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HBCU Leaders Gather for ‘Seizing Capacity to Thrive’ HBCU Conference

At the 2009 National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference this week in Washington D.C., the baton of leadership at the White House Initiative on Black Colleges and Universities will switch hands. Bush administration appointee Dr. Leonard Haynes will pass the baton to Dr. John Wilson, an Obama administration appointee.  

In July, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Wilson executive director of the White House Initiative. As executive director, Wilson will work with the presidentially appointed HBCU Board of Advisors and assist Duncan in advising President Barack Obama on important matters concerning Black colleges. 

And while both Haynes and Wilson are Black college graduates who care about preserving the legacy of these institutions and sustaining their future, pundits suggest that the change in leadership could represent a new and more progressive agenda for the nation’s Black colleges and universities.

“While there has been strong Republican support for HBCUs, I don’t necessarily think that the Bush administration had HBCUs as a focal point. One of the things that I noticed about Obama is that he is not the typical product of the Civil Rights Movement,” says Dr. Marybeth Gasman, associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and conference attendee. 

“In his soul he believes that supporting Black colleges is incredibly important. But he realizes, as a pragmatic person, that they must offer the best education possible. Obama is saying we are going to make sure that you are treated fairly but you also need to pull your weight.” 

During his first address to a joint U.S. Congress, President Obama expressed the need for the U.S. to regain its lost ground and have the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by 2020. In this address, the president encouraged every American to pursue at least one year of higher education. HBCUs will play a pivotal role in educating the next generation of college graduates, Wilson says. 

“I think that we are going to see an enormous opportunity to advance while this administration is in place,” Wilson says. “We have an opportunity based on the context that has already been set by Barack Obama who is inarguably the education president and the transformation president.”  

HBCUs have come under siege recently. Pundits question the relevance of institutions, many of which struggle to maintain infrastructure, lag behind in providing state-of-the-art technology and grapple with accreditation scares.

The four-day event will feature workshops focused on building research partnerships, strengthening fiscal capacity and increasing graduation rates. A 2006 Ed Sector report showed that just 37.9 percent of Black students attending HBCUs earn an undergraduate degree within six years, 4 percent lower than the national college graduation rate for Black students and 7 percent lower than the overall graduation rates of predominately White institutions. 

The theme of this year’s conference is “Seizing the Capacity to Thrive.” Despite the challenges that exist, conference organizers and attendees alike are determined to celebrate the work done by HBCUs, which continue to disproportionately serve underserved communities.

“One of the best uses of this conference should be to bring people together, have tough conversations and strategize about the best way to move forward,” Gasman says. “Although there have been some struggles with HBCUs, there is plenty to celebrate. If you look at the number of students who graduated from HBCUs this year, if you look at the success rate of getting HBCU students into premier graduate programs throughout the country. There are many HBCUs such a Philander Smith and Spelman colleges that are doing very well.”

Wilson has been an associate professor of higher education at George Washington University since 2006, when he took research leave as executive dean of GWU’s Virginia campus, a post he has held since 2002. He joined the staff at George Washington in 2001 to help develop a strategic plan for the university. Previously he spent 16 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he served as director of foundation relations and assistant provost. As director, Wilson helped to lead two major capital campaigns that raised a combined total of nearly $3 billion. In that context, he more than doubled the productivity of the office he managed and reached a record annual revenue stream of more than $50 million. Wilson is confident he can help usher in a new era of accomplishment and productivity for Black colleges. 

Since Wilson’s appointment came in July, Haynes developed much of this year’s conference. But Wilson says he would like people to leave this year’s conference with the confidence that the Obama administration cares about Black colleges, and with the optimism that the relationship between the U.S. government and Black colleges will improve. 

Says Wilson, “One threat facing Black colleges might be the lack of candor. The fact that there is such reluctance to talk about or to hear anybody talk about our deepest challenges. I’m not sure that we are going to advance if we don’t confront some of the things that we know are going on. We cannot thrive until we fully past the test of survival.”  

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