THE BLOG
10/16/2014 07:10 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

An Open Letter to HBCU Graduates

Megan Q Daniels via Getty Images

Dear HBCU graduates,

Although most of us have never met, we share a special bond as graduates of one of America's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). With few exceptions, these are the places that sprouted from sweat-soaked seeds planted by the sons and daughters of former slaves, sharecroppers and subsistence farmers whose belief in the power of education confounded the plans of plantation owners, straw bosses and Southern white politicians. HBCUs were the places that accepted us because they wanted to serve us, not because they were forced to do so or wanted to "diversify" their enrollment. They welcomed us with open arms and did not need to establish black culture centers or persuade faculty and staff to accept or embrace us. HBCUs never characterized us as high-risk or academically or culturally disadvantaged; they chose instead to focus on our assets. Thankfully, we were the reason that HBCUs existed and not a special project on diversity and inclusion. Most of us would agree that our alma mater enveloped us in a culture of caring from which it was nearly impossible to escape. As a consequence, we developed the intellectual, social and leadership skills that allowed us to compete with anyone in the world. All of this HBCUs did with only a fraction of the fiscal resources available to predominately white universities (PWIs).

I am sure you must have read by now that HBCUs are at a major crossroads. Enrollment is declining, in part because of increased competition from PWIs, online universities, proprietary schools and community colleges. In fact, according to the Oct. 9, 2014, edition of Diverse Issues in Higher Education, the University of Phoenix Online Campus is the largest producer of African-American recipients of bachelor's degrees in all disciplines. In addition, leadership and fiscal instability, problems with accreditation and growing discord between presidents and boards of trustees are affecting even the strongest HBCUs. In all fairness, I must note that many of these same challenges afflict PWIs as well. The difference, in my view, is the fact that failure at HBCUs has disproportionate implications for African-American students, families and the communities in which they are located. The failure of HBCUs is not an option; we have too much riding on them to let that happen.

Fellow HBCU graduates, we can and must come to the aid of our institutions while there is still time to make a difference. Fiscal insolvency and the loss of accreditation are two insurmountable challenges from which I have not known any institution, HBCU or PWI, to recover. What follows are some concrete steps we can and must take to support HBCUs.

  1. We must stop complaining about the imperfections of HBCUs and fretting about the few things that didn't go as well as we would have liked when we were students. There are neither perfect schools nor perfect people.
  2. We must be willing to serve as ambassadors for our alma mater by referring prospective students, including our own children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends, to the admissions office. We shouldn't be persuaded solely by the size of a PWI scholarship or its marketing prowess when making a student referral. The ice at PWIs really isn't any colder than it is at an HBCU! In fact, many black students who initially attend PWIs end up graduating from HBCUs.
  3. We must be willing to share with our alma mater our expertise -- without charge. That expertise is just as diverse as the careers that we have, or have had, and can be used to improve curricular offerings, university operations, and marketing and facilitate job placement for graduating students, among other things.
  4. We must be willing to provide access to our vast network of people, programs and services that will allow our alma mater to achieve levels of excellence and responsiveness not otherwise possible. By activating our collective networks, we can do more than imaginable to strengthen HBCUs and enhance their competitiveness. The soul singer Jerry Butler was correct when he proclaimed, "Only the strong survive."
  5. We must be willing to invest our money in the places that produced us, and we must be committed to doing so every month of every year. I never quite understood how HBCU alums expected their alma mater to achieve and sustain excellence without money! Have you ever noticed that there are no poor schools on the U.S. News and World Report's national rankings of excellent schools? Many years ago, to emphasize the importance of investing in what we value, my friend and pastor, the late Dr. Robert Lowery, reminded his parishioners that life is like a bank account: "You can't make a draw unless you make a deposit." Unless we as alums make a deposit (invest), our alma mater cannot offer competitive scholarships, purchase state-of-the-art equipment, hire top professors, or offer study-abroad opportunities for students, among other things.

During the course of my long career in the academy, I made a lot of speeches and listened to even more. There are two comments that I vividly remember from the many speeches I've heard. The first came from the late Dr. Elias Blake, who served as president of Clark College. He opined that HBCUs succeed in educating low-wealth, less-well-prepared students because they provide a psychologically supportive environment. The second comment came from Dr. Patrick Swygert, who served for a decade as president of Howard University. He noted that there is a difference between a graduate of a university and an alumnus. A graduate is one who simply holds a degree from the institution, while an alumnus is one who holds a degree and is invested in the institution's success and well-being. All of us who profess to love our alma mater should ask ourselves, "Am I a graduate or an alumnus?"

In future blog posts, I will discuss in greater detail what HBCU alums can do in each of the five areas referenced above. Meanwhile, we can all demonstrate our support for HBCUs by referring at least three prospective students to our alma mater or another HBCU for 2015 admission. One final piece of advice: Refer students -- without regard to race, sex or sexual orientation -- who are academically prepared and can benefit from the opportunity to study in an environment where caring still matters.