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When the Margin for Error is Zero

Earlier this year, we received news of the closure of Concordia College in Alabama—and, in recent weeks, there is news from South Carolina of Denmark Tech’s extreme financial difficulties. These are just the most recent stories of struggle among historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). It is a supreme irony that in a season when many Black colleges are celebrating 150 years of existence, several also are fighting for survival. A confluence of circumstances—a dearth of leadership talent, enrollment declines, financial instability, and accreditation issues—has created the perfect storm for closure. One bad decision can literally take down even the most vaunted minority-serving institutions. And in carrying out their fiduciary duties of these institutions, boards must ensure that the interests of the universities are protected. The margin for error is zero.

Rick LegonRick Legon

These conditions do not occur overnight. Board vigilance and the capacity for informed decision-making are essential to ensuring the long-term sustainability of any organization. Timing and the will to act are also critical. When struggling St. Paul’s College and St. Augustine’s College considered merging, the opportunity for a successful joint venture had long since passed. Although St. Paul’s didn’t shutter its campus until 2013, its board had been concerned for quite some time.

There are several contributing factors to the eroding business model of far too many of our country’s HBCUs. We recognize the impact of social progress, technology and innovation on these extraordinary schools. Rather than focus on the past, now is the time to turn our attention to what can be done to strengthen and save those institutions that are willing and able to stanch the losses and reverse their fortunes. This cannot be done, however, without the attention and involvement of the governing board.

We have all seen the compelling data about HBCUs. Spelman College President Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, in response to coverage in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that challenged the overall success of HBCUs and presented as evidence graduation rates hovering below 20 percent of enrolled students at many HBCUs, stated, “…Ivy League institutions have done no better in producing social mobility for students of color than they did in 1985. HBCUs, on the other hand, like Spelman and Clark Atlanta, have been among the top engines of social mobility in their home states.”

Dr. Campbell is correct. However, in this volatile period for higher education in our country, one in which too many question the overall value of a higher education, such a response will fall mostly on deaf ears. There is just as much angst about the cost, price, and debt among families and students (and policy leaders) who attend and care about our Black colleges and universities as there is public concern about all of higher education.

Alvin SchexniderAlvin Schexnider

The value of higher education is virtually inarguable, and reports of declining confidence should be read in the context of both history and the public opinion about other institutions, including the news media, religious organizations and the U.S. Congress. The return on investment in higher education—with consideration of individual and societal economic benefits, as well as non-economic benefits—is clear and measurable. Nonetheless, to many observers, the value proposition is clearly at risk, so much so that federal and state policy makers and elected officials have been emboldened to impose fiscal restrictions that a decade ago would not have seen the light of day. Higher education’s challenges are substantial and the sector needs to be certain that its case for support is recognized by an increasingly skeptical public.

Governing boards of all our colleges and universities—and perhaps most especially our minority serving colleges and universities—need to up their game; these independent fiduciary bodies must own their responsibilities and meet them with skill and commitment, steadfastly keeping institutional mission and reputation at the forefront.

There are many reasons that our HBCUs are under siege. Board governance should not be one of them.

Richard D. Legon is president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. He serves on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College and formerly served on the Board of Visitors of Virginia State University. Alvin J. Schexnider is a former chancellor at Winston-Salem State University, a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the author of Saving Black Colleges.

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