Note to HBCU Presidents and Their Boards of Trustees
An increasing number of HBCUs are under fire and surveillance. On one hand, external events ---reductions of state budgets for higher education , the prospect of reduced support from the U.S. Department of Education and some philanthropic foundations, the merging of HBCUs with non-HBCUs --may compromise an institution's ability to offer scholarships and to offer above average academic programs. On the other hand, internal affairs ----rapid turnover among presidents and top administrators, student unrest, votes of "no confidence" in presidents, unwise decisions regarding allocation of limited funds by boards of trustees and presidents, confusing models of shared governance, hesitation to mount long-term capital funds campaigns, inequitable salary freezes or reductions, decline in student enrollment, edgy re-branding of liberal arts schools as STEM-specific ones, acrimonious race relations (particularly when non-black faculty outnumber and out-strategize black faculty, delayed attention to crumbling infrastructure ----create "spectacles." Mass and social media delight in reporting and exaggerating "spectacles." Finger-pointing, telling half-truths, or manufacturing blatant lies in the name of public relations retard progress.
The more aggressive HBCUs may be able to negotiate with politicians and the public to minimize the damages caused by external events, but relatively passive institutions will suffer. Internal affairs, however, constitute a different can of worms, a different Pandora's box. Too often arrogance, ego-worship, Trump-inspired disdain for African American colleagues and students, refusal to honor the obligations of "power" and casual dismissal of the historic strengths of HBCUs portend undermining and collapse. Do a bit of cold, non-nostalgic fact-checking, please!
As a proud alumnus of a HBCU, who taught at HBCUs for 42 years, I send a modest challenge to HBCU presidents and their boards of trustees. Read The Education of Black People: Ten Critiques, 1906-1960 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001) by W. E. B. DuBois. I hasten to caution that the book offer panaceas or quick-fixes for the kaleidoscopic problems that bedevil higher education and HBCUs in the 21st century. The main profit from reading the book may be an increase in humility and plain common sense. Even so small a benefit can inspire the minimizing of "spectacles."
I am stunned by a passage in DuBois's tenth critique "Wither Now and Why" (1960):
The great American world of which we have for centuries been striving to become a part and which has arisen to be one of the powerful nations is today losing its influence and that American Negroes do not realize. There was a time when as leader of a new democracy, as believers in a new tolerance in religion, and as a people basing their life on equality of opportunity, in the ownership of land and property, the United States of America stood first in the hopes of mankind. That day has passed (200).
So too has the day when HBCU presidents and boards of trustees can pretend to be innocent and cast blind eyes on the past and what is currently passing.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. April 10, 2017