Managing Cultural Audacity in the HBCU Environment

by S. Keith Hargrove

The fall semester is typically one of the busiest times for any academic institution. On many campuses across the nation, literally thousands of students are arriving to begin or continue their academic study in pursuit of a college degree. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are seeing a slight surge in enrollment due to a combination of factors. One is student interest in returning to campus following lockdowns and virtual study because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other factors include a greater national appreciation and recognition of these HBCUS, a reaction to the Supreme Court’s reversal of affirmative action, and more innovative recruiting through social media and other virtual platforms.

Once students are on campus, HBCUs are committed to providing a cultural experience focused on intellectual development, social and personal growth, and professional development in preparation for post-graduation life. As a former professor and currently as an administrator, I have had the pleasure of working with students, parents, families, and caregivers for more than three decades. I find nothing more fulfilling and gratifying than helping change the lives of college students, providing a nurturing environment for academic achievement, and having the opportunity to coach/mentor students for career success during their studies and after graduation.

However, serving those students whose backgrounds may include socioeconomic or other challenges can be exhausting for faculty and staff as oftentimes such students may require more time and attention. As it has been for over a century and a half, it is still the underlying mission of HBCUs to consistently to do more with less. It is well documented that HBCUs have been and continue to be challenged with underfunding, a lack of resources — including personnel — as well as other systemic issues resulting from racist practices, political preferences, and other forms of bias. These historic and ongoing challenges in the operation of HBCUs often go unrecognized by attendees and others who may not understand the institutional hardships involved in managing these institutions.

Along with these institutional hardships, HBCUs also often face a unique dilemma while providing educational services to a population that, based on similarities in culture, race, and purpose, sometimes demands and expects certain privileges that may not be demanded of other institutions of higher learning with the same protocols and standard policies in place. This supposition is indeed controversial and may even seem confrontational. Regardless of this expectation, though, HBCUs are not excused from delivering quality services to meet the needs of their students and families. I assert that in most cases HBCUs actually go beyond standard services to help students and their families, whether or not the efforts of dedicated HBCU employees are even recognized.

In my opinion, HBCUs have long experienced the stressors, the expectation, of what I describe as “cultural audacity.” This is characterized by students and their families exercising or demanding personal privilege, treatment, or entitlement from an organization based upon a shared ethnic or cultural affiliation. Some common examples are when students (and parents and other caregivers) don’t recognize or follow the proper channels regarding academic or social issues, complaints, and concerns, and instead immediately demand to see the university president. And even when the proper protocols are followed, if the result is not acceptable to the student, parent, or caregiver, they still demand to see the president in anticipation of an outcome more to their liking. For instance, students and their parents or caregivers demand “their” money via financial aid but have not completed all the federal requirements to determine eligibility and initiate allocation. The same can be found with housing accommodation issues when reservation processes are not followed, or with appeals for grade changes that fault the university for the student’s lack of academic performance.

Ultimately, accountability and responsibility are things that everyone in the HBCU community must share. And it is the university’s responsibility to provide optimal services to students, quality instruction, and an infrastructure to meet all administrative and academic needs. The university must respond proactively to the concept of cultural audacity, whether the reasons for this audacity are valid or not.

Some strategies HBCUs must implement to accommodate these expectations are:

  • Evaluate administrative processes and student services annually to create a culture of continuous improvement, and measure the impact of new and modified approaches throughout various customer service levels;
  • Conduct student and parent or caregiver surveys to assess customer service levels and implement reasonable suggestions to achieve customer satisfaction;
  • Improve communication of protocols and practices relative to administrative processes to students in platforms such as all social media platforms and internal institutional information media;
  • Advocate more student accountability and responsibility by highlighting institutional protocols and expectations as outlined in the student handbook and code of conduct;
  • Provide and engage with families and caregivers with university news, information, protocols, and expectations through community-wide social media channels, email, and other informational platforms;
  • Provide effective onboarding of new students and their families or caregivers beyond orientation programs with timely and digestible communications delivered through technological tools such as customer relationship management (CRM) software;
  • Engage the entire campus community to ensure that students complete advising, registration, financial aid, and housing processes to meet deadlines.

As most HBCU alumni will attest, their overall experience is unlike any other. They acknowledge that their current quality of life would not be possible if not for the academic rigor and career preparation they received at their alma mater. As an HBCU alumnus myself, I owe my sense of self-worth, identity, consciousness, and entire career to my college experience. The people working at that HBCU who were committed to my growth and success provided me with an experience that truly changed the trajectory of my life, and I am deeply grateful.

Despite the many challenges HBCUs contend with internally and externally to foster a supportive, familial-like network of students, parents, caregivers, and university personnel, the tradition of serving the Black community remains our priority. The institutional mission of HBCUs is to rely upon our historic resiliency and persevere to meet the needs of our students proactively and creatively with solid pathways toward academic and career success. Our mandate to serve all HBCU students and continue to expand the middle class by uplifting as many as we can — particularly with the roadblocks proliferating in our current social and political climate — must resolutely stand the test of time.

Dr. S. Keith Hargrove serves as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Tuskegee University in Alabama. He previously served as dean of the College of Engineering at Tennessee State University. Dr. Hargrove was chair of the department of industrial, manufacturing & information engineering in the Clarence Mitchell, Jr. School of Engineering at Morgan State University in Baltimore and assistant to the dean and associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, Architecture & Physical Sciences at Tuskegee University. Dr. Hargrove holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tennessee State University. He received a master’s degree from the Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla, and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He completed the HBCU Executive Leadership Institute at Clark Atlanta University.

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  1. Provost Hargrove,

    This is a great take on the reality of academic life at HBCUs. Filled with challenges and strife, but ultimately entirely fulfilling.
    Accountability… I am afraid this is a word many today shy away from. Our students, I think, do not want to understand the meaning of this reality until it is too late, alas. Indeed, they are “trigger happy” and will climb the highest echelons to voice complaints.

    Our responsibility, and I concur with what you are stating, is to continue to make sure our graduates are ready for life after the “cocooning” with which we envelop them at our HBCUs.

    This is a great article, Provost. Thank you for sharing. In turn, I will share it with our students.

    YN Essounga

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