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Black College Conference Takes on Public Criticism of HBCUs

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — With its theme, “HBCUs Under Attack: What Must We Do?”, reminding Black college professionals and supporters their institutions face public criticism, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s 12th Annual Member Universities Professional Institute Conference explored organizational practices and business strategies intended to advance HBCUs. More than 200 presidents, chancellors, administrators, faculty and staff of the 47-member TMCF gathered this week in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., to address HBCU critics and to learn institutional success strategies.  


“We have two choices, we can either ignore the attacks or have a crucial conversation with our member universities,” said TMCF President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. “Let’s take the focus off the institution and go to the students and ask them how we remain relevant.”


Taylor invited Wall Street Journal opinion writer Jason Riley, who last fall penned the commentary “Black Colleges Need a New Mission” in the conservative business newspaper, to be the conference luncheon speaker on Monday.  In his article, Riley cast HBCUs as inferior and outdated institutions.


“He did us a favor,” Taylor said Tuesday during the luncheon keynote speech. “He raised the dialogue out of the back rooms of American government and brought it to the forefront giving us an opportunity to respond to it and talk about it. We had the choice to either retaliate or educate.”


“Our competition are major (higher education) institutions,” Taylor noted.  “They are competing for your talent. We are going to continue to be true to what we started, providing scholarships to both need and merit-based students. We want the best of the best because they represent us.”


Dr. N. Joyce Payne, TMCF’s founder, agreed with Taylor that criticism of HBCUs is not a new challenge. It should be addressed now, especially in a time when Black communities are hurting, she told Diverse.


“The HBCUs were originally created to educate emancipated slaves because that was the only option for African-Americans at that time,” said Payne.  “Today, we’ve overcome the vestiges of segregation and entered the mainstream.  We could say our universities no longer have a role. The truth is if these institutions didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have the Jesse Jacksons, Thurgood Marshalls, Barbara Jordans and Oprah Winfreys of today.”


Payne acknowledged that the current generation of Black college-goers have more educational choices than before. ”The best and the brightest can go wherever. If our schools are competing then we have to step up our game.”


The MUPI conference also hosted  panel discussions and breakout sessions to address the major challenges facing HBCUs and to explore the role TMCF can play to help provide solutions.


One breakout session addressed TMCF’s scholarship program. Juontonio Pinckney, TMCF’s talent acquisitions and campus relations manager, explained the scholarship application process and the qualifications of the potential scholarship winners.


“We are looking for students who really step outside of the box and separate themselves,” he said.


A second session explored different methodologies for predicting graduation rates at HBCUs. Howard University’s Dr. Gerunda B. Hughes stressed the importance of investing in institutional research.


Hughes, who leads Howard’s Office of Institutional Assessment and Evaluation, has used a number of formulas to help school leaders better predict the expected graduation rate and more importantly, how to increase that rate.


“Use your results and research strategically,” Hughes said. “The emphasis is on use, don’t let the results sit on the shelf.”

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