Advocating for HBCUs

03/04/2015 11:05 am ET | Updated May 02, 2015

Several blog postings ago, I promised to share my thoughts about what I believe HBCU alumni can do to support their alma mater. As we enter 2015, a year filled with unlimited possibilities, today seems like an excellent time to discuss how we can support in a more comprehensive manner the institutions that helped make many black baby boomers successful professionals in literally every field of endeavor. Now is the time to wipe clean the slate of missed opportunities and good intentions and to focus on what we will do to elevate HBCUs to a higher place on our 2015 to do list. If the national media coverage about the uncertain future of South Carolina State University isn't enough to get the attention of HBCU graduates, I am not sure what will.

Through my extensive HBCU advocacy and consulting activities in 2014, I became even more convinced that advocacy is one of the most important, yet unexploited, ways for HBCU graduates to assist their alma mater. To be effective, however, alumni advocacy must be informed and strategically focused. Advocates must be able to communicate in clear and compelling ways the contemporary value proposition of their alma mater, not a 1950s or 1960s version of the institution's significance in an era when separate but equal was the law of the land. In my experience, not many higher education coordinating boards, commissioners, state legislators, foundation or corporate officials are sympathetic to the argument, however true, that the cumulative effects of historic under-funding stymied the development of HBCUs and created today's competitively disadvantaged playing field. Many such individuals, as well as the parents of prospective students, see HBCUs as anachronistic relics of the past.

Being an informed HBCU advocate requires knowing today's value-added dimension of ones alma mater and being able to articulate why its vitality matters. Survival is not enough; HBCUs must be relevant, responsive and competitive institutions that actively seek to attract students from all racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. To ensure that alumni convey with accuracy and passion a coherent message through their advocacy efforts, HBCU leaders must provide them with the requisite talking points on the one hand, and be prepared to provide detailed information as the need arises, on the other. If inaccurate or outdated information is provided, alumni advocates can cause more harm than they do good in garnering institutional support. Speaking from my experience as a three-time chancellor, and as an alumnus of three different institutions, I can assert with a fair amount of confidence that most universities do not do a particularly effective job of keeping students, faculty, staff, community, corporate leaders or alumni in the loop when it comes to critical issues facing the institution. Too often it seems that alumni are forced to rely on media sound bites, short newspaper articles or the "grapevine" for university updates. Too often it is not until issues reach a crisis level that campus leaders reach out to key stakeholders.

Second only to the need for HBCU advocates to be informed, it is essential that their advocacy is focused on a specific issue or issues. Further, once a compelling message is crafted, with the guidance of university leaders, it is essential that all advocates receive training before commencing any formal advocacy activities. It is equally important that effective feedback mechanisms be put in place to allow follow up by the university if necessary. Given the economic impact of most HBCUs on the community in which they are located, university leaders should not hesitate to tap local business executives, elected and civic leaders, chamber of commerce officials as well as students to advocate on behalf of the university. During my chancellorship at two PWIs and vice president of a large public research university, I found that alumni advocacy worked effectively. In fact, more than anything else, it was the implementation of a comprehensive advocacy strategy that led to increases in state and private funding for new facilities, equipment and academic programs.

As I reflect on the state of Affairs at South Carolina State University, I believe there are four things alumni and others who care about the institution can do to support it. First, advocate on behalf of the institution in the halls of the state legislature. Second, encourage college-ready prospective students to apply and enroll. Third, contribute funds for student scholarships and financial aid. Fourth, share their professional expertise with the university as it seeks to implement state of the art business processes and practices to ensure compliance with the various state, federal and accreditation standards.

Finally, advocacy alone has limited value. Institutions must be led by competent executives and they must produce graduates with a credential that has value in the market place. HBCUs do not deserve support just because of their existence; they deserve the support of their alumni because of what they have done, are doing and are capable of doing.