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Scholars Reflect on HBCU Graduates Ascending into High Government Roles

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to enter the White House, he’s joined by an influx of alumni from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) ascending into government positions. 

Kamala Harris – soon to be the country’s first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president – attended Howard University. Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, a Morehouse College graduate, won a tense runoff election to become Georgia’s first Black senator, aided by voter outreach from Stacey Abrams, a Spelman College alumnus. Cori Bush, the incoming Democratic representative from Ohio, graduated from Harris-Stowe State University and the new Congressional Black Caucus chair, Rep. Joyce Beatty, from Central State University.

Dr. Ravi K. PerryDr. Ravi K. Perry

HBCU alumni taking on leadership roles is nothing new, said Dr. Robert Palmer, department chair and associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard. He noted that HBCU graduates led the Civil Rights Movement, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks and Stokely Carmichael, among others. 

However, now, the difference is HBCU graduates are reaching high level positions within government, according to Dr. Ravi K. Perry, chair and professor of political science at Howard.  

“That really allows [the newly-appointed government officials] to highlight the benefits of their education but also to use the power of their positions hopefully to genuinely invest in HBCUs,” he added. “We have been talking about that as a country for generations and we as a country have failed to invest adequately in our HBCUs.” 

This wave of HBCU graduates in the political sphere shines a spotlight on the “everlasting value” of an HBCU education at a time when these institutions are sometimes dismissed as “relics of the past,” Palmer said.  

“I think it is important that Black students see this in particular, because even among folks in the Black community, there are some who question the value of HBCUs,” he said. “Some feel you would get a better education attending a predominantly White institution. But I think what we see played out in the past, and what we see playing out now, are HBCUs saying, ‘We prepare students to be leaders. We have always done that, and we will continue to do that.’”

Dr. Arwin D. Smallwood, professor and chair of the Department of History and Political Science at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, emphasized that HBCUs have always been “necessary” and continue to “fulfill a needed role in American society,” adding that, historically, the majority of the Black middle class and the Black “elite” have ties to an HBCU. 

HBCUs have always been at the heart of the African American community,” he said. “They have always offered a great service to the African American community. When we look at leadership, even at the state and local level or at the national level, you have to look at the product of the HBCU and the role that those individuals have played. Not just in terms of governing and government, but also in terms of just general professions.” 

The Biden administration also recognizes the importance of “cultural resonance and cultural relevance being taught as an academic pedagogy” at both the high school and college level, Perry said. 

Dr. Leonard Haynes, who served as senior advisor in the office of the undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education, asserted that HBCUs were already “definitively” a priority under President Donald J. Trump before these policymakers came onto the scene.

He pointed to the president’s executive order which moved the Initiative on HBCUs from the Education Department to the White House, calling it an “outstanding opportunity.” Haynes previously worked for the department in several roles, also serving as executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs under President George W. Bush.

Dr. Leonard HaynesDr. Leonard Haynes

“It’s documented,” he said. “We’ve done more in the last four years than had ever been done before. We did a lot of work. We talked about accountability of results, we tried to position opportunities to adjust national priorities, we emphasized the importance of being competitive, not only at the institutional level but for the students to be competitive and to take advantage of opportunities.”

Haynes described federal student aid as “the key to success for HBCUs” and expressed hope that legislators would ensure it “flows appropriately and is used properly.” He also wants HBCUs to be encouraged to leverage discretionary funding under the Strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) program, as he and his team did under the Trump administration. 

“There’s an opportunity to, as we did in the last administration, emphasize the role of HBCUs in the nation and the role that they can play in addressing the priorities that are facing the nation,” he added.

Given the current positive media and social media attention now focused on HBCUs, Palmer expects to see an uptick in enrollment at institutions like Howard. He also hopes lawmakers from HBCUs will come to their roles with a particular “sensitivity” to the funding needs of these institutions, which have been historically under-resourced. 

Despite HBCUs receiving an increase in overall awareness and donations — most notably, over $500 million from author Mackenzie Scott — Perry stressed that the public and federal government must take measures to support the long-term success of the institutions. 

“We still need to see significant alumni donations increasing,” he said. “We need to see the federal government engaging in resource distribution that prioritizes the education of African American students. And of course, HBCUs would be at the top of that list if they were to do so.” 

For HBCU students, seeing Black representation in government positions can be “inspiring,” said Smallwood. 

This political moment isn’t just good for HBCUs but also for the country, noted University of the District of Columbia President Ronald Mason Jr. 

“Poor Black and Brown communities are vast reserves of human potential,” Mason told Diverse. “Higher education in general is not designed to identify and develop that potential because the system of White supremacy, by definition, is a rigged competition. Opportunity is passed from generation to generation by a select few.” 

He continued: “However, HBCUs have always specialized in producing leaders from places other institutions refuse to look or cannot see. They protect and nurture the human potential that America tries to destroy. America needs talent, and HBCUs are specialists in producing it from where most of the potential resides.”

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