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It’s HBCU Week in Washington DC: Let’s See What the Future Holds

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009Every 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.

HBCUs a “Land of the Lost”? I Don’t Think So

MBPortraitClose2By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

Today, I came across a blog post written by a colleague who has worked in the HBCU community for many years. He titled the post Land of the Lost — after the Sid and Marty Krofft TV show and more recently, the movie.  At first glance, I thought the post was a review of the movie and was ready to move on to something more interesting.  However, as I read down the page, I noticed his post compared HBCUs to the Land of the Lost.  I had to keep reading given my research.

In the post, which I encourage you to read and respond to, my colleague, based on his experience working at HBCUs and working for affiliate organizations, is highly critical of these important institutions.  He compares HBCU presidents to the tyrannical dinosaurs in the movie, HBCU faculty to the Sleestack (lizard-like creatures), and students to Pakuni (I’ll let him explain that comparison).  At first, I was enraged given what I know about stereotypes of HBCUs and their leaders — admittedly, I’m still slightly enraged.

However, after re-reading the post several times, he makes some interesting points (albeit his criticisms could be lodged against any institution regardless of racial history).  With regard to college presidents, he calls for more transparency and more open debate.  I agree that open debate and clear processes should always be the goal on a college campus.  With regard to faculty, he points out the heavy teaching loads at HBCUs and how these loads stifle creativity.  Although HBCUs are primarily teaching institutions, it would benefit these colleges and universities if they more readily encouraged research and exempted faculty from some of their teaching duties to pursue research (funded and unfunded). With regard to students, although my colleague believes in their potential, he thinks they need to more deeply explore this potential — defying peer and parental expectations.  This could be said for all college students, by and large.

The problem my colleague has, as well as others who heavily critique HBCUs, is that he fails to realize that the problems with leadership, heavy teaching loads, and unexplored potential are issues at all institutions.  Yes, these issues manifest at HBCUs, but they also surface at historically White institutions and have for centuries.  Merely pointing to problems within the HBCU context as if they are race-based problems is dangerous.

A perpetual believer in what is good and right, my colleague ends with the following:  “HBCUs must be relentlessly creative in making education relevant and continue to be a fearless advocate for those whom society would consign to the abyss of hopelessness.”

Now this is something about which we can both agree.

Check out Land of the Lost and participate in an open debate at

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).

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).


During an Economic Crisis, Don’t Make Cuts in Institutional Advancement

By Marybeth Gasman, Ph.D.

A few days ago, I was on the phone with a good friend, Nelson Bowman, who works as the Director of Development at Prairie View A & M University.  We started talking about the economic downturn and its impact on HBCUs.  Nelson is amazingly resourceful, and as such, was trying to get some “free” consulting out of me.  He asked, “What are your thoughts on institutions, specifically HBCUs, that cut the budgets of institutional advancement during these difficult economic times?”  This is a great question.

Although I would advise all HBCUs to cut as much fat out of their budgets as possible during this time, Institutional Advancement is the life blood of an institution and should not be cut in any substantial way.  Those in this area are raising money for the rest of the institution — for scholarships, facilities, operating costs, faculty research, and other essential areas.  Some HBCU administrators are cutting travel, event, and staff budgets in Institutional Advancement right now.  In many ways, as my colleague Nelson Bowman reminded me, cutting in this area first is treating Institutional Advancement like an accessory rather than an essential part of the institution.  An accessory is something that you can take on and off depending on your mood or the situation you are in.  Slashing Institutional Advancement budgets during difficult times results in a need to rebuild when times are better. Institutional Advancement should be treated as central to the mission of an HBCU and its activities should, in fact, be bolstered during times of crisis.  Times like these are the best times to be bold and increase efforts to garner monetary support for the institution. 

Even if regular donors cannot give as much during tough times, HBCUs need to stay on the radar screen of these donors.  Donors need to know that the institution is in need and that their support is still greatly appreciated and desired.  They also need to be made aware of the ways that the institution is coping with the economic crisis and cutting spending where necessary.  During tough economic times, donors want to know that their contributions are being used wisely. 

Cutting back on personal visits, public relations materials, and stewardship events will end up hurting HBCUs in the long term. Investing in Institutional Advancement is an investment in the future of the institution.  However, HBCUs must convince their internal constituents (faculty, staff, and students) that the work of the Institutional Advancement staff is essential to the strength of the institution as a whole.

Much to do about Morris Brown College?

By Marybeth Gasman

Over the past few weeks – since the Atlanta Journal and Constitution announced that Morris Brown College couldn’t pay its water bill – several of my friends in the Black college community have called to talk about the historic institution. The first question thrown out for contemplation is “Do we really need all 103 HBCUs?” My usual response to this question is “well, wait a minute…we need to remember that all of these HBCUs are different and although they are all committed to educating African American students (as well as many others), each institution has its own unique situation, successes and problems.”

What my friends are actually asking is “do we really need the weaker HBCUs?” Or more specifically, “are the Morris Browns in the HBCU community – those institutions that seem to not make it despite infusions of support decade after decade – still needed?”

Although rarely talked about outside of the HBCU community, questions often surface about the impact of Morris Brown’s failure on other HBCUs. Because the mainstream media, the general public, and many within the higher education community see all HBCUs as being the same, Morris Brown’s failure can shine a negative spotlight on HBCUs as a whole.

