Drexel is Trying to Save HBCUs. So How Many Presidents Are Crazy Enough to Accept The Invitation?

Drexel University is extending invitations for an inaugural symposium on HBCU leadership, which organizers say could be a catalyst for “sustained dialogue about the issues facing your institutions and indeed the nation’s higher education community as a whole.”

From an email being distributed to HBCU presidents and chancellors:

The symposium will focus on student success, student outcomes, and research and innovation at HBCU’s. The dialogue will also include an examination of those challenges and opportunities facing you as Presidents who are charged with positioning your schools for the future. You represent colleges and universities which have historically served as access portals for a diverse set of first-generation students. The challenge for you as Presidents, along with ourselves and our colleagues will be to effectively and surgically position your schools to attract and serve the students of tomorrow.

There has to be something in the water in Philadelphia, and it can’t be lingering sympathy borne out of Quaker abolitionist movements or pride in the city’s Underground Railroad stops.

But there has to be someone or something sending the signal to people and institutions in the city that there is big money, exposure, and opportunity in working with poor, incapable HBCUs. Dr. Marybeth Gasman is the originator of this movement, who for years has earned international coverage in media and millions from grants, contracts and consulting fees from sympathetic foundations and HBCUs themselves, searching for white perspective on black institutional plight.

Of course, her millions earned from racial and financial safe space at the University of Pennsylvania haven’t translated into millions for the institutions at which she has feigned scholarship and service, but ain’t that America? And now, Drexel appears to be working to get in on the action.

It is easy to break down the ways in which HBCU outreach works for Ivy League and private white institutions – promotion of diversity and the “we’re all in this together” liberal approach to higher education, establishing pipelines for black faculty and graduate student talent to consider these schools for work and credentialing, and of course, public and private funding which could come in the form of research grants through established relationships with black institutional partners.

In many ways, HBCUs should be looking for these opportunities to help their communities and students. We ought not to kid ourselves by believing that the HBCU brand is powerful enough to suddenly stamp out racist attitudes and industrial realities in higher education, to suddenly make our campuses more beautiful, more competitive, and with more capacity to serve our communities. By all means, we should look for every opportunity to gain ground in the fight for comparability, even if it means partnerships with dramatically different institutional peers.

But it doesn’t mean that HBCUs or PWIs can’t call it exactly what it is – an agreement to fortify short and long-term financial goals. Black colleges want access to grants, high-achieving students and exposure we might not otherwise get without PWI partnership. PWIs want access to the same from underserved minority communities in which they may not otherwise be aware or authentic enough to recruit.

If we can take the bold step of properly labeling this relationship, the first need is for both sides to openly admit that PWIs and their agents have virtually no interest in HBCU development beyond financial gain and social easement. There is no more Freedmen’s Bureau – if there were, and it was stationed at friendly PWIs all over the country, HBCUs would not be facing crises in enrollment, leadership and financing.

If rich white guys in government and industry cared about black colleges, black colleges would not be dying. What they care about is using black colleges as an entry into untapped consumer bases – and that’s okay; as long as we know and are comfortable calling it exactly what it is.

But instead, we get UPenn, Drexel and other organizations implementing a covert, higher education version of post-Katrina property investment on black colleges. Now that the storm is nearly passed and dozens of black campuses are on the brink of closure, PWIs are looking to gain exposure and confidence from storm battered schools and people looking for any semblance of a miracle.

In New Orleans, this turned into non-natives buying millions in property for pennies on the dollar, getting investments from federal and private resources to rebuild the city, and doubling their investments once tourism and industry returned to the city. The same thing is happening with HBCUs, except its not buildings or land that PWIs are buying up; its public faith and black talent which could be better served at stronger HBCU campuses instead of those languishing under a changed economy and social structure.

What is worse – it is the HBCU community which legitimizes this poaching. Our administrative and faculty leaders pay for and travel to these conferences fully aware that we will hear nothing which aligns with our financial, personnel and political realities back home. We hire predominately white search firms to find our presidents, marketing firms to recruit our students, and rely upon white institutions and consultants to tell us how to operate more with greater efficiency, as if survival in the face of direct opposition isn’t the greatest display of the same.

Conversation from people with resources is like clanging symbols to those without them; yes, maybe we can strain or strive to hear music, but ultimately, there is no symphony of hope for us even when played by an orchestra of prosperity.

Too many of our leaders annual attend conferences with too few black faces and voices, too few topics on our most pressing concerns, and for too much money. And on top of it, when we create our own conversations, we discount them as useless because we believe there’s nothing to learn from each other, or because interpersonal disagreements won’t allow us to publicly support our own causes.

So, some of us will travel to Drexel in search of answers we already have delivered by people with ulterior business-building motives, disguised as a much-needed national conversation that is far less valuable than the money and students we actually need.

Maybe it will work out this time. Here’s hoping that more of our presidents actually know better.

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