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An Open Letter to HBCU Students and Alumni


In recent weeks, conservative thinkers and writers have been attacking HBCUs. What’s new you might ask? Attacking HBCUs is definitely not new, but, in the current oppressive racial climate of the United States, the stakes are getting higher. Those who see increases in minority populations and more people of color in leadership positions are not happy and they are starting to show their anger toward minority organizations, especially HBCUs. 

Although it is beneficial for scholars and HBCU presidents, as well as leaders of HBCU advocacy groups, to set the record straight and speak out on the merits of HBCUs when applicable, what is needed more than anything is for current students and alumni to tell their stories. For several decades, higher education researchers and sociologists have been conducting both qualitative and quantitative research that explores the experiences of students at HBCUs. By and large, these experiences are found to be empowering and positive. However, critics fail to engage this literature, instead relying on anecdote, and rankings, which privilege elite institutions, to discuss quality. 

Although I have no intention of discontinuing my research agenda, I am becoming more and more convinced that the key to quelling critics is for HBCU students and alumni to share their experiences in a variety of venues and ways. Both students and alumni, in large numbers, can write letters to the editor when an unfair article appears in the paper. They can also contribute op-eds to newspapers and write for well-known blogs and even less well-known blogs (as the internet is viral and all of these stories get picked up eventually). HBCU alumni should engage research on HBCUs and use this information to craft convincing arguments to counter the words of critics. Students and alumni can talk about their institutions and experiences to diverse audiences. I am always amazed by those who know absolutely nothing about HBCUs; educating those who make decisions and have access to power is a good idea.

Although I say this quite often, another tactic for squelching the misguided notions of critics is for HBCU alumni to give back and do so regularly. Potential donors, especially corporate and foundation donors, see greater alumni giving as a sign that an institution is healthy. Donors like to give to healthy, successful institutions. My colleague Nelson Bowman, the Director of Development at Prairie View A&M University, will often ask HBCU alumni, especially those who do not give, where they would be without their HBCU degree? Think about Bowman’s question and consider the opportunity that can be provided to current students through giving back. Think about the message you send by giving to your HBCU. 

Lastly, think about speaking up for your alma mater when uninformed critics, many who have never been on an HBCU campus, criticize your institution or HBCUs as a whole. I’m not against being critical of HBCUs—informed criticisms will only make HBCUs stronger. What I am against is uninformed, anecdotal, sloppy criticism that is only meant to malign these historic institutions. When you read it or hear it, speak up!

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of “Understanding Minority Serving Institutions” (SUNY Press, 2008).

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