Historically Black Colleges Challenged To Boost Their Competitiveness

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As Congress works to trim $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit over the next decade, HBCUs must step up efforts to share their stories of success, compete with other universities, and be prepared to present hardcore data on their progress.

Those were just a few of the suggestions made during an HBCU Week 2011 breakout session titled “Title III: Are Educational Discretionary Programs at Risk?”

“We are truly in a budget battleground,” said Edith L. Bartley, director of governmental affairs at the Fairfax, Va.-based United Negro College Fund Inc. (UNCF).

Bartley presented data that showed Title III Part B, Strengthening HBCUs Program funding in 2011, which has reached its lowest level in several years, at $237 million -$30 million less than the year before and lower than the $238 million that it was in 2005 through 2008.

The situation is so dire that UNCF, along with the National Association for Equality Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), an umbrella organization for the nation’s HBCUs, and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund have all agreed to make Title III funding a priority this year, Bartley said.

Bartley urged conference attendees to remain in the nation’s capital over the next few days to attend the Congressional Black Caucus meeting or to at least make it a point to get some face time with lawmakers soon in order to influence the Super Committee that is charged with reducing the federal deficit over the next decade. Its first set of recommendations must be made in November, Bartley said.

“Don’t wait until it’s time for a budget to be voted on,” Bartley said. “Develop a relationship with your state representatives, federal representatives.

“Make sure they know what’s going on on your campuses and make the case.”

Similar exhortations were made throughout the two-day HBCU Week conference. Sometimes, the exhortations took on a subtle form, such as HBCU presidents recounting their own efforts to improve their campuses, with the message being, of course, that other HBCUs would do well to follow suit.

Speaking during a conference town hall meeting, Dr. Charlie Nelms, chancellor of North Carolina Central University, recounted a quality service initiative that he felt compelled to launch at the university he runs.

“That’s not being dictatorial,” Nelms said. “That’s just being realistic in terms of what we need to do.”

The initiative was meant to remedy a variety of problems that Nelms identified on campus, such as “walking” paperwork across campus instead of using digital technology, taking too long to hire new employees or shutting down during the summer.

Nelms also spoke to the longstanding issue of the relevance of HBCUs, saying HBCU leaders need to make sure their institutions are more responsive and competitive.

“The future of HBCUs will be determined by our contemporary relevance, not our historical significance,” Nelms said. “We have to lead and serve with a new kind of purpose, and, unless we do that and until we do that, our institutions will not become the institutions they are capable of becoming.”

A live electronic survey during the town hall revealed somewhat of a disconnect between federal employees and HBCU employees over whether HBCUs need to repurpose their missions.

On the question of whether there was a need to repurpose their missions, federal workers, who were attending the conference, rated the need as a 7.3 while the HBCU staffers most disagreed and rated it as a 4.9 out of 10.

“That tells us something,” said Dr. John S. Wilson Jr., executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, who said the live survey technology would be put to use in other HBCU venues in the near future.

One audience member said HBCU employees might take exception to the need to “repurpose” their mission, stating that instead they may see a need to revamp how they accomplish their missions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was presented with the chairman’s award from White House Initiative on HBCUs advisory board chair William Harvey, president of Hampton University, pledged continued support of HBCUs during a luncheon speech in which he received two standing ovations.     

In his speech, Duncan lauded HBCU leaders for being examples of “how to do more with less” but also encouraged the HBCU leaders to adapt to a “new normal” of increased accountability and fewer resources.

“College leaders are being held accountable for success like never before,” Duncan said. “Not just increased access but attainment. The mission is not about getting students to the starting line, but to that all-important finish line.”

HBCUs also must prepare for a new reality in which the Department of Education shifts from being a compliance-based agency that provides fixed formula funding to one that focuses more on being an engine of innovation, said Dr. Debra Saunders-White, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs within the Office of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

In this new environment, too many HBCUs are letting opportunities pass them by, Saunders-White said.

As an example, she mentioned the Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program, an approximately $9 competitive grant program.

“Too few of you apply for it,” Saunders-White said. “I’d like to be able to report that many of you are among (grant winners). But too few of you participated in that competition.”