When Morris Brown came under fire in early 2000, I was a staunch supporter of the institution. In fact, I wrote a long article about the media’s unfair treatment of the college and HBCUs in general. Given Morris Brown’s venerable history and commitment to educating African Americans (which I have never doubted) as well as its status as one of a few HBCUs created by African Americans (former slaves, in fact), I could see no reason why the institution should close. When anyone would say, “Morris Brown is over” or “Morris Brown is dead,” I kept hoping that the institution would survive. Why? First, I have had the privilege of working with several Morris Brown College graduates who eventually pursued Ph.D.s in higher education. These students were wonderful and spoke very highly of their experiences at the historic institution. Of course, they laughed about the long financial aid lines and the lack of modern residence halls, but they made no jokes about the education they received. They had been empowered, motivated, pushed, cared for, and celebrated by the faculty and staff at the institution and I had all of the evidence right in front of me. These were students who excelled in their doctoral programs – young people with dreams of becoming faculty members who would empower their own students.

But, as Morris Brown College faces yet another crisis, I am not sure that the institution should continue in its current state. Once it leaps this next financial hurdle (another water payment of $200,000 due February 17th), what will be next? The institution’s acting president Stanley Pritchett Jr. believes that Morris Brown will survive. But, will it and is mere survival enough? Perhaps it would be wiser for Morris Brown to merge with Clark-Atlanta University? Or conceivably, it could become the junior college of the Atlanta University Center, with transfer agreements to the other HBCUs in the consortium? Or maybe the institution could start an affiliation with Georgia State University – a growing institution that produces more Black undergraduate degree holders than any other historically White institution and boasts no majority population among its student body? I realize that my suggestions will make some people angry. But, wouldn’t we rather see the dreams and visions of the Morris Brown founders further realized rather than limping along trying to avoid the next pothole in the road. Mergers are hard and someone always loses – but someone also wins and in this case it might be the 240 currently-enrolled students – who would be able to attend an accredited institution, offering a solid and committed curriculum, with long-term financial stability.

The leaders, alumni, and supporters of Morris Brown College need to think long and hard about the institution’s future – thinking creatively about either how to save it (which means really committing to supporting the institution year after year – not just when a crisis arises) or how to maintain its legacy in another form.

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).

From Today’s Edition

PBIs Make Gains in Washington
by Charles Dervarics
Apr 28, 2008, 20:31

After years of lobbying for more federal aid and visibility, predominantly Black colleges and universities   many of them located in northern cities are gaining a greater foothold in Washington.


These colleges, which enroll large numbers of Black students but are not historically Black institutions, will divide $15 million over two years through a new grant competition expected to be formally open for applications soon. Approved under the College Cost Reduction Act, the competitive grants can provide predominantly Black institutions, or PBIs, with a minimum grant of at least $250,000.


“We’ve got a foot in the door. That’s significant,” says Dr. Edison Jackson, president of Medgar Evers College in New York, who long has argued for aid to PBIs. With a Black enrollment of about 94 percent, Jackson’s college would qualify for the new funds.


Precise eligibility rules for the competition are still pending.


However, according to the Department of Education, eligible applicants would include those colleges and universities with an undergraduate enrollment that is “at least 40 percent Black American students.” As a comparison, institutions with a 25 percent Hispanic student population are designated Hispanic-serving institutions.


Under the program, colleges and universities are to use funds for one of the following:


   Science, technology, engineering or

   mathematics (STEM) activities;

   Health education;

   Internationalization or globalization;

   Teacher preparation; or

   Improving educational outcomes of

    Black males.


On its Web site, the education department says it expects to make about 25 grants of $600,000 each, the maximum amount of funding available under the program. Funding must supplement, not replace, other federal or state dollars.


The grants are expected to last for two years, though Jackson says PBIs are seeking congressional support to extend the program beyond two years.


“We’re still waiting to hear from the department” on the grant competition, says Jill Hunter-Thompson, legislative director for Rep.


Danny Davis, D-Ill., who has sponsored House legislation to assist PBIs.


A senior Department of Education official held a briefing on the grant program at the recent National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) conference in Washington in March. Application deadline dates should be available soon.


“It’s a tight schedule because the money is available this fiscal year,” says Jackson. The current fiscal year ends Sept. 30, so the government is likely to make grant awards before that date.


Jackson, a board member of NAFEO, says most HBCUs support these initiatives for PBIs.


  “Now that [aid to PBIs] is in a separate category, it’s not seen as competing with the HBCU program,” he tells Diverse. “Most HBCUs are comfortable” with the new PBI funding, Jackson adds.


Aside from Medgar Evers, other institutions likely to qualify for the new funds include Chicago State University and Sojourner Douglas College in Baltimore. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who has introduced his own Senate legislation to increase PBI funding, has said that about 75 colleges in 17 states could likely apply for funds as eligible PBIs.


In Illinois alone, other likely eligible institutions include Robert Morris College, several campuses of the City Colleges of Chicago, South Suburban College and East-West University.


In his own legislation, Obama has used eligibility requirements for colleges such as 40 percent Black undergraduate enrollment, a minimum of at least 1,000 undergraduate students, an undergraduate population with at least 50 percent low-income or first-generation college students, and a student population in which at least half of all undergraduates are in a program leading to an associate or bachelor’s degree.


PBIs could also gain through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is now the focus of House/Senate negotiators after both chambers approved different bills. Both chambers have provisions to aid PBIs.


The recently approved House bill defines PBIs in ways largely similar to the Obama approach, defining eligibility based on minimum percentages of Black, low-income and first-generation college students.


But the House bill would authorize $75 million for the program in 2009.


Among other provisions, it would allow PBIs to use federal funds to serve low- and middle-income Black students, promote college preparation and persistence for students in high school and college and improve teacher education.

Colleges could use up to 20 percent of grants to create or increase their endowments.


Under the House bill, PBIs would receive funds through an allotment based partly on enrollment of Pell Grant-eligible students and graduation rates for the college.


While some issues remain unresolved, Jackson says the tide is moving in the right direction. “We’re very pleased that we are in the ballpark,” he says.