The Promise and Potential of “Woke” HBCUs

The Promise and Potential of “Woke” HBCUs

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.

Just as groups of young African Americans served to fuel and inspire the Civil Rights movement through personal risk and sacrifice, so too have the participants in the Black Lives Matter movement challenged both the African American community and the establishment status quo to address fundamental shortcomings that have long been tolerated, rationalized, or excused in our society. The contemporary movement for social justice and equality must be endorsed and encouraged by HBCUs, just as the Civil Rights movement was embraced by these institutions in the 20th century. However, to effectively stimulate and cultivate the current movement for social justice, HBCUs must reorient and reconfigure themselves so that they are not merely replicas of predominantly white postsecondary institutions. They must, in the jargon of the post-Millennial generation, become “woke” colleges and universities –institutions that actively and purposefully combat the insidious effects of racism in society. The future of HBCUs will be determined by their relevance, responsiveness, and excellence, more than by their racial or historic designations.

The Woke HBCU Mission: Rededication to Community

Every quality of life indicator – whether it be educational opportunity, housing quality, medical care, life expectancy, interactions with police, neighborhood safety, or employment possibilities – places African Americans below their white counterparts. Statistics reveal widening gaps in income and wealth accumulation between African Americans and whites, increasing levels of segregation in public schools and housing, and widely disparate levels of incarceration. Therefore, it is imperative that Woke HBCUs articulate their missions as the academic and ethical developers of committed leaders who will address these disparities, and that the institutions themselves incorporate into their educational processes the identification and application of strategies for solutions.

The leadership of these institutions—governing bodies and chief executives—must clearly and unequivocally express a commitment to addressing the needs and concerns of African American and other underserved communities. Furthermore, they must be held accountable for the formulation and implementation of policies and practices that will lead to the realization of these goals. In effect, this dedication acknowledges the current state of inequality in American society, while also paying homage to the wisdom of the original purpose and intent of the institutions. Effective leadership and governance are two of the most critical issues facing HBCUs, and their thoughtful implementation impacts nearly everything that exemplary universities undertake and achieve. Woke HBCUs will require a new breed of leaders: fearless individuals who push for excellence in every aspect of the institutions, who are willing to challenge and, when necessary, to reject the status quo. They must lead by example, demonstrating their devotion to principle rather than personality or politics, and they must empower the institutions’ faculties and staff to dedicate their individual and collective expertise to developing and enhancing their students’ talents, rather than bemoaning their shortcomings.

The Woke HBCU Curricula

Educating and graduating students who are prepared to live, lead, work, and compete in a global environment is the overarching challenge facing all institutions of higher learning. Money alone will not be the determinant that separates institutional winners from losers. The winners will be those colleges and universities with culturally competent faculty and administrators that adopt an “asset mentality” in educating students who–particularly in HBCUs–are distributed across the entire preparatory spectrum due to unequal opportunities related to race, class, or both. The mission should be the driver, and the curriculum should identify the content to be delivered for achieving institutional goals. Thanks to a confluence of issues, some HBCUs, like many other small institutions, will struggle merely to survive, while others are better positioned to compete and thrive. The key to success or failure begins with curricular reform and strengthening relationships with communities of color suffering the effects of educational, economic, and political disenfranchisement.

Central to new curricula in Woke HBCUs is the recognition that technological innovations and cultural transitions have significantly impacted the way students currently receive and process information, which differs greatly from previous generations. Revisions to traditional instructional techniques to enhance student learning and employability must be incorporated into these settings, including the use of instructor-supervised problem-solving activities, group projects, action research, internships, conceptual analyses, case studies, and critical thinking exercises. Teaching methods must change from lectures and didactic presentations to participatory engagements where students are involved and empowered.

