Alvin J. Schexnider is a former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University. He is a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and author of “Saving Black Colleges.”
The recent meeting of President Donald Trump with black college presidents cast a spotlight on this important sector of American higher education. With nine out of 10 African-American students enrolled in majority schools, historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs as they are commonly known, are indisputably imperiled.
During the meeting, the president approved an executive order moving the federal initiative on HBCUs to the White House from the Department of Education. A request of $25 billion dollars to help with scholarships, technology and facilities was also submitted.
Higher education does not appear to be one of this administration’s budget priorities so a favorable response is questionable. Black colleges are not monolithic and needs tend to vary. Some schools are independent; some are public. A few are research and doctoral-granting institutions. Some boast solid academic reputations and sound financial footing yet many struggle to stay afloat. Dwindling enrollments and small endowments make several vulnerable without an infusion of federal aid.
Black colleges and universities are iconic institutions. Several are in the midst of sesquicentennial celebrations, a feat in and of itself given the huge challenges they have surmounted from the beginning. HBCUs were founded during a period of hostile, entrenched and enforced segregation. Of necessity black colleges depended on white philanthropy and later state government for financial support. They enjoyed a pure monopoly on students and employees.
Desegregation has altered the landscape and today many, if not most, struggle to survive haunted by memories of the demise of black businesses, banks, hospitals and pharmacies. Informed leaders also know that in 1900 there were 10 black medical schools; today there are three.
Too many black colleges are saddled with an obsolete business model, a lack of vision, leadership challenges in the presidency and on governing boards and a paucity of meaningful engagement among key stakeholders — faculty, staff, students and alumni. Money from the federal government may help but it will not solve their problems.
For many survival seems the objective. That is not enough as Benjamin Mays, whose legacy is Morehouse College reminds us: “Not failure but low aim is sin.” Sustainability rather than survival must be the ultimate goal.
Source: AJC | Maureen Downey