Is ‘Concerned at Howard University’ Letter a Red Alert for the HBCU Community?

Four years ago, a Howard University trustee rocked the national HBCU community with a letter detailing her concerns that the school could be on the verge of closure if it did not address pressing issues with its finances and culture. Last week, a new letter surfaced with anonymous authors and many of the same concerns outlined by Renee Higginbotham-Brooks in 2013.

Among the volume of grievances in the 16-page document addressed to several members of local and national media  – the university’s lack of a strategic plan, charges of hostile working relationships with students and faculty, and a lack of transparency about the university’s financial status and asset management.

Most of us know what it feels like to be driven to ‘destroy and rebuild’ tactics. Students feel it in the form of rude and unresponsive staff and administrators, poor quality in technology, accommodations, and services. Faculty feels it in the form of low wages, overloaded classrooms and departmental politics.

Presidents feel it in the form of antagonistic, immovable and interest-driven boards. Boards feel it in the form of elected officials applying pressure for political favor or balance sheets indicating a doomsday outlook affecting thousands of lives.

Howard is an organization with people and perspectives like any other school. It faces challenges in finance and management like every other institution, magnified by its assets, the depth of its programming, the shine of its alumni and history and the spotlight of its geography and the media which surround it.  That means that Howard stakeholders are just as prone to going DEFCON 1 on their issues as folks at Huston-Tillotson University would go on their own.

But there’s a reason why we call Howard ‘The Mecca,’ and it ain’t because the school is like any other anywhere else. And that’s why this latest round of trouble at HU is particularly painful; because it shows a real set of issues troubling the foundation of Black America’s greatest symbol of humanity and citizenship.

If the place that we look to as the hub of black brilliance, culture, exploration and agitation is in bad shape, and its caretakers are willing to buck the timeless black tradition of hiding our dirty laundry to preserve it, what do we make of the totality of HBCU culture?

In the last month, HBCU engagement with the White House has been at an all-time high under a POTUS not named Barack Obama, Morehouse College forgot how to fire a president, and North Carolina Central University, our current HBCU of the Year, is working hard to reduce athletic spending in a year in which football and basketball won conference championships and appeared in postseason games.

Shaw University tries to put a police substation on campus to foster more protection and professional pathways for students, and the community cries foul and predicts police shootings on campus. Stakeholders at Kentucky State University willingly wanted to avoid a presidential search, in a state where the governor twice removed an entire board of trustees at one of its largest predominantly white institutions, all in the name of political positioning.

Fisk University was supposed to name a president weeks ago. Maryland refuses to settle with its HBCUs for maintaining an illegal dual system of higher education for black and white students. And all of those examples represent just 10 percent of HBCUs nationwide.

This is why we’re willing to go nuclear.  Those of us who read data, talk to students, lament with alumni and see the writing on the wall understand that too many of our schools are 1-3 years away from undignified oblivion without serious reform in academic development, enrollment management, athletics, and fundraising.

There are bright spots among several of our public and private institutions, but in the true Black America tradition, we only consider our culture as strong as our weakest schools; and the weakest among us are on the verge of closure. For every great president we have dawning in their ability to push HBCU culture to a new level of capacity and efficiency, we have three presidents on the verge of retirement or being fired, and 10 aspirational leaders reconsidering if there is any hope for the culture.

For every history-making headline our schools can generate, there are 100 families with black students who will not attend HBCUs next fall, drawing our most vulnerable institutions closer to collapse beneath payroll, retirement benefits, and debt. For every meeting that black lawmakers plan with federal or state elected officials in the name of HBCU support, there are 20 issues on campus they ignore in the name of ‘maintaining the peace’ or ‘not looking bad,’ which will damage their long-term advocacy impact.

Nothing about this culture suggests sustainability or increasing value in our mission because we are divergent in every angle we take for solutions. Publicly embarrassing our ineffective leaders and practices are not the answer, but neither is silence.

We want shared governance but want to blame one man for institutional failures or one woman two years earlier than that. Experience in our highest offices isn’t adaptable to 21st-century practices for higher ed, but youth aren’t respectful or insightful enough to understand the ways in which tradition undergirds our survival.

We need quality in our student body but are mission mandated to offer open access. We need diversity yet still struggle to embrace LGBT brothers and sisters. HBCUs are the most talked about sector in all of higher education among black voters and white politicians, but the pop cultural representations of our schools – ‘The Quad’ and ‘Burning Sands,’ a show and a movie about the worst elements of our human experiences, which just happen to play out at HBCUs.

That’s why we go nuclear. Because if the choice is killing this wayward culture or killing our own spirits for believing in and defending it, then the culture is just going to have to take a bullet.

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