In addition, the spirit and value of inquiry, along with the positive quality of community, must be extended beyond the classroom throughout the institutions, into the residence halls, and even as part of social and celebratory events and gatherings. A leadership imperative should be embedded within the ethos of Woke HBCUs that encourages students to consider every activity and interaction as an opportunity to maximize their talents and develop their potential. Institutional core values will not simply promote but rather emphasize individual and collective efforts to enhance the innate capabilities of each individual, while also reiterating a shared responsibility to underserved communities. This approach, while future-oriented in its perspective, actually represents a reiteration of the original foundational basis of HBCUs.

The reality of the global economy means that HBCU students could just as easily find themselves working in Beijing as in Baltimore; their employment might well be in San Paulo or in San Francisco. To that end, and in order to broaden their students’ understanding of the world, HBCUs must include at least one international experience in each student’s individually developed plan of study. Embedded in the Woke Curricula will be an emphasis on the importance of entrepreneurship, so that students can envision themselves as employers and job creators while embracing, using, and creating new technologies to benefit both themselves and their communities. For each student, the development of an individual plan of study should begin prior to matriculation, immediately after the selection of the institution of choice. Working with students and their respective parents/guardians, an HBCU liaison should help formulate a four-year plan that identifies the sequence of learning activities to be undertaken, both during academic semesters as well as summers. This approach includes the family in projecting the path of each given student’s experiences, and it provides context that might otherwise be missing to help relatives offer informed support at important points in that student’s journey. The individualized plan of study, in addition to courses at the chosen institution, might also comprise classes or other learning activities at other appropriate institutions, including community colleges and other HBCUs and PWIs, when such activities will benefit the student academically and financially. To ensure that the widest possible range of international experiences will be offered to students, Woke HBCUs must develop a consortium in which each institution agrees that it will focus its administrative and financial resources on providing opportunities in specific, designated locations, rather than in multiple settings.

To compete in an increasingly crowded marketplace, the educational experiences provided by HBCUs must rival those available through PWIs, online for-profit institutions, MOOCs, and other educational resources. Woke HBCUs will recognize their responsibility in preparing their students for global citizenship, while simultaneously offering information with an affirming perspective of the individual and the group, just as predominantly white institutions do for white students. For example, while the historical reference points for many white American students may identify the significance of Greece and Rome as precursors to the establishment of our nation and culture, so too should all students, but especially African Americans, be informed about the glories of Mali and the Songhai Empire in order to have a comprehensive understanding of how contemporary societies have evolved. The Eurocentric focus that dominates the curricula of PWIs ignores the sophisticated civilizations that existed on the African continent prior to European colonization, while simultaneously minimizing the contributions that African Americans and other non-white groups have made to the development of American society. This conceptual linkage is important because people who do not know their own history, or have it distorted by others, are also positioned to have their humanity denied and their place in world and national affairs circumscribed.

The Woke HBCU Administration

While the temptation to embrace a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the challenges facing HBCUs must be resisted, so too must the institutions avoid the tendency of mimicking the educational and administrative practices of PWIs that are more adequately resourced. The key elements to operating successful institutions are: 1) Attracting, educating, and graduating students; 2) Fundraising; 3) Corporate and community engagement; 4) Alumni support; and 5) Faculty productivity. The extent to which implicit bias permeates society can result in a deficit-perception model in HBCUs, which is the Achilles heel with respect to attracting and graduating students. In Woke HBCUs, intra- and inter-institutional collaboration across disciplinary and administrative boundaries must be the norm, not the exception.

A vital part of the organization of the Woke HBCU will be a vice presidential Office of Enrollment, Engagement, and Alumni Outreach, which will connect with alumni across the nation to facilitate the identification of and interaction with students in their communities beginning in middle school, so they can be encouraged and supported as they move through their secondary school experiences for subsequent recruitment to these institutions. These young “diamonds in the rough” are, figuratively speaking, the future wealth of our communities. Rather than starting the postsecondary recruitment process toward the end of high school, a longer-term strategy is crucial. Introducing students and families to the HBCU experience through alumni who can share the benefits of their own experiences is the most effective marketing and recruiting approach. This model of early identification and cultivation has already been developed and applied for potential postsecondary athletes; it is time to utilize the approach for potential postsecondary scholars as well. Woke HBCUs can further supplement this process of increasing the pool of potential applicants by establishing early college programs, which are actually academically focused high schools, on their campuses. The operation of these institutions are coordinated with local school systems, and they provide participating students with environments that are both challenging and stimulating, where they are encouraged to achieve high academic performance while also gaining personal insights into the HBCU college experience by participating in various campus activities.

