By Trying to Save HBCUs, We All Are Slowly Killing Them

The National Football Foundation this week announced its 2016 class of inductees into the Hampshire Society, a honors collective that makes a life member out of every senior football player from every level of college football who has maintained a 3.2 cumulative grad point average through their career. To join this honorable group, which this year welcomed a record 875 players, schools only need to submit transcripts, and proof that a player starts or is a significant contributor on his team.

This year, historically black colleges in the MEAC, SWAC, CIAA, SIAC, NAIA and Independent leagues had no players named to the society – down from three players on last year’s list of honorees.

Averages dictate that several, if not dozens, of HBCU football players nationwide carried GPAs at or above a 3.2. But the same averages dictate that sports information directors and media staff at those same schools either did not respond to the solicitations from the NFF for nominees, or the office didn’t get them because of turnover.

And in either case, an opportunity for HBCUs to attract media and support for high-achieving students is lost; washed out against a backdrop continuing narratives about struggle and dwindling relevance at our schools.

This idea is affirmed in yesterday’s edition of the Washington Post, which in a lengthy assembly of heartbreaking student anecdotes, financial data, administrative response and eulogizing of triumphs earned decades ago, asks if Howard University, and other HBCUs, are nearing the end of their usefulness.

To read the accounts of students dreams deferred by tuition non-payment, and alumni optimism dashed by continuing struggles to exorcise the demons of the ‘A’ building, the not so subtle message is that the most well-known and well-resourced HBCU in the world is struggling, and therefore, the idea of ‘HBCU’ must be entering the twilight of its impact on industrial and racial development in the United States.

That concept clashes with the personal experiences of millions of faculty, students, staff and leaders who know that black families and communities across the country simply don’t exist without HBCUs – there is no advanced education, no middle class, no history of black progress without them.

Acknowledging the threats of racism, predatory politics and cultural shortcomings in leadership and alumni support seems to be more than just a legitimate explanation for HBCU underdevelopment. We tend to look at the lack of funding, the administrative lapses and media bias against HBCUs as one of the anticipated rites in our struggled-burdened existence; we expect harassment from police, discrimination in jobs, negative depictions in media, to be followed in stores and for our colleges to constantly be on the verge of closure.

We are nothing without our struggles; we prove it through our self-criticism, our crisis response, and sometimes, with no response at all to preserve our collectively sadistic comfort with saving HBCUs instead of growing them.

There are multiple levels to the psychology of black survival vs. black salvation, but institutionally, its a prospect we can no longer afford to feed with our social capital, our finances, or political power. Much of our approach to HBCUs is shaped through our global view of higher education, forged through the lens of predominantly white Ivy League and state supported models of  philanthropy and academic development.

These models survive on thousands of affluent alumni using privilege in legislature, business, media and community to build economy through athletics, research, land acquisition and retail development. White people and white schools, regardless of geography or who sits in office as president, senator, governor or mayor, can do that because they solely play by rules of profitability, defined by the simple equation of enough white middle aged men holding enough power and maintaining enough relationships to keep women and minorities out of the inner circle of influence.

So the goal for back folks, and therefore HBCUs, becomes a question of how we simultaneously work to infiltrate and break apart the white male Sanctum Santorum, while creating our own inner circles of wealth and support. Many of us talk about doing it, but a frightening majority of us are more confident in showing off our expertise of how the system is stacked against us, and not doing the work to game the system in our favor, or to create a new system altogether.

Racial and political disadvantage for black people turns into mathematical disadvantage for HBCUs; we don’t have enough students, we don’t have enough graduates, the graduates we do have don’t make enough money and don’t hold enough clout white and black lawmakers, white and black corporate leaders, and white and black community leaders.

Knowing the sad reality of our numbers, our leaders and key influencers still remain stubborn enough desperately emulate the PWI models of higher education business development. We try and fail, and because we constantly compare what we try to do to what larger, richer, whiter colleges have done, the perceived failures lead to catastrophic levels of discontent, disconnection and disengagement from all of our stakeholders.

Our students see crumbling buildings, lack of technology, rude employees and believe that our leaders refuse to improve campus conditions for their most important customers. And so to save the HBCU, they take to the yard, to local media and to social media to protest conditions and to warn future students that the HBCU ain’t as family oriented as we make it out to be. They are never taught, or engaged to talk with administration about the realities of tuition revenue breakdowns, budget allocation or debt servicing.

They are spurred to save the HBCU by doing what young people do best; getting together and making a lot of noise to raise awareness about an issue.

Our administrators see a lack of students enrolled, so to save the HBCU they seek to add hordes of students, regardless of readiness and fit, instead of strategically recruiting students who are mostly likely to enroll, enjoy, graduate and send others for the same experience. And when retention rates plummet, crime increases and campus morale and school spirit are diminished, they are spurred to do what HBCU leaders do best; hire more executive staff to analyze and fix the problem, without a full understanding of what resources are necessary to fix it permanently.

Alumni see a lack of marketing and brand recognition for the school they love, so they go out and help to recruit and bring students to the university. And they are largely successful, but when the ask is made for giving, volunteerism and political support, we assume that the money we gave and the service we offered weren’t utilized effectively the first time, or else the school wouldn’t again be making such a request.

So to save the HBCU, most of us give in limited amounts, insist to be heard and for our ideas to be implemented, because we’re not altogether sure that a school regularly making the news for mishaps and controversy is worth our investment unless our advice comes with it.

Board members see budget sheets covered in red, enrollment numbers dropping, and think that the problem begins with ineffective presidents whom they hired. So to save the HBCU, they cut deals with opportunistic politicians, conspire to keep poor officials paid well and in charge, hoping that they can right the situation before anyone finds out just how bad the money and the impression of the school really is within corporate and executive spheres of influence.

With everyone doing so much saving, you would think HBCUs would be as operationally efficient and as popular among Black Americans that they would burst at the seams with students begging to enter the gates. But the thing about salvation is that to receive it, someone or something has to be in imminent danger, and typically is violently thrashing and gasping to get to their next breath or to take their next step.

And in this age of social media and desensitized humanity, people fighting to stay alive or to save a life tends to draw a crowd – eager to put the graphic scene on the Internet for everyone to see.

So when we miss opportunities to showcase what’s right about our student athletes, or create opportunities for everyone to see how HBCUs can’t help kids to afford school or how they can’t get WiFi on campus, we put everyone into salvation mode. We never get a chance to grow because everybody is concentrated on saving the idea of an HBCU, instead of enriching the quality of the same.

Saving a life only preserves it temporarily. Life is sustained not by emergency measure, but by way of sustained care and support; even when the life is rejecting quality care because it has only known life in the worst conditions.

So what do we want most? To grow HBCUs, or simply to save them over and over?

3 comments
  1. This piece was scattered and the logic behind it seemed to come and go. The very last point of shifting the mindset around HBCUs from “saving” to “growing” is valid, but the author didn’t capture the argument well.

    Someone should take the same idea and frame it better.

    1. I’m sorry you didnt enjoy it. I’m happy to post your reponse, or to read your take here in comments. Thank you so much!

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