this to the “sink or swim” approach of more than a few large and predominately White colleges and universities.

Here’s the bottom line for me. HBCUs offer unique advantages to many students who are fully capable of going on to lead not only productive lives but also to contribute in substantial and sometimes marvelous ways to our country and our world. And, we should be held accountable in the strictest sense for doing just that.

Notice I did not suggest only Black students. Without question, HBCUs need to adapt to what we at Fort Valley State University call “a more diverse twenty-first century.” Meanwhile, we must maintain the very best of the HBCU experience for all.

At Fort Valley State University we do not question whether we are viable. We are growing and increasingly will reflect greater diversity. We most certainly have not outlived our usefulness.

 Larry E. Rivers is president of Fort Valley State University in Georgia.

 

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