The name of the column alone is enough to throw even the most intellectual, passionate of HBCU graduates who has seen it all and heard it all from detractors of all races and faces.
Elise Williams loves herself some University of North Carolina – Greensboro. And she shares that heartfelt love for her school and the opportunities it has provided for her to learn more about herself and her people in an eloquent treatment in the school newspaper.
And that ought to scare the hell out of every HBCU president in America today.
The numbers you dread, the cringe-worthy images of smiling black faces dotting the sea of whiteness at basketball and football games at power-conference PWIs? They never had words behind them expressing how much they love their institution. In fact, the opposite has been true over the last five years, and hundreds of thousands of black students have awakened to realize that sacrificing identity and dignity is not a fair trade for the name of the school on the degree.
For a while there, a lot of us thought we were on to something. But this one column is a nightmare for all of those prospects; because it shows that, for as much racial tension as there is in the country, and no matter how much data shows that black students generally don’t fare well outside of HBCU campus borders, there is still a group of students who will love having the best of both worlds.
Today, a PWI can simulate an HBCU experience with enough black students, enough black programming and enough safe space to give them enough cultural enrichment so that they don’t have to grow into any sense of HBCU envy. No, attending an HBCU doesn’t make anyone more self-aware or proud, or conscious of their own blackness; but it does contextualize our individual and collective blackness for the whiteness all around us, and how this impacts the lives of black people all around the world.
That lesson is taught from a variety of angles; scholastic, social, arts, research, and community outreach. And the students who attend HBCUs get a chance to see first handthe closest thing to a black Utopia as this country has ever gotten. Its no wonder why our graduates, in spite of our drama, still resonate with their experience on campus.
But what ought to bring all of us concern is that the feeling associated with this cultural and intellectual immersion can be partially distilled just enough so some of our students can be lured by it, and fall in love with it, at PWIs. Williams isn’t the only one who loves her PWI; millions of black students do. And those millions of black students are directing billions of dollars to PWIs to help them build that distilled version of Wakanda, while the best of what HBCUs have to offer is drowned out by messages of why black students should never attend an HBCU, even our best.
The task isn’t chastising Williams or making some dramatic improvement for our campuses. The answer is in starting early enough and being engaged enough with black students so that the choice is that much more difficult when they confront actually having to choose in their junior or senior years of high school.
The only thing that will save HBCUs over the next ten years is increased enrollment. Not a few dozen or a couple hundred; thousands of students. And if we don’t figure out how to make that happen, within the realities of fewer people being able to afford college, fewer public resources being given to colleges, and fewer people believing that a degree even matters, the new HBCU experience will be the safe space given to the nation’s best black students on predominantly white campuses.