Changing the Conversation About HBCUs: YES WE CAN!

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman-current-sittingOver the past month, I have been to three meetings in which the leaders of HBCUs have come together to talk about these venerable institutions during this time of economic crisis.  I have come away from each of these meetings thinking, “There has got to be a way to change the discourse around these institutions — change the conversations that take place in the halls of policymakers and around the water cooler at newspaper offices.”  Over and over I hear those who have little to do with HBCUs  making gross generalizations, underestimating their contributions to society, and all but dismissing their need in a nation that clearly struggles with how to effectively educate African Americans and other students of color. 

After some thought, I am convinced that a change in the conversation will come as a result of partnerships between those on the inside of HBCUs and those on the outside who are advocates, researchers, funders, reporters, etc.  Of course, these partnerships need to be built on trust.  We all know of incidents in the past in which outsiders, who did not have the best interest of HBCUs in mind, did more harm than good in their misguided attempts to “help” Black colleges and universities.

Here are several concrete ways to change the conversation about your individual institution and HBCUs in general:

  1. Identify experts in the field of higher education who focus on HBCUs in their research and get to know them.  These people are called by the media, policymakers, and foundations on a regular basis to comment, using empirical data, on HBCUs.  Make sure that these people know about your institution and the positive impact it’s having on the local community, students, and perhaps, society at larger.  The best way to identify these people is to read stories on HBCUs in major newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Chicago Tribune, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, as these individuals are often cited.  I would also suggest sending materials on your institution — including annual reports, press releases, campaign materials — to these individuals so that they can refer to your institution when giving examples to the press.  You should also be sending these materials to foundations and media outlets.
  2. Write op-eds about your institution’s contributions to student success as well as the contributions of HBCUs in general.  Send these op-ed essays to local, regional, and national papers and magazines. It’s best if these op-eds come from the president of your institution, but they can also come from faculty members who are working on noteworthy research projects or student affairs administrators who have discovered ways to retain or graduate more students. 
  3. Set up an institutional Facebook site for students, alumni, and supporters to join, creating viral enthusiasm for your institution.  Keeping alumni informed, and more importantly, singing the praises of your institution in their local communities is powerful.  In addition, using Facebook allows you to keep in touch with countless numbers of supporters, announce events, and even garner financial support once you have built up a rapport with users.
  4. Send out more press releases about the accomplishments of your institution.  I always tell people that for most papers, 70 percent of what is written comes from press releases.  If you don’t have the professional staff to write press releases, engage students in internship opportunities and give them the opportunity to hone their skills.  Now, some folks will say, “but newspapers only print the negative!”  My response to this is — couch your positive accomplishments as a solution to a longstanding problem.  So, if your graduation rates are up, begin the press release with the problem that your institution faced and tell the story of how you are solving it. 

These are just a few ways to change the conversation around HBCUs, which is even more important during these difficult economic times.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).


6 responses to “Changing the Conversation About HBCUs: YES WE CAN!

  1. Catherine Kershaw

    Dear Dr. Gasman,
    This is an excellent case for the need for each of our HBCUs to have a PR communications plan and at least one PR professional to manage it. Image is everything!
    Catherine A. Kershaw, APRP, CPRC

  2. Good article and recommendations Dr. Gasman.

  3. Speaking Truth to Power!

    Dr.Gasman :

    I applaud you on your articles on HBCU’s. You have shown more dedication and concern for the plight of HBCU’s than many people who are products of these institutions.

  4. I think that there has always been a constant and consistent message about HBCU’s. I am a graduate of an HBCU and the message brought then and told now is one of empowering the next generation of leaders. Those of us who have had the experience of them and with them must continue to be ambassadors for them.

  5. Catherine Kershaw

    Mr. Ewers, as a graduate of an HBCU I cannot agree with you more. However, having dealt with the public and the media as the PR director for an HBCU, I can honestly say that many, many individuals who are not in the HBUC networks do not know or understand what an HBCU has to offer. There remains that ever present question: Why do we need HBCUs when the doors to higher education are open to all students.
    Those of us who are alumni of an HBCU know the answer and you have clearly stated it.

  6. Richard Kitson-Walters

    Kudos to you, Dr. Gasman. It will take crusaders of your standing to help us get the message out. Yes we can and need to do more to share our storied accomplishments, understanding however that it is a frustrating undertaking trying to convince bigoted minded academics and intllectuals (black and white). The struggle continues.

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