Once students are enrolled, the vice presidential Office for Student Success, working closely with faculty, will coordinate a robust program of supplemental and aspirational academic experiences for all students to supplement classroom activities, including meaningful service learning opportunities. With students’ agreement, this office can also be in regular communication with students’ respective parents and guardians by providing updates on students’ learning and development plan. Information about their progress and accomplishments could also be shared with other influential figures in their lives, such as mentors, former teachers, guidance counselors, community leaders, coaches, and/or ministers, who then could provide additional support and encouragement from themselves and/or their constituencies. The opposite of the “helicopter parent” phenomenon, this approach recognizes the cultural salience of the concept that “it takes a village to raise a child.”

Funding the Woke HBCU

Creative and varied resource streams will need to be developed to support Woke HBCUs. The development and passage of the HBCU Re-Investment Act is a necessary but not sufficient method to identify base funding, and alumni contribution rates must also be substantially increased. Corporate partners need to be created to provide opportunities for mutually beneficial investments in the institutions because as graduates of Woke HBCUs move into the job market, they will be available to diversify various businesses and organizations. The returns on companies’ investments will be forthcoming in relatively short order as well-prepared, confident, future leaders emerge, prepared collectively to form a dedicated, imaginative, productive workforce.

The future of HBCUs as they embrace their role as “woke” institutions will not be determined by the largesse of wealthy philanthropists or the sympathy of major foundations. Rather, their future rests with the courage and commitment of those who will lead and govern these venerable institutions to chart a path forward – a path focused on addressing the needs of African Americans and other historically underserved, disenfranchised people — and a recognition that these individuals have the capabilities to construct a brighter future.

The bottom line is this: After four decades, the desegregation of America’s colleges and universities remains marginal, even as African American students, faculty, and administrators continue to face both overt discrimination and microaggressions in many predominantly white colleges and universities. At the same time, in our contemporary epoch that many people would like to consider post-racial, pronounced disparities continue to exist for African American communities and individuals.

While African Americans must continue to have access to postsecondary institutions of their choice, reconfiguring and reorienting HBCUs to identify and directly address community concerns could potentially accelerate the realization of racial parity. Now is the time for another Great Awakening. Despite funding shortfalls and political marginalization, the historic record of HBCUs provides a demonstrable track record of educating students across the preparatory spectrum, essentially by emulating the interests, concerns, and designs of their mainstream counterparts. Woke HBCUs will go a step further: They will transform institutional structures and approaches as needed to achieve their mission of creating solutions and alternatives that will improve the experiences, conditions, and circumstances of all African Americans.

Charlie Nelms, Former Chancellor of North Carolina Central University

A native of the Arkansas Delta, Charlie Nelms has held an array of leadership positions, including chancellorships at Indiana University East, University of Michigan-Flint, and North Carolina Central University. Nelms is a passionate and persistent advocate for equity and excellence in the academy and is a consultant to numerous universities, foundations, and national higher education associations. He is a blogger for the Huffington Post and HBCU Lifestyle, he tweets, and is a frequent guest on podcasts and radio talk shows around the nation.

William B. Harvey, Distinguished Scholar of the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity

William B. Harvey brings significant experience in the academic and non-profit sectors to the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. A distinguished researcher and administrator, Harvey’s scholarly activity has been focused on the cultural and social factors that affect underserved populations with a particular emphasis on college and university settings.

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