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Summit Brings Together Leaders to Discuss How to Strengthen America's HBCUs

HBCU leaders convened online Thursday to strategize about the state of historically Black colleges and universities in the country and what can be done to strengthen them. The event was hosted by Virginia Union University and Rice University.Dr. Terrell StrayhornDr. Terrell Strayhorn

The day-long Black Leadership Across Campuses" (BLAC) Summit 2024 – an ongoing partnership between VUU’s Center for the Study and Preservation of HBCUs and Rice’s Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning (CERCL) – welcomed a number of current and former presidents of HBCUs to discuss the challenges and opportunities that HBCUs face. 

“In a world where the winds of change blow both harsh and hopeful, HBCUs and Black leadership stand not just as beacons of grit, resilience, and empowerment, but as the very embodiment of our collective struggle towards a more inclusive and equitable present and future,” said Dr. Terrell L Strayhorn, director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union. “As we work tirelessly to navigate the polarizing currents of the 2024 election year, witnessing the gross erosion of DEI initiatives and the rollback of affirmative action, the pivotal role of these institutions and leaders becomes even more crucial.”

The pool of featured speakers for the event included prominent figures in the higher ed space, including former Tougaloo College President Dr. Beverly Hogan; former Alcorn State University President Dr. M. Christopher Brown; Shaw University President Dr. Paulette Dillard; Wiley University President Dr. Herman J. Felton Jr.; and former Wilberforce University President Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard, among others.

Dr. Dietra Trent, executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, said that despite the investments the Biden-Harris administration has made to HBCUs – more than $7 billion – HBCUs continue to face a myriad of challenges, from lagging revenue and deteriorating buildings to insufficient broadband access and student support.

“Of the nearly $50 billion of federal government annual awards in research and development, less than 0.5%, or about $400 million, is awarded to all HBCUs combined,” said Trent.

HBCU leaders spoke about the top priorities, as outlined in the HBCU Center’s recent study, The HBCU Shift: From Survival & Sustainability to Competitiveness & Transformation. These include enrollment management, student success, fundraising and endowment, infrastructure, technology, and facilities; and academic program relevance.

HBCU students who are being prepared to enter a 21st-century workforce need to be proficient in 21st-century technology, which the schools have a responsibility to provide, said Benedict College President Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis. To not do so would be a disservice to their students, she added.

She said that HBCUs who struggle from a lack of resources and worsening infrastructure, can look to partner with other HBCUs to develop and share facilities. They can also seek out partnerships with companies, such as those in the tech industry, who want additional talent and are willing to invest in the schools to train students for it. She urged HBCU leaders to pursue federal historic preservation grants to cover costly renovations of old but historic campus buildings as well.

Fundraising in general has to be top priority for schools, said former Bethune-Cookman University President Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, who advised attendees on how to do so effectively. Donors want to make a difference with their gifts, and it’s up to the schools to illustrate exactly how that happens, she said.

“You do not fundraise unless you're accountable, unless you're able to say to the donor: 'This is how your funds have been spent. These are the data reports from our office of the yield of the money that you have given,’” Reed said. “We should be able to account for every penny that comes into our institutions. We should be able to tell the donors that what you have entrusted in us is well-spent and is continuing to educate young students and the future generation to come to our institutions.”

Former Saint Augustine’s University President Dr. Everett Ward said that it’s not enough for HBCUs to have social justice and civic engagement centers initiatives on their campuses. The topics, he added, should be embedded into the curriculum. 

“Most high schools now don't teach civics anymore,” said Ward, who is one of the HBCU Center’s senior fellows. “We’ve got to teach civics.”

The leaders said that HBCUs must control their own narrative. 

“We're no longer going to sit idly by and allow other individuals to do research on us and about us and put it out there in such a way that it does not reflect our voices,” said Dr. Roderick Smothers, Sr., executive director of VUU’s Center for the Study of HBCUs. “There are so many amazing things happening at our HCBUs across the country, and there's so much to learn from the outstanding and amazing leaders who are out there leading the way on a daily basis.”

Data about student outcomes and persistence rates of students at HBCUs should be explained within the context of the Black and HBCU community itself instead of within the context of other kinds of schools, said Dr. Melva K. Wallace, president & CEO of Huston-Tillotson University.

She insisted that HBCUs need to do and present their own research and define and document their successes in their own terms.

“How do we truly define persistence at an institution, knowing full well that our students may drop out because Big Momma is sick, and they have to go home and take care of her?” Wallace said. “They may drop down from full-time to part-time because they're still trying to matriculate.”

In this day and age, HBCUs are increasingly having to compete for students with other institutions, including community colleges, Ward said.

Dr. Larry Earvin, former Huston-Tillotson president and current chief of staff at The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), said that HBCUs need to figure out how to partner and work with two-year schools.

The challenges that HBCUs face are many, but Trent said that she remains hopeful.

“Overcoming challenges is a part of the HBCU DNA,” she said. “America needs us to succeed. We are the answer to so many of her problems.”

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