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Black colleges’ charge: Evolve vision or perish
Leaders insist HBCUs' mission must broaden
Published Wednesday, May 1, 2013 2:22 pm
by Laurie D. Willis, For The Charlotte Post

RALEIGH – There’s no question historically black colleges are still relevant; however, they must adapt to changing times to compete in the 21st century.

That was the message from administrators at North Carolina’s HBCUs at a public forum during the annual Sixth District meeting of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. The April 25 meeting had more than 700 registrants and brought more than 1,000 people to the state capital.

“These institutions were established primarily to educate the children of the just-freed slaves,” Livingstone College President Jimmy Jenkins said. “Education is the surest vehicle for upward mobility in the world. The need that existed then is still a need today. That’s why I’m absolutely convinced HBCUs are still relevant, although we may have to reinvent ourselves.”

Saint Augustine’s University President Dianne Boardley Suber cautioned against thinking all HBCUs are monolithic.

“All 105 of the country’s HBCUs are different,” Suber said. “I think you really have to look critically at the mission of these institutions and the measure of their success based on stated goals of their mission and expectation of their vision. I honestly believe if we’re going to prevail in the 21st century and beyond … we have to strategize to ensure that a great percentage of these institutions remain strong.”

For several years a national debate has been brewing over the relevancy of historically black colleges and universities. The debate intensifies when an HBCU is put on academic probation, loses accreditation or is forced to close its doors. With 11 HBCUs, North Carolina trails only Alabama, which has 15. The consensus at the forum was HBCUs face increasingly stiff challenges when trying to recruit students, particularly the academically gifted.

“I think what brought many of us to HBCUs many years ago is different than what will attract students today,” said Jeffrey A. Smith, vice president for student affairs and administration at Shaw University and a fourth-generation HBCU student. “My grandfather had graduate degrees, and so I knew the history and legacy of why it was important to go to an HBCU. But although I’ve told my son the stories and he’s been on at least 25 HBCU campuses, he doesn’t care…When we recruit students in the HBCU market we have to compete with everybody – including your N.C. States, your Chapel Hills and your Elons, the schools considered to be the crčme de la crčme. We have to compete so we can continue to be relevant in the minds of young people.”

Sometimes, Smith added, HBCUs have to prove their relevancy to people and organizations that should already understand why they’re vital, including black churches and parents.

Fayetteville State University Chancellor James Anderson said it is incumbent upon HBCUs to ensure their students know African-American history and the history of the colleges and universities they attend.

“The responsibility starts at the top, and it really comes down to what aspects we want to protect,” he said. “At Fayetteville State when we have Founder’s Day the alumni don’t come and we have to force the students to come. The give-back rate to HBCUs is about 10 percent. Alumni should be giving back more and they don’t.”

Suber countered that staying true to history isn’t necessarily measured by the amount of money donated by alumni.

“There’s a whole array of indicators that determine success by any institution, and that’s based on the institution’s mission and vision,” she said. “Anybody can successfully teach a child who comes prepared and ready to learn, who comes fed and from a culture of learning in the home, but the master teacher is the one who takes the child who may not come with all of the tools and teaches the child as if he came prepared.”

Jenkins agreed, saying HBCUs are filled with students who have the intellectual capability to succeed. “HBCUs now have to reinvent their missions and dig deeper to find those diamonds in the rough,” he said.

At Livingstone, where Jenkins has been president since 2006, the school implemented a rigorous, six-week summer Bridge Program to help students who graduate from high school with academic deficiencies. The program involves courses in reading, writing, oral communications, math, African-American history and technology, as well as behavior modification, morning devotion, workout sessions and lectures by professionals who challenge the students to seek excellence. Students who successfully complete the program are admitted provisionally as freshmen in the fall semester and given a $1,500 stipend toward their tuition.

One former Bridge student, Eugene Brown, spent two summers interning on Capitol Hill and worked on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign in Florida. Another former Bridge student is now enrolled at UNC Charlotte and plans to attend medical school.

Suber spoke of a student who was given a one-way ticket to Raleigh by his church and told to call St. Augustine’s after landing at the airport. The student graduated in four years, taught in Wake County Public Schools and now is working on his Ph.D.
“If (he) had called any number of schools I can think of, he would probably still be sitting in that airport,” Suber said.

Michael Magruder, chairman of the music department at Winston-Salem State University, said the importance and strength of HBCUs must be stressed by their leaders.

“All of our institutions have gone through a paradigm shift … however the reputation of black colleges must be preserved by all of us,” he said. “The message needs to be sent.”

Al Austin, major gifts officer in institutional advancement at Johnson C. Smith University, said HBCUs will always exist in America.
“They’re needed,” he said. “Who best to educate our children but us? What we have to do is adjust our business models … raise money and get support from alumni. That’s how we’re going to be successful.”

Ulysses S.G. Sweeney IV, district representative for the Sixth District, closed the discussion by saying African-Americans must invest in their schools “because nobody takes care of our kids like our own.”

“We had a dual purpose with the forum,” Sweeney said. “We wanted to introduce leaders of our institutions to young students so the students could hear from them, and we wanted to promote our black institutions. Omega Psi Phi is about serious business. There’s no doubt nobody has a party like we have, but at the end of the day we’re about business and education.”


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