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Flair for the Dramatic Is Necessity for HBCU Development

02/25/2015 03:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

In the span of five years, Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas has cut its football team, transformed its football field into an organic farm, thrown out a significant percentage of its student population, stopped serving pork, became a work college, and is soon to offer all of its students free, open source textbooks. 

That's not just because PQC President Michael Sorrell feels like being the most interesting man in higher education; it's because that is what the school has had to do to keep its doors open, its services accessible to students, and to grow as an institution in the eyes of prospective students, donors and the higher ed community at large. 

Quinnites like to refer to their culture of living and learning as 'disruptive,' but they aren't the only ones to have found revitalization in out-of-the-box thinking and acting. Hampton University built the world's largest proton therapy cancer treatment center. Spelman College cut athletics. Alcorn State University hired a white football coach. Saint Augustine's College evolved into a university and tried to buy a failing HBCU to save it from closure. Howard University invited Diddy to be its commencement speaker.

These are acts of strategic dramatization; the kind of acts that get you attention in national media outlets, demand quizzical looks from alumni and community supporters, and most of all, gets the attention of donors. It's great that some HBCU leaders are willing to push the envelope of HBCU tradition and business practice completely off of the table, and to kick it out of the boardroom in front of confused, and sometimes irate, trustees and alumni. 

But its also a sad indictment that these schools which have demonstrated their mettle and merit for the better part of 150 years, must resort to dramatic, overwhelming action just to do business in 2015. After generations of success, birthing the black middle class, and helping to strengthen the nation's global stranglehold on several industries, the colleges responsible for all of that growth must do things that are out of the typical norm of higher education business plans and structures. 

If predominantly white colleges want to break the mold on something, they can buy a new state-of-the-art scoreboard, make environmental preservation standards a campus-wide initiative, or their president can become a Twitter celebrity. They have enough support from state and federal governments that business as usual is good enough, with some minor tweaks like admitting more students of color, or trying to rid the campus of rampant sexual assault, drunkenness, or academic fraud

When HBCU leaders decide that they want to break the mold, they have to go so far beyond the norm, that its almost appears like a stunt. But its not a stunt; it truly is what must be done for a campus to gain a foothold in changing public perceptions and attracting more resources. 

And its done to confront the ugliest of truths about our country's neglect of HBCUs. Perhaps if South Carolina State University had done something dramatic like dropping to Division II in athletics, the state would not have threatened it into predictable, continuing accreditation trouble, or potential revocation. The state would've seen the move as a 'cost saving plan,' and perhaps, would've called off the legislative dogs from the school's front porch. 

Nevermind that South Carolina has harshly cut funding to SCSU for nearly a decade, and along the way, has refused to participate in a federally mandated program to match funds from the US Department of Agriculture to the land-grant HBCU. 

Some ask, "what are HBCUs doing to advocate for themselves in the halls of state and federal government?" Nothing much can be done when President Barack Obama, who re-authorized an executive order to monitor and support HBCU development, created another executive order under the auspices of African American educational excellence.

That order, while it doesn't directly mention siphoning support and attention away from black colleges as its objective, does a super effective job of doing just that. And it perfectly complements the Obama administration's chronic underfunding, support-slashing treatment of HBCUs. 

Hispanics, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Native Americans all get one initiative. Black folks get two AND My Brother's Keeper. And none of them request or seek the involvement of HBCU leaders or stakeholders as real advisors in these projects. 

And even with bold steps, are HBCUs guaranteed to realize their full potential as gateways to academic and professional excellence? After, most of the elite professors in the country are educated at a handful of schools nationwide. And none of those are historically black -- despite teacher education and preparation being in the original DNA structure of black colleges.

So what is the next big step for HBCUs? For an institution to be named Walmart University? For a historically black law school to represent Suge Knight? To announce twerking as a concentration within an HBCU dance baccalaureate degree program? How hard do our schools have to go to earn the attention, gifts and adoration of the country, and more specifically, its own graduates? 

Because clearly, educating the nation's poor and black isn't bold enough anymore.