Charlie Nelms & William B. Harvey // February 23, 2018
The social landscape that gave birth to HBCUs has changed dramatically over the past one hundred and fifty years, especially during the last five decades as a result of the Civil Rights movement. However, rather than lessening the need for these institutions, they are now more necessary than ever. In our paper, The Promise and Potential of Woke HBCUs, written for the Southern Education Foundation’s sesquicentennial celebration, we contend that now is the time for a bold reset of the mission and vision of these institutions.
The PBS documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising, accurately highlights the profound impact that HBCUs have had on transforming the lives of African Americans–and members of other racial groups–since their founding. Without a reset that is centered in community uplift, HBCUs will not be able to retain their relevance and responsiveness, let alone their competitiveness. While documenting and celebrating the HBCU brand is important, it is essential that we reposition these institutions to ensure that they thrive, and not simply survive. Now is the time for a national discussion involving all HBCU stakeholders. Now is the time for HBCU alumni, advocates, leaders, faculty, staff, and students to lay the groundwork for the development of a future-oriented narrative. Failure to do so is an abdication and dereliction of our collective responsibility to move the society towards the realization of its ideas and implementation of its values.
In what is arguably the most rapid and profound period of change in human history, the American institutions that are perhaps most resistant to substantial modification are colleges and universities. This phenomenon stems partly from the fact that the academy derives a good portion of its stature and standing from its ties to tradition and ritual. However, there is one group of academic institutions especially vulnerable to prevailing economic and political forces if it does not modify its outlook and practices: the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs must change in order to remain viable and continue to effectively serve both their core constituency and the nation. The social landscape that gave birth to HBCUs more than 150 years ago has changed dramatically, yet the importance of these institutions is more critical now than ever before.