Black colleges in the U.S. are at a crossroads where they can either adapt or face extinction.
Or so says Alvin Schexnider, a former chancellor at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina and author of the book, “Saving Black Colleges: Leading Change in a Complex Organization.”
Schexnider was at Southern University to talk about his ideas to make black colleges sustainable.
He spoke about finding the right leadership, maintaining stability in leadership and producing graduates who are able to compete in the 21st century job market.
Like predominantly black churches and black-owned businesses, historically black colleges and universities were created with the purpose of serving African-American students during a time in U.S. history when black people were denied access to other institutions.
A common question many HBCU leaders face today is: Are black colleges still necessary? Schexnider says they are.
While black institutions make up roughly 3 percent of the nation’s universities, they are adept at reaching populations that otherwise wouldn’t go to college, he said.
Black schools are particularly good at training students to go into the science, technology, engineering and math fields, he added.
“The vast majority of African Americans in the STEM fields who have graduate degrees, got their undergraduate degree at an HBCU,” Schexnider said. “HBCUs offer access to people, many of whom are the first in their family to go to college.”
Southern Chancellor James Llorens said he doesn’t see the issue as a question of whether HBCUs should still exist.
“HBCUs were created out of necessity, but that doesn’t mean that is the only reason we are here,” he said. “We have established ourselves as institutions of higher learning. We don’t only serve African-American students.”
Llorens said the more pressing issue facing HBCUs is trying to make up a historical funding gap where black schools were not provided the same resources as other institutions.
HBCUs are generally smaller schools, he said, that made a living off being more responsive and supportive of students’ needs than larger colleges.
“We were faced with not having the resources to build infrastructure or pay competitive salaries or expand technology,” he said.
That kind of funding disparity, he said, has created a chain reaction where students who graduated from HBCUs are not well-represented in the ranks of top industry leaders and chief executive officers.
“Yet, we have a strong record of producing quality graduates,” Llorens said. “When I’m asked, ‘Why is Southern here,’ it’s the same reason ULL or Southeastern (Louisiana University) is here. We are here because we are an institution of higher learning serving a student population. There is still a demand for what we do.”
Dillard University’s Walter Kimbrough had a similar take. When HBCUs were first established, they were not created to be equal, he said.
“We’ve always been asked to do more with less,” Kimbrough said. “And that’s never been made up.”
He added that the U.S. is still struggling with segregation with many neighborhoods, K-12 schools and colleges across the country being largely homogenous.
As a consequence, many black students are left out of the typical college activities and experiences when they attend larger, predominantly white schools, he said.
He likened the need for HBCUs to the existence of schools with religious affiliations and single-sex institutions.
“Is there something deficient about a woman who wants to go to a single-gender school, or someone who wants to attend a Mormon school?” Kimbrough asked. “We live in segregated neighborhoods and attend homogenous K-12 schools. People never say these schools are too black; we need to integrate them.
When students enter college, they are in a very crucial period developmentally. Students should be able to do that in an affirming environment,” he added.
Schexnider, the author, said the 21st century challenge for HBCUs is not defending their right to exist but making sure they are positioned to compete.
This means HBCU supporters have to be vigilant in lobbying lawmakers to appoint board members who understand strategic planning and who have both financial acumen and an understanding of academics.
Once boards are in place, they need to pick leaders who have a vision and allow them to carry out their vision, Schexnider said.
HBCUs further have to understand the political landscape where governors across the country are placing increased emphasis on two-year schools because of the direct pipeline lawmakers see between those institutions and workforce development.
He said HBCUs need to figure out how to partner with two-year schools and position themselves to produce the types of degrees government leaders see as the most valuable.