11/26/2012 02:28 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

Beyond the Rhetoric: Diversity Matters

Recently, my colleague Marybeth Gasman, professor of higher education, graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania, penned an insightful article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, about the importance of HBCUs embracing diversity. As a three-time university CEO, with an unswerving commitment to diversity, I concur with many of the points articulated by Gasman.

Upon enrolling at Arkansas A. M. & N. College in 1965, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, that was my only choice among Arkansas' public colleges and universities. However, by the time my son began his college search in 1997 his choices were limitless and he chose the University of Michigan for undergraduate studies and law school. While, there was an undeniable part of me that wanted him to attend an HBCU, I respected and supported his decision to do otherwise. After all, the Civil Rights movement of which his mom and I were an integral part, was about the opportunity to attend the school of one's choice, to live where one wished to live and to enjoy the fruits of American Democracy. Ironically, the writing of this blog posting was interrupted by a telephone call from my son, a United Nations employee, whose work is reflective of the best of what diversity has to offer.

Having recently, retired as chancellor of a historically black university, and having worked assiduously to diversify the institution, I am convinced that the failure to diversify the enrollment of HBCUs will, in all probability, lead to the demise of a selected number of of these universities. It is a demographic reality that as the white population declines, and the minority population increases, there will be increased competition for students.

To diversify their enrollment, HBCUs must deal with at least five key issues. First, university leaders, boards of trustees and alumni must divest themselves of the notion that diversifying the enrollment compromises the institution's ability to fulfill its mission and to retain control.

Second, HBCUs must embrace diversity and the recruitment of non-Black populations with the same passion and resolve of the more successful predominately white colleges and universities (PWIs). Beyond being a smart enrollment management issue, diversity is as much a compelling educational issue for HBCUs as it is for PWIs. The global work space that HBCU graduates will increasingly inhabit is less likely to be defined by race. The members of my son's work group speak several languages, are culturally sophisticated and do not view issues through the racial lenses of my generation.

Third, HBCUs must create, nurture and sustain a cultural climate in which all members of the university community are valued, celebrated and appreciated. The language used by administrators, faculty, staff and students must be inclusive and respectful of the value and presence of people from all cultures. Simply put, respecting ones historical heritage as an HBCU is not inconsistent with an institution's commitment to serve a broader spectrum of students without regard to ethnicity.

Fourth, to the extent that HBCUs offer quality services and excellent academic programs -- characterized by a culture of caring -- they will succeed in attracting some of the best prepared students across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, geography and soci-economic status. I had the opportunity to witness this reality first-hand during my tenure as chancellor at North Carolina Central University. Unfortunately, not everyone shared my views about diversity and even wondered out loud, "Why are there so many white students at the university?" Of course, this provided me with a great teaching moment!

Finally, beyond embracing diversity because it is the right thing to do, HBCUs must embrace diversity if they want to remain relevant and responsive in a contemporary society. Diversity is a value and a virtue to be sure; but it is also a necessity.