Black America was all in for HBCUs in 2015.
Corporations like AARP, Apple and others gave millions to HBCUs. ESPN created and broadcast a bowl game to enhance HBCU football exposure and financial opportunity, when there was minimal financial incentive to do so given its lock on NCAA postseason football. And behind many of these deals were HBCU alumni and black non-HBCU alums who care deeply about the future of these schools.
Alumni gave to HBCUs in record numbers at several campuses. They took the issue of separate but equal treatment of HBCUs to federal courts. They marched when politicians tried to close schools, wrote letters to local papers and commented on websites, lobbied local and federal government to make policy more conducive to HBCU sustainability, and through social media, email and word of mouth, shared the good news about the things HBCUs got right throughout the year.
Students created a national dialogue on the cultural and academic value of HBCUs during a time of racial animus on college campuses across the country. They endured social media ridicule and editorial criticism in several major online and traditional media outlets, for loudly and proudly saying what most of us have always believed: “there’s no reason to suffer the indignity of racism when historically black colleges are, and have always been here for us.”
So in 2016, we can only hope for HBCUs and the people who run them, to return the favor. A return to business, and frustration, as usual will mean that our leaders missed the major point about why all of this support happened in the first place. In spite of what the media portrays, what is quantified by data and statistics, and what politics tries to shape, millions of black folks want HBCUs to stick around. And they are willing to do anything they can to make it happen.
The number one question for the new year – for those HBCUs struggling to attract and keep students, flailing to raise money and sinking in political quicksand; are they willing to do whatever it takes to return the favor? And for the HBCUs in better positions for finance and image, can we expect more innovation in performance and awareness building?
Here are five resolutions for HBCUs large and small in 2016.
1. HBCU boards must get training on how to run a school. Regents, trustees and visitors must humble themselves enough to go and receive training and education on how to run an HBCU which lacks financial, personnel and marketing resources. They have to go and learn about the role of a trustee, the role of a president, and how to balance ego and expectations within the definitions of those roles. They have to learn the difference between policy setting and operational management, and the legal and political danger of using their positions to curry favors, gain political allies and manipulate dollars for selfish agendas.
Truthfully, public and private HBCUs are too small and too cash-strapped for corruption and ego to actually work in the short or long-term, especially against antagonistic media and state legislators who want nothing more than to expose HBCUs for wrongdoing through excessive inquiry. The quicker that trustees learn these lessons, the better off schools will be in creating sound leadership structure from the top down.
2. Presidents and chancellors must become concerned about the little things. Presidents and chancellors tend to worry about big issues like fundraising, academic expansion, budget performance and legislative lobbying. But if these campus leaders don’t begin to put their hands on known campus issues like public safety, technology deficits and customer service issues in areas like financial aid, food service and business auxiliary, all of the marketing and charisma in the world won’t save their schools from students chronicling bad interactions and campus conditions on Twitter and Instagram.
Presidents must take more seriously issues which directly impact students on a daily basis. That means that they must take a personal stake in knowing details like shift command strategy for campus police, the quality and presentation of food and food service personnel, and the quality of living and learning areas. These are areas where presidents (or vice-president proxies) should be proactively seeking kinks and problems, mainly because students on campus are sharing their experiences in these problem areas with potential students and families – groups intimately linked to tuition and future donation revenue streams. If campus leaders are too good to know what works and doesn’t work for their customers, then they shouldn’t be paid to lead campuses.
Ignoring issues, or discounting them as students being immature and pampered only serves to cut short professional longevity in the short term, and stakeholder faith in the long term.
3. HBCUs must learn to respect, support the media. HBCU leaders who criticize or ignore the media make a grave mistake in doing so, because reporters and editors are skilled professionals at making the best or worst of a campus, look better or worse than it really is. The more HBCUs distance themselves from advertising with local news stations, newspapers, magazines and websites read by stakeholders, the more they reduce their own leverage in getting out the stories that need to be told, finding allies in shaping the stories they never wanted to get out in the first place, and shaping the opinions of those who support these institutions.
The relationships you make with reporters and writers today is the free media you earn tomorrow through news coverage. And the stories you send out to local affiliates today about how HBCUs change lives and communities will be tomorrow’s national features on major network news broadcasts and widely-read publications and websites. But it all begins with a willingness to spend money and time in building rapport with the gatekeepers of public information.
4. Outlaw boredom on campus. Every HBCU has clubs and activities. But if you aren’t allowing activities during peak times when 18-22 year olds aren’t studying or want to be out of their rooms, you’re doing those students, and your campus, a disservice. There is an expectation of HBCU campus life that includes partying, game day experiences and traditions for football and basketball season, Greek life, lecture series, professional development and exposure to political discourse and dialog. If you aren’t meeting these expectations, or fail to make students aware of the opportunities they do have, at best you wind up with a dissatisfied student who becomes a disenchanted graduate. At worst, you may wind up with a student who uses drugs, sex or other dangerous activities to fill the void.
5. Stay in constant contact with alumni. At all costs and in all ways, communicate with alumni. Do not rely on newsletters and the school website to keep alumni informed about what is happening with the school. Trustees and presidents should value meeting and talking with alumni to help them understand leadership decisions, financial needs and legislative issues which may impact the campuses. Alumni should never hear stories about enrollment, accreditation, funding, athletics, or leadership strategy in the news – they should always hear it first, and honestly, from campus leaders. And they should be told about how they can help to improve or change situations which can positively or negatively impact their alma maters.
Attending to and eliminating the small problem areas on campus can help HBCUs to restore faith and build confidence in their stakeholders. These advocates did a lot for their schools this year. In 2016, leaders and executives should be about the business of rewarding them for their hard work and loyalty.