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The Living Legacy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The Living Legacy of Historically Black Colleges and UniversitiesI recently had the honor of speaking to this year’s graduates of Hampton University at the school’s 134th commencement exercises. As a 1970 Hampton alumnus and president for the past 10 years of a predominantly White university, I have gained valuable perspective on what leaders of universities like mine can learn from historically Black colleges and universities.
While more than 80 percent of African American college students are now enrolled in predominantly White institutions, HBCUs continue to account for more than a quarter of the nation’s African American college graduates. Even more important, these institutions have demonstrated long-term success in educating the majority of America’s Black leaders, and they have many lessons to teach — lessons that pertain chiefly to the value of having a rich history of educating African Americans, of being sensitive to their needs and diverse backgrounds, and of developing a sense of loyalty among students, faculty, staff and alumni. The future of African American higher education will depend upon the strong commitment of all types of institutions to these students.
Returning to Hampton, I was struck by the fact that the nation still does not fully understand, or appreciate, how instrumental HBCUs have been in transforming the lives of millions of Americans for more than a century. Throughout the 20th century, we have seen thousands upon thousands of African Americans graduating from HBCUs as the first member of their families to attend college, with many becoming leaders in their professions and communities, and inspiring others to go to college. Those of us in higher education sometimes forget how important the occasion of commencement is to students, their families and the campus community. For some, it is an opportunity to celebrate the first person in their family attending and completing college. For others, it is about building on the legacy of those who have gone there before. In all cases, commencement symbolizes our hope for the next generation.
It was a particularly special honor for me to speak at Hampton because one of my heroes, another Hampton alumnus and college president, Booker T. Washington, had spoken there at two prior commencements — as a graduate in 1875, when he debated with a fellow graduate on the annexation of Cuba (a hot international topic 127 years ago), and in 1879 (two years before going to Tuskegee), when his address to graduates was entitled “The Force That Wins.”  As I speak to students and educators around the country, I often talk about the power of the individual and the human spirit, and of an individual’s power to motivate and inspire others to set and achieve high goals.
As I talked with members of the graduating class, with other Hamptonians, and with the university’s president Dr. William R. Harvey, they all spoke with great sincerity about the institution as a very special place. It was clear to me that Hampton’s story, like that of so many other HBCUs, is a very special one. Throughout the day, those who had gathered had a chance to listen to the elevating music of the Hampton choir being piped through speakers across the campus, to gaze at the Emancipation Oak, under which slaves had been told about their freedom, and to think about the Academy Building where Booker Washington proved his worthiness to be admitted to study at Hampton in 1873. One could not help but be inspired. Indeed, the rich and often difficult history of the nation’s HBCUs is in part what makes them a source of inspiration to students and others.
My own Hampton experience not only filled me with a sense of hope and excitement, but also shaped my philosophy of education. It was at Hampton that I learned about the importance of putting students first, expecting the most of them, giving them the support they need to succeed, and emphasizing leadership and service to others. That philosophy governs my approach today as a university president. I know that students come first and that all students grow from being challenged intellectually and receiving support, both academic and personal. I also try to convey to them another valuable lesson I gained from Hampton — that from those to whom much is given, much is required.   
Finally, I have learned a great deal about leadership from observing President Harvey, who on commencement day stood out as a giant, as he has for years. Throughout his presidency, he has championed excellence, insisting on high academic standards and attracting resources for that campus. What he has achieved at Hampton epitomizes the benefits of combining excellence and diversity. But even more important, he represents all of those Black college presidents, like Booker T. Washington, who have steered the course of Black higher education for more than a century.
The fact that Hampton’s commencement falls on Mother’s Day magnifies for all our appreciation of families and roots. I could not help but think of the parallelism between one’s mother and one’s alma mater, each serving as a point of commencement, each giving us love, values and skills for life. As Hampton’s graduates were leaving the institution that day and embarking on their journey into the real world, it was inspiring and reassuring to know that the Class of 2002 surely included America’s future leaders, and that they would pass on the great legacy of America’s historically Black colleges and universities.  — Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of the University of
Maryland, Baltimore County.

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