On The Road to HBCU Sustainability, Faculty Members are in the Driver’s Seat

Claudia Rankins is the director for the National Science Foundation’s Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology and HBCU Undergraduate Programs, two initiatives designed to create more diversity and access to some of the most competitive STEM research and career opportunities. 

Earlier this year, she blogged about the dismal statistics of African Americans earning undergraduate degrees in STEM fields and specifically engineering. She profiled the University of the District of Columbia as one example of dozens where HBCUs make the difference in eliminating the disparities in these critical fields. 

But she also went a step further and profiled one of the faculty members helping HBCUs to reach high success rates in graduating black scientists – Dr. Lara Thompson. 

Dr. Thompson’s websites at https://www.udc.edu/seas/seas/department-of-mechanical-engineering/biomedical-engineering/ and  https://larathompsonudc.wixsite.com/mysite reveal more about the research she conducts with high school and undergraduate students. When I talk about diversity to my NSF colleagues and others, I always show the photo (above) of Dr. Thompson’s students in her lab because it illustrates her commitment to diversity and broadening participation in engineering.

Dr. Rankins’ profile is similar to what we’ve tried to do here on the Digest with our HBCU Voices of STEM Excellence series in profiling some of the graduates of esteemed HBCU STEM programs. All of these narratives tell the same story of HBCU excellence, but Dr. Rankins writing is particularly important as it showcases the magic behind the HBCU experience. 

HBCUs create opportunities for students at varying levels of competitiveness to compete with everyone else in the world. We frequently ascribe this magic to the institutions themselves, as if brick and mortar make the difference.

The difference is in the teaching and mentoring, and the exposure that students from both affluent and underrepresented backgrounds and communities can receive in an affordable, supportive environment. 

When families send their children or adults decide to enroll in HBCUs, they aren’t just helping brick and mortar buildings to keep lights on, or historic missions to remain contemporary. They are paying the salaries and benefits of those who have a passion to teach in HBCU labs and classrooms, and specifically to teach students attracted to and in great need of the HBCU educational mission. 

Much in the way that secondary school districts thrive when passionate teachers choose lower-paying positions in difficult environments because the mission of who they serve is part of the compensation package, so it goes with HBCUs. Many of these professors work without grand research budgets, teacher assistants, lab support and other amenities found at larger institutions, but they find fulfillment in the HBCU mission; so much so that they are willing to adjust their financial and personal lives around the resources which this mission affords. 

The only way HBCUs can attract more instructors and professors like this, is if more students enroll. Endowment building and giving, and federal grantmaking goes a long way for our schools, but there is no revenue faster and more solvent to build the teaching and training workforce than a growing student body. 

Recent studies would suggest that HBCUs may have a growing pool of faculty members to choose from, as the hiring of minority professors has declined at predominantly white institutions in recent years

The HBCU mission can attract talented black faculty, but for many, it can only keep them for so long before family planning, student loan debt and other life costs force them to make professional business decisions. 

If HBCUs are hoping to stave off widespread elimination in the coming decade, part of the solution will be finding a way to be among the top-paying destinations for teaching talent. Attracting and retaining professors who would rather not teach at PWIs but can afford employment at an HBCU seems to be a smarter investment than new facilities.

After all, it is faculty who write for and are awarded research funding, gain media attention for research and publishing and who help students to internships and careers, not modernized residence halls and student centers, or even highly-paid vice-presidents and directors. 

Happy faculty also translates into administrative stability. A well-paid faculty supports its president, is less likely to rebel against changes in academic affairs strategy, and its members more inclined to compete in making their departments nationally renowned for the talent and output of their students. 

Those things lead to retention, higher graduation rates, and higher satisfaction among graduates. 

Disgruntled faculty hate everything, and it doesn’t take long before they take it out on the president and associated cabinet members. And it is students who experience faculty discontent more forcefully than anyone else on campus. 

Most think the byproduct of education is learning because students are the customer. The real byproduct is teaching and training because that is what colleges pay to provide. If HBCUs want to grow in positive metrics which lead to additional revenue in tuition and external funding, new buildings and pumped up administrative payroll won’t get you there. 

Remember the professors. 

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