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An Open Letter to HBCUs: Do Not Let This Moment Pass Us By


Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are receiving unprecedented attention these days, particularly from private philanthropy. In some ways it’s almost as if they didn’t exist until George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight. For those who have observed and are the beneficiaries of these vaunted schools, we know better, of course. Rare is the Black man or woman who doesn’t personally know of a Black person murdered under similar circumstances yet was never prosecuted.

We also know that this attention on HBCUs will not last forever. It therefore behooves the chief executives and governing boards of these iconic institutions to seize the moment and follow the wisdom of the old spiritual “Do Not Pass Me By.” Dr. Alvin J. SchexniderDr. Alvin J. Schexnider

While HBCUs may be a new discovery for some, most African Americans know that HBCUs have been around for more than a century and a half. Their contributions to society and the economy are well-documented and immeasurable. The simple truth is that HBCUs almost single-handedly created the Black middle class. The recent UNCF report provides demonstrable proof of the role HBCUs play in fostering social mobility among their graduates.

We sense new-found expressions of pride among HBCU alumni. Recently, two public intellectuals, Dr. Jelani Cobb and Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr., appeared on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC night program. Glaude, Jr., chairman of Princeton University’s African American Studies program, identified himself as an alumnus of Morehouse College. Cobb, professor of journalism at Columbia University, quickly informed the audience that he is an alumnus of Howard University.

It’s likely that some of these self-disclosures are the result of the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, a proud alumna of Howard University. HBCU alums have always exhibited pride, however, its renewal and enthusiasm is palpable and welcomed since their moral, financial, and political support are essential to the sustainability of these schools.

Their stellar history and unique role in American higher education notwithstanding, most HBCUs are not well-known or may not be known at all except to alumni and stakeholders in their sphere of influence. This may be said of majority schools also; however, given the comparatively small number of HBCUs and the exceptional role they play in producing successful graduates who come from low-wealth backgrounds, the time for greater attention and increased funding is long overdue. We believe this is a propitious moment in history that leaders of HBCUs must enthusiastically seize by focusing on ways to strengthen their brand, recognition, and sustainability. Indeed, they must not let this moment pass them by!

Drawing on the knowledge, expertise, and passion of the marketing professionals and business leaders they helped produce, we recommend that HBCUs devote attention to distilling and clarifying their brand. They can begin by asking a series of questions:

·       What are our core values?

·        What is our value proposition?

·        How do we live our mission?

·        What is our niche?

·        What is my college or university known for?

·        What are our centers of excellence?

·        How do we distinguish ourselves from our competitors?

·        What do our current students and best-known alumni say about us?

·        What do those who employ our graduates say about their preparation, productivity, passion, and communication skills?

·        Does my college or university consistently deliver excellent services in a caring compassionate manner? Dr. Charlie NelmsDr. Charlie Nelms

The brand of which we speak is more than the prowess and the popularity of the band, choir, football, or basketball team; it is more than colorful photos in recruitment materials or on social media. It is more than a slogan on a billboard or the tagline in a commercial. While all these expressions of an institution’s profile and presence are important, we believe branding is undergirded by substantive and compelling storytelling. That story must answer three essential questions: Who are HBCUs? What do they do exceptionally well? What is their value proposition? We believe now is an opportune time for HBCU leaders to collectively convey the effectiveness with which they deliver high quality education in a culture of caring where high expectations prevail.

As HBCU graduates with nearly 100 years of combined teaching and leading in the academy and serving at all levels in the communities in which have lived, we are extensions of the authentic impact of the HBCU brand. Given the vast number of postsecondary education options available to prospective students and investment opportunities available to philanthropists and other stakeholders, we believe shoring up the HBCU brand is more important than ever.

For some, answering these questions might be easy. Every HBCU has produced notable graduates who have distinguished themselves in their professions. Fewer enjoy a national reputation for consistently producing graduates in certain fields. Xavier University in New Orleans and Spelman College, for example, are respectively known for preparing students who excel in STEM fields, many of whom go to medical school or earn doctorates. North Carolina A&T State University and Florida A&M University lead in producing Black engineers. Recognition for preeminence contributes to their brands and it helps to distinguish these institutions among their peers.

The spotlight is on HBCUs, but it will not last forever. It is time to take stock of what each school offers that is distinctive and contributes to its brand. Doing so will contribute to enhanced recruitment, strengthened academic programs and fundraising. Branding requires consensus and intentional leadership in the presidency and on the governing board. It also relies upon experienced professionals in marketing, communications and development. It cannot be based on fluff and it cannot be manufactured. Rather, it must be based on a solid platform, an acknowledged center of excellence with demonstrable evidence to back it up. We believe that branding can contribute to the sustainability of HBCUs.

Let’s consider what our communities have lost: high schools, small businesses, hotels and restaurants, neighborhood pharmacies, hospitals and medical offices.

We still have Black colleges and universities, but their future is not assured unless we commit to their viability. The recent bankruptcy of North Carolina Mutual in Durham, North Carolina after 123 years of existence is a wakeup call. The “Mutual” was there for African American families and businesses when no one else would meet their financial needs. That it will be missed is an understatement.

There are recent indications that some HBCUs recognize the urgency of now. Florida A&M, Howard, Morgan State, North Carolina A&T, and Prairie View are seeking the Carnegie Classification Research 1 status, the top echelon comprising the nation’s most vaunted universities. Morgan State is especially aggressive in this race to the top. It has begun working with Purdue University in an initiative that involves faculty, administrators and students. Similarly, North Carolina A&T established a joint research park with the University of North Carolina Greensboro. North Carolina A&T is now third in the state and number one among HBCUs in funded research. We believe that strategic alliances or partnerships can be helpful to HBCUs in their sustainability efforts.

In closing, let’s remember the sage advice of Billie Holiday: “God bless the child that's got his own.” HBCUs are irreplaceable. It is incumbent upon us to safeguard our progress. Do not let this moment pass us by.

Dr. Charlie Nelms is Chancellor Emeritus of North Carolina Central University.

Dr. Alvin J. Schexnider is a former Chancellor of Winston-Salem State University

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