HBCU Blues: Some black colleges are in need of a make over

08 Aug

IindexI have been affiliated either as a student, faculty, adjunct or in some other way ( collaborating on projects, friends with administrators) with four HBCUS, Central State University, North Carolina Central, Florida A and M. Only one in the North and three in the South, where, for obvious reasons HBCUs tend to proliferate more. At all of these fine institutions there is an almost constant financial emergency of one sort or another. Many would make the claim, and probably they are at least partially right, that these institutions are not funded properly, that they get short shrift whenever they can because the legislatures or governing bodies are not that fond of black people. Wilberforce University , of course, is private and therefore can lay its money woes at the feet of other causes.

But, I think, regardless of funding woes the primary issue with all of the colleges I am somewhat knowledgeable  about is leadership, or lack thereof. I hasten to add that in the case of FAMU the relatively new President is a good friend and I have no doubt she will make a great difference, but she has only been on the job since April of 2014.

A. Far too often the leadership of these institutions is lacking in several areas; A. money management  and fund raising skills being first and foremost, B. academic credentials and scholarly background being a close second and C. understanding the limits of cronyism being a close third. The prevailing attitude seems to be among far too many administrators that black colleges will always have money problems due to racism and poor funding. Therefore, there is little motivation to fund raise and to examine where the money is going and why.
B. Not understanding academics is a close second. The tendency seems to be to concentrate on the physical, new buildings, paint, landscaping, rather than scholarship and research. What programs are offered that involve student participatory research are generally very basic and not necessarily intended to be useful in a graduate program. No president of an HBCU I am familiar with has required the faculty to engage in research and demonstrate some skill in both inquiry and writing to keep their jobs. A codicil to this might be that many people act like teaching at an HBCU is an act of martyrdom rather than a privilege.

C. While I understand that you might want your own people to help you run a college, it is important that they not only have some demonstrated skill in the area you are asking them to oversee, but that they are savvy enough to know that they need to learn the history and landscape of the college before they start making pronouncements and decisions and setting policies. Inviting your friends to come drink from the trough while you are there is not in the best interests of the institution. Google some of the administrators at black colleges when they are newly appointed and you will see what I mean.

Add to all that the tendency of many black leaders to look at the presidency of an HBCU in terms only of what it will put in their pocket or on their resume and the recipe is , not surprisingly, doomed to failure. There are, of course, dedicated, skilled and committed leaders at some schools and they are to be praised and honored, but they are, sadly , in my opinion in the minority.

The overarching symptom of dysfunction among HBCU leadership is, however, poverty behavior. Poverty behavior settles for good enough rather than for excellence. We are still here and still doing something, that should be good enough. We are surviving, not thriving, but that is the best you can expect, after all we are an HBCU. We are doing the best we can with the money/students/faculty/staff/ we have.

Visit any HBCU for any period of time and you will see what I mean by poverty behavior. Resources are often allocated for pet projects and run through quickly. Things routinely available on most PWI campuses, like paper for printers and copiers, access to printers for the students, well maintained libraries and buildings, on campus relevant activities for students, student support services, customer service attitude from staff,  study abroad opportunities, a viable internship program for students, sabbaticals for faculty, available wi-fi on the entire campus, knowledgeable and helpful financial aid staff, snack bars, coffee shops, large well stocked bookstores, are often missing from HBCU campuses.

Even more troubling research opportunities for faculty and students are often not present. If you are going to want to attend grad school at most schools you are going to have to be able to do research, or at least know the basics. I am sure the elites, Hampton, Howard,etc. , have faculty that engage in research and involve students in the same, but most of the mid tier and lower schools do not. In addition that means that there are fewer opportunities for internships, paid or unpaid for students at the regular HBCUs.

If I had a magic wand and could waive it I would make the following standard at all HBCUs:

  1. Excellent communication between students, faculty and staff—this is especially important between faculty and students and student services like financial aid and enrollment and students. No unanswered telephones, no unanswered emails and there would be severe penalties for not adhering to the policy. Campus wide free wi-fi. There would be online ( cheap and cheerful, printed would be better but I know what would be said about that)  handbooks for students, faculty and staff with rules, deadlines, details of majors, phone numbers and names of staff members , administrators and faculty and what each handles, regularly updated. Great care would be taken to monitor who is available and accessible and knows their stuff and who is not or does not. The latter category would be filing for unemployment. Cross training  and frequent meetings to share information would be a requirement, everyone needs to know as much about what other employees do as possible. You cannot help students or other staff and faculty if you do not know who does what and where they are.

2. Attitude would be monitored as well. The sour puss, “students are a pain in the butt” folks would have to go. Students are the customers, if you do not have students you do not have a college. The staff who behave like students are bothering  them, and are hostile to them from the beginning of any interaction need to be replaced. Yes, students can be difficult, yes sometimes they , or their parents make impossible demands, but when you go to Macy’s and ask for something you cannot get they do not treat you like a nuisance.

3. Transparency about finances. Where is the money going? Who gets paid what? If there is no money for toilet paper but the Vice President is driving a Hummer something is wrong here. I am not suggesting that administrators at HBCUs need to get lower pay that at other institutions, but it is foolish to make students suffer as they are the ones bringing in the money. If you treat the students badly either with poor attitudes, poor services or poor facilities, your student body will shrink and take your resources right along with them. Perhaps one or two fewer administrators and more attention to student life is a good idea. This is a sub codicil of the above that teaching at an HBCU is an act of martyrdom, this one posits that student at an HBCU are really not deserving of better because if they were they would not be at this HBCU.  Another evidence of poverty behavior—this is all they ( we) deserve.

4. Excellent support for research, a well maintained library, knowledgeable staff and faculty about research protocols and where to find information and resources as needed. If necessary collaborations with other colleges PWI or other HBCUs that have a better developed research history. (One of my students last semester was able to take part in a program between CSU and UD and she is now in grad school at UD. ) Faculty must be willing and able to write letters of recommendation for students  to participate in research opportunities while they are undergrads and for graduate school. Agreeing to write a letter of support and failing to do so by the time required should be grounds for severe discipline.
Required faculty and staff participation in extra-curricular events: Plays, football games, basketball games, track meets, debates, concerts. Faculty and staff need to show up. College is not just about what happens in the classroom. I have attended events where I was the only or one of two faculty members, the staff generally does better. One must view the college experience as a whole as worthy of support. Students love to see professors at these events. It enhances the college experience.

5. Active academic clubs. French major club, History major club, Education major club, all with good, involved advisors

6. A strong mentorship program with black alumni.

7. A strong volunteer program for alumni and others interested in helping, not just giving money when asked, but actually interacting with the students.

8. An alliance with corporations that would not only provide resources but would offer internships and jobs to students and graduates . Most corporations are looking for talented minorities, and many would like to forge a relationship while they are still students, to try them out so to speak.

9. Better opportunities for student leadership—this is often truncated due to limited resources so is tied to several of the other bullets above.

10. A re-dedication to being what black colleges used to be, incubators for black leaders, bastions of black culture and history, and not simply colleges with a majority of black students that is very little different in mission, scope and sequence than most white colleges. Every student at my HBCu would take at least three courses in black history.

Sadly, I lack a magic wand, but perhaps someday someone will begin to look at HBCUs, if they survive and apply some benchmarks  that are needed and remove leadership that does not meet them. After all, while everyone on campus has some responsibility to do what they are supposed to do, in the final analysis the buck stops with the leadership. Or it should.

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Posted by on August 8, 2015 in Uncategorized


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