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Unparalleled Challenges

From keeping pace with technology to helping students finance their educations, four presidents discuss meeting head-on the multitude of challenges that HBCUs face in the 21st century.

As Diverse reflects on the past 25 years, four presidents of historically Black institutions, two public and two private, discussed the challenges they face today and how those challenges have changed over the years. The presidents interviewed were Dr. James Ammons, of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee; Beverly Wade Hogan, of Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss.; Dr. Marvalene Hughes, of Dillard University in New Orleans, La.; and Dr. Melvin Johnson, of Tennessee State University.

When they began their careers in academic leadership, these presidents did not envision many of the challenges of the 21st century, not the least of which is a global recession. And, although fiscal viability looms as an overarching threat, it is just one of many.

The public institutions are grappling with reductions in state and federal funding that have necessitated drastic adjustments in their budgets. The private institutions are experiencing significant declines in corporate and private giving. All are faced with intense competition from majority institutions for the top students, staff and faculty. Regardless of economic constraints, they say a focus on low-income students will continue.

They remain positive and determined. “Now is the time for creativity … visioning and planning,” Ammons says. “There are great signs that the economy will turn around. President Obama and his team are doing a great job, and we have every reason to be hopeful.”

Dr. James Ammons, Florida A&M University

Since being named FAMU president in 2007, Ammons has guided the institution out of some of its cloudiest days only to face the current gloomy economic conditions. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed FAMU on probation in June 2007, stating that the university failed to comply with 10 standards related to financial and academic integrity. A year later, under Ammons’ leadership, the probation was lifted. However, since that time, the school has faced increased grumbling from students because of perennial registration and financial aid problems and proposed tuition hikes necessitated by cutbacks in state funding. During the past academic year, system upgrades caused delays, long lines and confusion, creating an outcry from students forced to wait hours, even days, for assistance.

Ammons says that, with all the advantages and opportunities afforded by technological advances, there is a financial downside. “Technology is evolving so quickly, it requires a huge investment to make sure we have updates, because the old versions are not supported by the vendors who sell these products. Being able to leverage technology across the university is so important now in order to attract young people, and it’s important to have environments where they feel comfort and at home.”

Overall, Ammons says, FAMU and other HBCUs have funding challenges unequaled in past years. “First (we need) to be able to attract high-quality faculty who embrace the mission of an institution and have resources to recruit high-achieving students b e c a u s e competition with majori ty institutions now is just so tough (as competing ) schools have focused in on the best and brightest African-American students. And, next, we need to have a critical mass of staff to provide support services, so that our students have an overall good experience on our campus. We’re not at a point yet where we can have staff doing only one thing; our staff members have responsibility across the spectrum, which may sometimes impact a student’s overall experience on the campus.”

As for the persistent argument that HBCUs have lost their relevance, Ammons says “these institutions make up only 3 percent of total colleges and universities, but produce an overwhelming percentage of African Americans who go on to earn their bachelor’s and terminal degrees. When you look at the professions that are critical to the nation’s survival HBCUs are producing those graduates — the doctors, lawyers, scientists and educators. I believe these institutions are able to accomplish this because HBCUs nurture the self-confidence of its students and provide opportunities for creative leadership.”

Beverly Hogan, Tougaloo College

Two years ago, the Tougaloo community was stunned to learn that two of its students had been shot, execution-style, in their offcampus Jackson, Miss., apartment. The motive appeared to be robbery. A Jaguar belonging to one of the students had been stolen. A few months later, the body of a young woman, a Jackson State University student, was found in a wooded area just outside the Tougaloo campus. These incidents, although they did not occur on campus grounds, nevertheless brought the specter of violence to the 900-student liberal arts institution known for its small classes, Southern hospitality and peaceful atmosphere. These disturbing occurrences came at a time the college was enjoying an influx of grant funding including a Department of Ju s t i ce grant of $698,000 for prog r a m s aimed at preventing viol e n c e against women.

So it’s no surprise that Beverly Hogan stresses safety and security when she discusses the central issues facing her administration and budget. “Society is changing, and the world is changing. Ten or 15 years ago we were not concerned with having scanners and badges and having someone to monitor the equipment. Campus security is one of the main concerns we have today; we’re always looking at how we can protect the campus environment. When incidents happen … it just draws attention to campus security as a growing critical issue. Our colleges are just microcosms of our larger communities.”

She adds, “Our students today are more diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, religion and physical challenges. They also come to us with greater expectations of the living and learning environment. They are the technology-wired generation. They simply have not known a world without technology, and thus they come with different learning styles. This poses new realities for aged faculty in particular and often presents a disconnect between faculty and student that might impede student learning.”

Dr. Marvalene Hughes, Dillard University

Hughes had held the position of Dillard University president for only seven weeks in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, leaving the campus with flood, wind and rain damage totaling $400 million. Nearly four years later, after most of the buildings have been restored or rebuilt and the institution’s finances are rebounding, Hughes finds herself smack in the middle of the worst economy in memory.

 After weathering Katrina, Hughes sees the recession as a relatively mild disruption. “In fact, Dillard is stronger today fiscally than it has been in years — many years,” she says, citing a $70 million capital campaign that has already raised $48 million. “We had a balanced budget and will have a balanced cause of government assistance in financing the reconstruction, Dillard’s campus has been “enhanced and upgraded,” Hughes says. Her main challenge is recruiting and retaining quality faculty and students. “We lost some of our best faculty after Katrina; our enrollment was 1,900 pre-Katrina,” more than double the current enrollment of 851. “We have thought long and hard about it, and we have decided not to lower our standards to attract students … we are strategically designing the size and future of Dillard. We are trying to right-size the university to ensure that we have some gauge of the number of students we can attract and enroll annually and the number of faculty and staff we need to accommodate that.”

Melvin Johnson, Tennessee State University

This past fall was a turbulent period for the university. Hundreds of students were ordered to leave because they were not able to pay tuition. In most cases, their financial aid had been denied as lending institutions tightened their requirements. Johnson took the unusual step of making public appeals to church and community groups for help, saving about 900 of the 1,300 financially imperiled students.

The major challenges, Johnson says, center around the increasing number of lower- to middle-income students who must find ways to finance their education. “Students and families are bearing more of the costs … there is more pressure for us to find money not only for scholarships and grants but for students with financial needs who are not qualified for scholarships and grants. With these students, once they get in, it is a severe challenge to try to retain them because of their financial needs. They are resorting to an extreme amount of loans … we don’t want to see them with huge amounts of debt.” “We are expected to cut roughly $12.4 million in our oper a ting b u d g e t in two years due to dec l i n i n g state appropriat i ons , ” Johnson continues.

“We also have the challenge of reshaping the learning environment to meet the needs of today’s students. They learn differently. There is a need for hands-on, practical, relevant learning that addresses issues and solves problems; our Academic Master Plan and the new strategic plan [are designed] to move the university in that direction.”

Johnson, who has a background in information technology, says the university’s conversion to a different fiscal management system, which improved efficiency, also requires constant upgrades. “We just had the second upgrade in 24 months.”

 “Above all, we have to focus on retention, and that means helping students solve their financial problems. Affordability and access issues are the biggest challenge. We have to keep that focus.” D June 11, 2009 | 25th Anniversary Edition 57 Tennessee State University Nashville, Tenn. Fall 2008 enrollment: 8,254 Spring 2009 enrollment: 7,987 2008-2009 budget (education and general fund): $120 million Dr. Melvin N. Johnson has been president of Tennessee State University since June 2005. He previously held the post of provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Winston- Salem State University in North Carolina.

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