4 HBCU leaders chart a course for a vibrant future

HBCUs continue to contend with the same systemic racism that Black Americans face, university president says
By: | October 2, 2020
HBCUs face more intense competition for Black students from more highly-resourced colleges and universities that are trying to diversify their campuses with more students of color, leaders say. (GettyImages/Cavan Images)HBCUs face more intense competition for Black students from more highly-resourced colleges and universities that are trying to diversify their campuses with more students of color, leaders say. (GettyImages/Cavan Images)

A healthy future for historically Black colleges and universities relies on convincing corporate America, the philanthropic community and other stakeholders of the enduring value of HBCUs, leaders of those institutions said in webinars this week.

HBCUs, however, continue to contend with the same systemic racism that Black Americans face, Ronald Mason Jr., president of The University of the District of Columbia said during the “Future of HBCUs in the COVID Era” webinars hosted by The Aspen Institute think thank this week.

“HBCUs are not all the same institution but they have one thing in common: They generally have been denied access to wealth and the ability to accumulate wealth, which is sort of what has happened to Black people historically in America,” Mason said. “HBCUs are just institutional reflections of Black people.”

The economic crisis caused by the COVID outbreak has reinforced the need to tap into resources beyond tuition.


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“We’re trying to help the business community and philanthropic community understand that there’s just a lot of talent out there, a lot of talent in these vast untapped reserves of Black and brown communities,” Mason said.

HBCU leaders must also convince elected officials of the economic benefits these colleges and institutions bring to their communities, said Suzanne Elise Walsh, president of Bennett College in North Carolina.

HBCUs, however, face more intense competition than ever for Black students from more highly-resourced colleges and universities that are trying to diversify their campuses, Walsh said.

HBCUs must therefore match the marketing and recruitment campaigns mounted by predominantly-white institutions, Walsh said.

Black colleges and universities must also continue to embrace their rich histories while setting a clearer vision for students’ future. “The 21st century will belong to those who know how to work in interdisciplinary ways, who know how to span boundaries of race and gender and global location,” she said.


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HBCUs students must produce students who are resilient in the face of systemic racism.

“Especially for Black women, if you’re going to be a leader in this environment with all of the craziness we deal with on a daily basis, you have to make sure you are healthy and you have to be anti-fragile,” Walsh said. “You need the ability to continue to withstand racist attacks, because it’s not only going to happen one time.”

HBCUs confront COVID challenges

Like many colleges and universities, HBCUs have been providing extra support to students who have been impacted by the COVID pandemic.

Paul Quinn College in Dallas has reduced its cost of attendance by $2,500, and simplified its fee structure so students are only charged for tuition, health care and technology.

Students who needed technology received computers and Wi-Fi access for free, President Michael J. Sorrell said during a separate Aspen Institute webinar.

About 80% of Paul Quinn’s students receive Pell Grants. Summer school attendance also soared this year, from about 10% of students to 70%, Sorrell said.

“Our institutional goal is the eradication of intergenerational poverty,” he said. “Let’s imagine every single thing we do from the perspective of how we provide relief for students.”


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At Spelman College in Atlanta, faculty and students have been meeting remotely to share ideas and remain connected, President Mary Schmidt Campbell said.

Spelman, which has also provided financial support for students, has also divided its first-year class into support groups who are responsible for each other’s success, Campbell said.

“We’ve taken some of our fundamental traditions and turned them into positive experiences digitally,” Campbell says. “It’s been very exciting to see the new techniques and approaches that have emerged.”