The White House Initiative on HBCUs: Making the Paper Tiger Roar

There’s a growing disconnect between all of the joy and despair of working for black colleges. What we’ve been programmed to do, and what must be done to save or enhance these schools is lost in the translation of communicating the importance of 150 years of black inclusion in higher education, against the notion that higher education as an industry is on shaky economic ground.

Capitol Hill HBCU champion and Congresswoman Alma Adams touched on this notion in an editorial, published by NBC on the first day of a week’s worth of advocacy events organized by the White House and members of the HBCU Caucus.

During the month of September, we celebrate National HBCU Week, a time to commemorate and champion HBCUs and their contributions to our country. Our schools have contributed immensely to their communities and provided countless students with opportunities yet; they don’t receive the same investment from government or private industry as other educational institutions.

It’s long past time we stopped resting on our laurels and take the fight for greater investment in our institutions to both our government and our corporate partners.

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/oped-increasing-opportunities-allow-hbcus-thrive-n801876

That fight, and the story which comes with it, belongs to the White House Initiative on HBCUs and specifically, its executive director.

In the past, government officials and presidents have regarded the WHI-HBCU as a paper tiger in a real jungle of sociopolitical intrigue. But there is real bite in the teeth of the office – if key payers in Washington and among the HBCU leadership periphery are willing to help the beast grow in benefit of black colleges.

We have been conditioned to think that the power of the office rests in the initiative’s ability to generate reports on the federal government’s role in growing HBCUs in the form of grants and contracts. We hope for an annual conference where thousands of us convene to complain and jockey for positioning with a legislator or two, and consider it successful if the Departments of Education, Defense, Energy and Agriculture can slide our best schools a few hundred million dollars in grants and contracts as a result of our presence in the district.

But the truth is that those metrics of success are on their deathbed. No one will care if the office and its new executive director can report to us how much the government is planning to snatch from HBCUs, or how several of our smaller privates are going to close due to long-standing inefficiency in recruitment and operations.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/09/18/former-nfl-player-named-head-white-house-hbcu-initiative/676425001/

Many reticent lawmakers, even some who look like us, believe that conversation on HBCU funding falls into one of three categories – necessary to help minority communities, a necessary evil to help in cultivating the black vote, or a waste of resources on schools which have outlived their utility to everyone.

The initiative should be something which embraces these three ideas and communicates narratives to civic and private stakeholders about how we arrive at these three distinct views on black colleges, and why it makes sense to leverage these views into smart advocacy for black colleges.

The initiative has a unique function of explaining to the public and private sector how its members can make money by helping HBCUs to make more money. But in recent years, politics has warped its focus to addressing bad stereotypes and navigating necessarily destructive policy making on higher education.

The stereotypes are that HBCUs are strongholds for bad leaders, bad boards of trustees, and unprepared students who don’t pay back loans when they drop out, or when they are passed through to graduation and can’t find work. It’s hard convincing people outside of the HBCU community that these ideas are false, when so much of our data suggests otherwise.

https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2016/04/failing-hbcus-should-they-receive-life-support-or-the-axe/

But if stereotypes alone could kill all HBCUs would’ve been dead 20 years ago.  Cost-saving policy is what is killing HBCUs. The country is looking for a way out of publicly subsidizing education, and the search is becoming more drastic and blatant along political lines.

This is true for all schools – not just the historically black ones which everyone wants to champion, celebrate, write about and Tweet about when it is racially or socially convenient. But HBCUs are first along the firing lines in this era of higher education reform.

So if you believe that the WHI-HBCU is capable of something, do not believe that it will secure billions from the federal government, Google, Apple or any other organization that powers American economy. Do not believe it will advocate for these schools beyond narratives of “HBCUs deserve support because black people deserve support.” The office is not designed to do anything of these things, and its appointees and employees aren’t paid to do it.

The power the WHI-HBCU rest in what stakeholders and supporters force it to do – showcase the economic impact of these school on local tax bases through agriculture, education, entrepreneurship and civic service. Make the office produce data on the top companies hiring HBCU graduates, and those which refrain from hiring our talent.

Make the office show how manufacturers how HBCUs produce the workforce that is nimble enough to engage a a variety of communities while lending to corporations the face of the new American population – a face that is younger and browner than it has ever been. Push the office to identify hidden pots of money in legislation and committee work that afford specific programs at HBCUs comparable funding to Ivy League and large PWIs; while also lauding agencies like the Department of State and the FBI for recruiting more actively from HBCUs.

The more hurricanes, inner city crime, poverty and public health crises the country faces, the better its opportunities to meet the challenges if it partners with HBCUs for workforce development and educational outreach. Its up to the WHI-HBCU to show at every opportunity the potential gains and glory it can receive by strategically investing in black colleges.

HBCUs have a tiger in the White House, and if we train it, it can do much more than menace on paper and in meetings.

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