A JBHE commentary by Stan Ashemore, president and founder of the HBCU Preservation Foundation in Greenville, South Carolina
“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”
Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) over the past few years have received lots of negative publicity and attention concerning their economic woes. I’m perplexed by the amount of negative comments overall and especially by folks who have attended a HBCU. It’s not that their thoughts and comments, based on their experiences, aren’t warranted. It’s just hard to imagine that we’ve forgotten that every one of us have benefited in some way from the HBCU legacy.
With this in mind why is it so hard to see the opportunity within this crisis? It’s an undeniable fact that Black colleges and universities define the motto “each one teach one.” So why are we not there for them now as they were for us so many years ago?
If I remember correctly, Black colleges and universities produced the courageous students that staged the sit-ins at lunch counters and bowling alleys to push back on racial segregation and inequality. It was these struggles that stimulated progress towards our social, political, and economic freedom. For those who have forgotten or are too young to remember these critical moments in America’s Black experience take a moment to visit these links: Jail No Bail, Orangeburg Massacre, and Justice for Greensboro. Within, these historical moments you’ll find the essence of why it’s important to fight for our HBCUs. Experts, intellectuals and the like have weighed in on the HBCU condition. In reading the online articles and comments I’ve come to the conclusion that yes, the HBCU condition is critical, but resolvable. I feel there’s been enough energy expelled analyzing, criticizing, and belly aching. Let’s just pull together and do something to help. By now I think we all understand HBCUs need our attention and financial support to survive. And we know no matter what’s said HBCUs produce thousands of graduates every year that become responsible citizens for our communities and corporate America. To me that’s the bottom line. Below, I’ve outline three strategies that are simple yet profound to kick start an evolutionary change in our efforts to secure progress for HBCUs. 1. Criticizing or Becoming an Agent for Progress When my sons began experiencing issues and expressing complaints during their primary school years my first reaction was to use explicative language and complain about the inadequacy of their school, just like current criticizers of HBCUs. But I soon realized that I needed to get my act together, take time to visit the school, and get an understanding of what was going on within their educational environment. When the teachers and counselors realized I was concerned, engaged, and active in my kids learning process, things began to change for the better. Is there a rule that prevents this same course of action at the collegiate level? Just because the administration and department heads have Ph.D.s doesn’t negate the open exchange of ideas. A genuine interest and understanding of each other’s goals and concerns will help to strengthen bonds and encourage open dialogue to the benefit of our young people. 2. Display a Genuine Interest in HBCU Needs The administrators and professors to which we entrust our kids have a tough job. Ask any department head if they have needs and I’ll guarantee they can deliver a list. There are understandable needs like instrument repair, sheet music, travel expenses, uniforms, sports equipment, technology and science lab equipment. Many programs are being watered down or cut because funding shortages prevent HBCUs from fulfilling basic needs resulting in our young people settling for less than the best educational experience. There’s also major needs like new classroom buildings, dormitories, science labs, and research centers. Whatever the need may be, however small or large, all we have to do is pick one and do what we can to help. 3. Harnessing Our Resources African-Americans have always displayed the courage and fortitude to overcome economic, social, and political hardships and we overcame despite opposition and criticism. We now have resources. We’re architects, astronauts, builders, teachers, musicians, chemists, and golf and tennis stars. We do it all. I can’t think of any reason why we can’t harness our resources to reboot our colleges and universities. And the beauty of it is, the resources to accomplish this transformation are well within our means. We don’t have to beg the government for what we already possess. We have the ability and financial resources to transform HBCUs into the best and most prestigious institutions in the country. It’s imperative that we understand what our HBCU’s need, identify specific projects and financial goals, post it within our own communities and make it happen. Imagine thousands of people contributing $5, $20 or $100 to reach these goals. The simplistic nature of this idea can be realized through “crowd funding,” a new and very effective way to augment traditional educational fundraising efforts. We no longer have to leave the future of our young people’s education to people who don’t care. Healing Black colleges and universities and restoring their prestige is possible. Let’s give it a try and see what our collective efforts can achieve.