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Lessons Learned from ā€˜Setting the Agenda for Historically Black Colleges and Universitiesā€™


Last week in Durham, N.C., a wonderful symposium took place. It was not business as usual but, instead, an honest look at the future of HBCUs. Although I was one of the speakers, I sat through all the sessions (which brought everyone together in one room) and took about 40 pages of notes.

As a researcher, I had many, many ideas going through my head. I thought Iā€™d share some of the lessons that the speakers had for those of us who care about the future of HBCUs. Here are some points that were made:

  • The emphasis at HBCUs needs to go from access to retention and increased graduation rates.
  • HBCUs need to produce the knowledge workers of our nation; increasing their production of more students in the STEM fields.
  • HBCUs have a lot that they can teach majority institutions and should be leading the way in terms of educating African-American students.
  • HBCUs need to take control of the ā€œnarrativeā€ about HBCUs and make it more success-oriented and positive. More HBCU leaders need to be leading the charge and be visible on a national stage.
  • HBCUs need to be out in front when it comes to educating more African-American males to be teachers. Less than 2 percent of teachers are Black males, and HBCUs need to help solve this problem. They have the tools and the legacy.
  • Data are not to be feared but are to be used to strengthen HBCUs. A fear of criticism must be overcome. If HBCU leaders donā€™t confront their challenges, others, who have little contextual knowledge, will do it for them.
  • HBCU leaders are not asking for anything special. They want parity with historically White institutions.
  • Faculty members are the fabric of an institution, and HBCUs need to take care of their faculty, creating positive environments for young Black faculty, in particular.
  • There is a leadership crisis at HBCUs. Leaders of HBCUs have the responsibility of creating new leaders who can take the lead in the future.
  • A strong faculty that wants to participate in shared governance is not the enemy of HBCU leaders; it is a partner.
  • HBCUs must create a niche; they cannot be all things to all people. HBCUs should be able to answer the questions: Whatā€™s our niche?  What are our signature programs?
  • HBCUs need to train their students to solve societyā€™s problems and problems that have a direct impact on Black communities throughout the nation.
  • HBCUs have taken their market share for granted. In a post-Civil Rights era, students have institutional choices, and they are making them.

Although some of these lessons are hard to swallow, they are very good food for thought. All HBCU leaders should think about them as they move their institutions forward. 

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of ā€œEnvisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fundā€ (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of ā€œUnderstanding Minority Serving Institutionsā€ (SUNY Press, 2008).

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