by Richard F. America
Editor’s Note: In an earlier article for JBHE, Professor America asked “Can HBCUs Compete?” Now Dr. America offers his views on how HBCUs can go about a transformation so that these higher education institutions can thrive in the twenty-first century. The views expressed are those of the author. We invite readers to comment on Professor America’s proposals.
Morris Brown College, St. Paul’s College, Saint Augustine’s University, and other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been in the news because they struggle to survive. At the same time, online learning, for-profit universities, and other new forms have emerged to deliver higher education. HBCUs must change or diminish. Visions, missions, branding, strategy and governance have grown obsolete. These must all be corrected to make sure the schools are effective and successful for another 100 years.
Vision: The HBCUs have generally seen their role as offering education at reasonable cost to previously excluded, “disadvantaged” students. They are often the first generation in their family to attend college. The colleges say they create opportunities to gain training and credentials that open doors and make upward mobility a realistic possibility.
This vision is actually now a hindrance. The colleges are operating in a new competitive reality. Students can, and do, find nurturing, understanding, encouraging, supportive resources at many other institutions, because they have changed. In the new competitive environment, that has emerged since the civil rights movement opened the doors of previously segregated colleges, HBCUs need a new vision.
The new vision should, generally be to provide quality education to a diverse student body, in a competitive institution that is on equal standing to all other similarly situated institutions.
Mission: In general, the missions of the HBCUs are similar to the visions: To help the poorly prepared, to remediate, and to provide understanding, and sensitivity to their students.
Instead, the missions of HBCUs should be to rise in the rankings from fourth tier to third or second tier by 2020 and to benchmark on higher-ranked schools so as to continuously improve in all aspects of curriculum, teaching, research, and service. And by doing that to serve a diverse student body who find our approach a good fit for their personal preferences.
Branding: The HBCUs have long promoted themselves as offering special emphasis on African American heritage, history, cultural awareness, and sensitivity. They have positioned themselves as havens for students who would be shunned, or marginalized at other institutions, because of their race.
Those are out of date concepts. The demographic and competitive realities have changed. The HBCUs now face competition for these students and are not operating in protected markets any longer. They must now enroll a diverse student body. They can still honor their legacies with centers, institutes, research programs, buildings, named scholarships, arts programs and festivals of many kinds named for founders, alumni, and important historical figures.
But “Blackness” per se, cannot be a successful, or meaningful differentiator that carries real advantages or weight. These institutions must compete in the general market place of higher education, and must do it well.
HBCUs should form a new organization – The National Association of Colleges and Universities (NACU). NACU will help them compete by focusing on operating effectiveness, great governance, and quality leadership development. It will complement NAFEO (National Association for Equal Opportunity), UNCF (United Negro College Fund), and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Further, the members of the new NACU should brand themselves not as HBCUs, but as High Value Colleges and Universities (HVCUs). HVCUs will send the kind of signal that will change their perception and standing in the eyes of accrediting agencies, potential applicants, faculty, administrators, and donors.
With those fresh brands, the 100 current HBCUs will be able to rethink their place among the 3,500 colleges and universities in the United States and the emerging online, and for-profit competition that seems to have a strong attraction for certain cohorts of African Americans seeking higher education on reasonable terms.
Strategy and Governance: The HBCUs have been in the news with stories of financial weakness, accreditation defects, dropping enrollment, leadership misbehavior and turnover, and student, alumni, and employer dissatisfaction. These are symptoms of poor leadership and weak strategies. Boards of trustees are the root of many of the problems. They are too often composed of cronies, figures with religious backgrounds and no credible experience, knowledge, or ability in strategic thinking and analysis. Many have no useful resource networks, and no valuable contribution to make in understanding higher education, or adding value to charting a successful new direction.
Boards must change. They must be composed of serious professionals, drawn from business, law, the sciences, entrepreneurs, and especially from investment banking, and management consulting, where the right skills are present to a high degree.
Boards must agree to annual rigorous training, as offered by groups like the National Association of Corporate Directors. And boards must agree to annual third-party evaluation.
Training and serious objective performance evaluation is missing at most HBCUs. Adding these requirements will go far toward turning around troubled institutions, and insuring that those that are currently succeeding, can compete even more effectively in the future.
The HBCUs should all be fully engaged with the Association of Governing Boards. AGB offers valuable orientation for new board members, and quality ongoing governance assistance. This resource is grossly underutilized by these schools.
Likewise, the American Council on Education is available, and the schools should be proactively working with ACE on all aspects of strategy and operational improvement.
There have been times in the past when the Rockefeller Foundation, and farsighted HBCU leaders worked to strengthen specific functions like treasurer, registrar, deans of students, etc. These working programs were successful, and did strengthen operations. But for various reasons, these collaborations were not sustained.
Now, is the time to re-engage.
Conclusion: HBCUs can thrive if they change their self-image, sense of mission, and market, and drop old habits that hinder progress in a modern world of changing demographics.
Richard F. America is an adjunct professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.