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Keeping HBCUs Accountable to Their Mission, Students, and Communities


As institutions created to uplift Black people, accountability for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is more complicated than simply enrolling and graduating students.

Dr. Roslyn Artis, president of Benedict College.Dr. Roslyn Artis, president of Benedict College.During a webinar hosted by Diverse on Tuesday, HBCU thought-leaders shared their recommendations for HBCUs to maintain accountability, stay in-line with their mission values, and create student-centered learning supported by data and behind-the-scenes efforts to build endowments, engage stakeholders, and affirm the importance of HBCUs for state and federal leaders.

As the world emerges slowly from the pandemic, experts say HBCUs will need to carefully build strategic plans and strengthen their storytelling skills.

“The reality is, when you govern through a crisis, the time for input and feedback and listening can be limited. We have to do what we have to do in the moment,” said Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College, a private HBCU in South Carolina. 

“Coming out of COVID-19, those are muscles we have to engage again. We need to be more thoughtful. To develop a strategic plan, objectives and outcomes and goals, requires everyone to have buy-in, to contribute, be thoughtful, understand the rules of engagement,” she added. 

Dr. Charlie Nelms, chancellor emeritus at North Carolina Central University.Dr. Charlie Nelms, chancellor emeritus at North Carolina Central University.Dr. Charlie Nelms, chancellor emeritus at North Carolina Central University and President-in-Residence at the United Negro College Fund, advised keeping strategic plans tight, to no more than 15 pages, listening to all stakeholders for input and being open to new ideas.

“A lot of things we call traditions are really bad habits,” Nelms told Dr. Jamal Watson, who moderated the discussion. “Just because we’ve done it that way, doesn’t mean it’s the most effective way. Planning is essential. I don’t think you can come up with an administrative plan alone, you have to have active engagement and involvement.”

Dr. Alvin Schexnider, former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University and author of Saving Black Colleges: Leading Change in a Complex Organization, agreed.

“Accountability is being clear about expectations and having a way to measure the degree to which you’ve achieving those goals,” said Schexnider. “Be specific and very clear about what you want to achieve as an institution of higher learning in a competitive environment.”

Overall, the experts agreed that institutions must become better at telling their unique stories. While all HBCUs have a similar mission, not all HBCUs are the same, said Nelms, and “legislative boards [and] state board governments need to understand that.”

“That’s why it’s important to continually engage them to experience what it’s like on campus to understand the true mission, focus, and successes of our various institutions,” said Nelms.

Artis said one of her roles as president is not only to be an advocate for her school but an educator for others to understand the important her institution plays in uplifting the local community.

“[HBCUs] revolutionize wrap-around service—we meet students where they are, create solutions to complex problems on a daily basis,” said Artis. “It changes the assessment conversation when we start centering student experience.”

Dr. Alvin Schexnider, former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University.Dr. Alvin Schexnider, former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University.During the height of the pandemic at Benedict College, students who needed healthcare, internet, housing, or monetary assistance used an application to access financial assistance. The information they supplied built a dataset, unique to Benedict College students, used to better understand their needs and track the college’s efficacy in addressing obstacles.

“Nearly 84% of my students are Pell eligible,” said Artis, meaning that those student display significant financial need on their FAFSA. “[We are] listening and looking beyond the transcript and the test score, understanding where [the student] enters and how you can intervene and disrupt multiple generations of poverty or health issues born from discrimination.”

To increase financial resources available to the high-need students at HBCUs, Nelms encouraged leaders to stay persistent in their efforts to keep their schools fresh in the minds of those in control of higher education moneys.

“We must educate legislators, keep pressure on them, point out the historic inequities and insist they make the investments they need to make,” said Nelms. “It’s really important for the legislators at all levels to understand [funding] isn’t something nice to have, it’s essential.”

HBCUs have been beleaguered by decades of unmet funding promises and lagging endowments, but thanks to the efforts of HBCU alumni in leadership positions in some states, those inequities have the potential to change. In 2021, HBCUs in Maryland won $577 million lawsuit against the state for systemic underfunding.

All three speakers were proud to say they were graduates of HBCUs. Their experiences, they said, drive their passion for seeing that these institutions remain.

“Were it not for Grambling State, we would not have this conversation,” said Schexnider, praising his alma mater’s role in his current life. “We realize the value of these institutions. They’re undervalued, underleveraged, and we’re going to do everything we can to spotlight their importance to the future of Black people as long as we can.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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