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Charlie Nelms, Ed.D. Headshot

Thinking Beyond the Box

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Those of us who are staunch advocates of HBCUs must not allow our support to impede a critical, yet objective analysis of what these institutions must do to become more competitive and responsive. If we are truly concerned about the long-term sustainability of the HBCU sector we must be willing to advance an array of recommendations that some may consider detrimental to the future of selected individual institutions. After all, the circumstances facing HBCUs are not universal and are as varied as the institutions themselves. Below are six recommendations from my perspective, as an HBCU alumnus, philanthropist and retired chancellor, that will strengthen HBCUs overall.

Recommendation # 1

HBCU leaders should convene a National Summit with representatives from all facets of the sector: public, private, two and four year institutions as well as those that are religiously affiliated. The goals of the Summit would be to have a thorough, objective and honest dialogue about the status of the HBCU sector and what must be done collectively to increase quality, competitiveness and sustainability. Trustees, faculty, alumni and students should be permitted to take an active role in these deliberations. Recommendations that emanate from the summit should guide future directions of the sector.

Recommendation # 2

The time has come for the leaders and supporters of HBCUs alike to seriously consider the closure or merger of institutions that are struggling to stay afloat. The challenges facing these institutions are such that they cannot deliver the quality of education that students deserve and they do a disservice to the HBCU sector overall. Decisions about which institutions to close should be made on the basis of a Viability Index consisting of such factors as leadership stability, enrollment, accreditation status, fiscal solvency, retention and graduation rates, job and graduate school placement rates, deferred maintenance and fundraising success, among other factors.

Recommendation # 3

HBCUs must do a more effective job of marketing their programs and services using traditional means as well as social media tools. Equally as important, the sector must actively engage successful, high profile graduates in helping to communicate their value proposition in a contemporary society. While the historic legacy of HBCUs is important, it has less significance to those who grew up in an era less defined by race and ethnicity.

Recommendation # 4

HBCUs should consider defining themselves less as HBCUs and more as high quality, comprehensive institutions responsive to the educational interests and needs of all students irrespective of race, ethnicity or gender. This is not to suggest that HBCUs should disavow their heritage. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that for many prospective students historic legacy is not an issue, while for others it may imply that the institution is only interested in black students. HBCUs must become more shrewd in communicating their value proposition in non-ethnic terms.

Recommendation # 5

Athletics is the only area for competition between HBCUs. The need and opportunity for institutional collaboration within this sector is greater than ever before. From basic and applied research to community engagement, collaborative opportunities abound at HBCUs. Each year the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and Cancer, Departments of Energy, Commerce, Defense and Agriculture, among other agencies, award mega research grants to colleges and universities around the country. Currently, few of these grants are awarded to HBCUs. However, by working together the potential of changing those odds are noteworthy.

Recommendation # 6

While there are numerous challenges and opportunities facing HBCUs, there is no greater opportunity or need than to identify and nurture the next generation of HBCUs leaders. It is beyond the time for HBCUs to retain the services of men and women from all sectors of society to serve as chief executive officers of HBCUs.

Finally, as an ardent and unapologetic supporter of HBCUs I am clear about two things. First, HBCUs are a critical component of the higher education enterprise. Second, the only legitimate case that can be made for the support of HBCUs is the extent to which they add value to the higher education generally and to individuals specifically. While the historical legacy of HBCUs is important, it is not sufficient to sustain them now or in the years ahead. It is time for a serious and thorough dialogue about the future of the 105 institutions known as HBCUs.