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Charlie Nelms, Ed.D. Headshot

Can HBCUs Be Saved?

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As I waited for my flight at DC National Airport on a recent afternoon, a message from a long-time friend and colleague popped up on my cell phone. The message subject was in the form of a question, "Can HBCUs be Saved?" My friend is a career university administrator at a large public research university who holds degrees from a top ranked Ivy League university. Except for a year-long leave in 2005 to work at a public HBCU, he has not had any experience with this sector of higher education. For as long as I can recall, however, he has been intrigued by HBCUs and has engaged me in a vigorous dialogue about the relevance of these institutions and whether I thought they would survive. I replied immediately to my friend that HBCUs had to save themselves; an outside force could not do so. On the 90-minute flight home, I penned the following reply to my friend, whose name I have changed to protect his privacy.

"Dear William, as an HBCU graduate and former Chancellor of the oldest, public liberal arts HBCU, I am convinced that this sector of the academy continues to be relevant and responsive to a population of Americans that many predominately white colleges and universities do not consider college material, including your alma mater. This summer while on vacation in NYC, I had breakfast with a young man who entered my former institution, North Carolina Central University, as an average student but graduated with honors, and landed a job on Wall Street, prepared to compete with the best and brightest college graduates from elite universities. Far from what you might be thinking, the graduate of whom I speak is not an aberration. Each year thousands of young men and women who are non-predictors graduate from HBCUs and go on to careers in virtually every discipline. William, HBCUs must do more than simply be saved. For the sake of the people they serve, and America's well-being, they must thrive. To do so, HBCUs must do the following ten things immediately.

1. Identify and retain the services of transformational leaders who are committed to the HBCU mission and who can lead from day one. There is no time for OJT;

2. Refine and communicate with increased clarity and effectiveness their value proposition;

3. Actively engage alumni in friend-raising and fundraising activities throughout the year, not just at Homecoming;

4. Utilize technology as a tool to facilitate process improvements across the institution;

5. Shift from asking alumni and others to donate money to asking them to invest in the institution's mission and leader's vision;

6. Improve the quality of services delivered to students and other constituents, anything less should be unacceptable and not tolerated;

7. Promote internal and external collaboration;

8. Upgrade the curriculum to include programs that respond to student interests and market needs. Eliminate all default majors;

9. Move expeditiously to diversify the student profile to include White and Hispanic students just as predominately white institutions have diversified their student body;

10. Embrace change. Change is the only constant there is and unless HBCUs embrace change, willingly and expeditiously, they will be left behind".

Just as I typed my last item, the Flight Attendant requested that passengers turn off all forms of technology and prepare for landing. While I complied, the question, "Can HBCUs Be Saved", continued to be at the forefront of my consciousness. In fact, it is a question that I have asked myself repeatedly over the past decade or so. I have concluded that some will thrive, some will survive and some will close. Those that thrive will be flexible, adaptable and responsive to the needs of students.