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Looking Forward Rather Than Backward



Last Thursday, I attended the “Unfinished Business:  National Dialogue on Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the 21st Century” meeting at Morgan State University. Most of the conversation centered on the inequity that continues to exist in public higher education, especially in the Southern and border states. 


During the presidents’ roundtable, the speakers detailed the history of legal segregation and its impact on the inequities in higher education. They also discussed the merits of HBCUs, noting that these institutions have operated on fewer dollars since their creation. In fact, one of the panelists declared, “We can’t just ask for equal funding now, we must get the dollars we lost in the past to achieve equity.”


I found myself nodding my head with the panelists — yes, I agreed with them – but I was also nodding because I have heard these conversations before at other conferences and gatherings of HBCU leaders and supporters.  In fact, I have heard myself making these comments.


As I sat there listening, the young man next to me -an HBCU graduate – was growing frustrated.  He had also heard the conversations before and like me, wanted to hear something new and innovative. We struck up an interesting conversation. As a result, I came to the conclusion that there is a disconnect between many of the older HBCU leaders- those who bravely weathered the civil rights movement – and the newer generation of HBCU graduates and supporters. Whereas the older generation is focused on pointing out the inequities in society (a noble and much needed task), the newer generation seems more interested in moving forward and making change – focusing on innovations within the HBCU environment and successes – rather than lamenting the past.


One of the conference speakers bridged this gap between generations – Dr. Mary Sias, the president of Kentucky State University. Sias acknowledged the past discriminatory practices in her state but she also talked about two important issues to the future of HBCUs: 1) Increasing graduation and retention rates and 2) the escalating diversity among HBCU student bodies. She took ownership of her institution’s graduation and retention rates, offering details on how her faculty and staff have worked to increase these rates over the past few years with substantial success. She pointed to the fact that her students, for the most part, come from low-income families and have been underprepared by their primary and secondary educations – two factors that are related to lower graduation rates at any institution.  However, she didn’t use these factors as an excuse for accepting low graduation and retention rates. 


In addition, Sias talked about an issue that many in the HBCU community are reluctant to discuss – the ever-changing demographics of their institutions.  Kentucky State is now 40 percent non-Black – meaning that Sias has a substantial population on her campus that is Latino, Asian, and White and she must adhere to the needs of all of these students as president. 


Both of these issues are representative of the future. HBCUs will need to contend with outsiders’ critiques around the issues of low graduation rates and they will also need to answer increasing questions about the changing demographics of their campuses – crafting a nuanced answer to the question “What exactly does it mean to be an historically Black college or university?” “These are two questions that I’d like to see answered in future conversations among HBCU leaders.


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