By Dr. Marybeth Gasman
Every year, I attend the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities Conference, which is held in Washington D.C. in September. It’s a unique event in that it brings together the leaders of both public and private HBCUs with members of the federal government, funders, and those representing the private and nonprofit sector.
This morning I had the privilege of listening to the new Executive Director of the White House Initiative John S. Wilson talk about his goals for HBCUs. Wilson a dynamic and entertaining speaker who has a wonderful ability to appropriately incorporate history into his vision for the future of HBCUs. Wilson is also a straight talker who realizes HBCU success and the success of their graduates is tied to improved graduation rates and increased outcomes across the board, including stronger endowments, higher alumni giving, lower attrition rates, lower deferred maintenance, higher faculty salaries, lower faculty teaching loads, and higher enrollments. Of course, the only way to increase outcomes at HBCUs in the way that Wilson describes is to provide these institutions with the necessary support and the appropriate tools for success. Wilson understands that increased support for infrastructure and tools for capacity building are essential.
Wilson’s agenda for HBCUs is results-oriented. He mentioned strategies such as “collecting data to make the case for HBCUs.” He specifically told the large audience of HBCU supporters that we all need to Recover, Uncover, and Discover HBCUs. First, he encouraged HBCUs leaders to recover the history of HBCUs and to share that history of success with others, noting “you can have a great history without a great heritage.” From this historian’s point of view, it was refreshing to hear an HBCU leader point to new examples of the contributions of HBCUs — their role in increasing literacy rates in the United States, for instance — rather than the same examples that are pointed to over and over.
Second, Wilson asked the audience to “uncover” the problems and challenges that HBCUs face, saying ”we cannot fix what we do not examine.” Although there are risks in pointing to the problems that HBCUs confront, it is absolutely essential to their future that we identify these problems, interogate the reasons for their existence, and work diligently to tackle them in an effort to make HBCUs stronger. Wilson urged HBCU insiders to shine a light on their challenges; this is imperative because if HBCU supporters don’t shine this light, others will. Wilson also wants us to hold HBCUs responsible for the education of their students, but he also wants to hold the Federal government responsible, admitting that in the past there has been “bias and bureacracy in federal funding to HBCUs.”
Third, Wilson asked the group of HBCU leaders to “discover” HBCUs all over again, emphasizing that HBCUs are often well-kept secrets. These institutions boast some of the best programs and resources for educating African-Americans and other students. There is much to be learned from their strategies for success, but all too often HBCUs fail to highlight success and to share their legacies with those outside the HBCU community.
In closing, Wilson said one of the most important things I have heard in years pertaining to HBCUs. Based on his own personal experience at Morehouse College, he talked about the student who loves his HBCU, but doesn’t always like it. He noted that the way that HBCU leaders handle this student is absolutely key to the future success of HBCUs. If you engage the student in making changes that strengthen the institution — if you listen to him or her — more than likely, you end up with a lifelong supporter of your institution and a donor. But, if you ignore the student and dismiss his or her perspective, the result is an alumnus who never looks back with fond memories and never gives back.
In my opinion, Wilson exemplifies President Barack Obama’s stance on HBCUs and articulates the Obama vision for these institutions as well as higher education overall.