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Charlie Nelms, Ed.D. Headshot

Advancing the Cause of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

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As an HBCU alumnus and the former chancellor of North Carolina Central University (NCCU), America's oldest public liberal arts HBCU, I commend my colleague, Dr. Marybeth Gasman, for establishing the Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CSMI), in the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. My only regret is that such an entity does not exist at an HBCU, at least to my knowledge. Nevertheless, given Dr. Gasman's unswerving advocacy on behalf of MSIs I am confident that collaboration between the Center and MSIs will be the cornerstone of the work of the staff. I am honored to have been invited to serve as a member of the CMSI Advisory Board and will do all that I can to make the Center a success and a resource for the MSI sector.

In a recently released policy report, "The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities," the issues identified by the authors resonated positively with my views, along with my first-hand experience as a former HBCU chancellor. In fact, in connection with NCCU's centennial celebration, in 2010, my colleagues and I wrote and distributed nationally, a policy paper entitled, "The Future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Call to Action," designed to initiate a national dialogue about what HBCUs must do to remain relevant in a contemporary era. Clearly, the future of HBCUs will be determined more by their responsiveness and competitiveness than by their historic legacy shrouded in apartheid.

The perspectives articulated in the CMSI policy paper are excellent and do not need further elucidation by me. However, I believe there are at least four additional factors that deserve consideration in the context of guidelines for success advanced by the authors of the report. It should be noted that all four of these factors are interrelated and not within the direct purview of most HBCUs, especially those that are public.

The first factor entails acknowledging and redressing the compounded effects of more than 100 years of inequitable funding of public HBCUs. Inadequate funding impacts everything there is about an institution -- degree offerings, faculty salaries and workloads, staffing levels, student support services, facilities, administrative and fiscal infrastructure, among others.

Second, the identification and appointment of trustees who are just as committed to being on board as they are to being on the board! Too often, it seems that many HBCU boards are comprised of people who are quick to point out how the institution should go about the business of raising money, but they are not vested enough in the mission of the institution to support it financially. In other words, there is a major gap between their advice and their financial contributions. Even more concerning is the fact that most HBCU trustees are not associated with a network of wealthy individuals who possess the capacity or the inclination to make large gifts.

Third, the foremost important factor in increasing student academic success entails raising expectations and holding ourselves accountable for meeting them. As I have noted throughout my tenure in higher education, at PWIs and HBCUs, administrators must be held accountable for leading rather than simply presiding; faculty should be held accountable for teaching students, not just content; and, students must be held accountable for learning, rather than simply showing up for classes and expecting faculty to perform miracles. In a word, we must raise expectations at all levels rather than regaling in our historic legacy. HBCUs must be energized by their legacy rather than constrained by it.

Fourth, but no less important, HBCUs must enter into substantive, reciprocal academic and research partnerships with majority institutions, corporations and foundations, along with state and federal agencies. There are simply too many people who view MSIs in general, and HBCUs in particular, as relics of the past incapable of producing graduates who are prepared to compete in graduate and professional school or in the world of work. Of course, we know that most HBCUs do much better than predicted when the profile of the students served and the resources available are adequately considered.

It is my hope that CMSI will be a vehicle for fomenting a substantive and factual conversation about the significance of HBCUs, not only for America, but for the world, with respect to expanding the intellectual capital pool.