NCCU Centennial HBCU Symposium - Setting the Agenda for Historically Black Colleges and Universities

HBCU Symposium.jpg
On June 3rd and 4th, I had the pleasure of attending a fabulous program on the modern role and future sustainability of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. The HBCU Symposium: Setting the Agenda for Historically Black Colleges and Universities was the culmination of the 100th anniversary of the founding of North Carolina Central University (NCCU).

NCCU is one of five HBCUs in the University of North Carolina system and among 11 such institutions of higher learning in the state (list and links here). I currently serve on the faculty of this institution.

For those unfamiliar, HBCUs were classified by President Lyndon B. Johnson's Higher Education Act of 1965 as institutions established prior to 1964 with the intention of providing higher education to the Black community. There remain 105 such institutions today, primarily in established former slave states following the Civil War.

However, the original HBCUs were founded in the North prior to the Civil War by the generosity of Quaker, Episcopalian, and other abolitionist supporters of the day: what is now Cheyney University (1837) and Lincoln University (1854) in Pennsylvania and Wilberforce University (1856) in Ohio.

Our September 2008 post for National HBCU Week provides more introductory background on these institutions as well as a round-up of commentary around the blogosphere on the continued relevance of these institutions.

It is important to note that the special federal classifications of these institutions was not meant for any preferential treatment of Black students but rather simple parity with historically White institutions. But among public HBCUs, state higher education funding per student averages about 3/5ths that of historically White institutions, a fraction whose irony is not lost on me.

Another important source of financial support, but one that cannot be influenced by federal or state policies, is university endowments. A good example of the disparity here in North Carolina is that HBCU endowments average 12.4% that of the state's non-HBCU institutions when calculated based on full-time student equivalent (Nelms and Fobert, PDF). In the city of Durham, the endowment of Duke University, established in its current form in 1924, is $4.4 billion; that of NCCU, established in 1910 a couple of miles away, is (PDF source) about $20 million. This may not be an entirely fair comparison, though, because James Buchanan Duke and family endowed their university, then Trinity College, with $40 million - yes, Duke started in 1924 with twice the endowment of NCCU today.

(An aside: a little-known fact is that the Duke family and Duke Endowment played an very important role in the early days of NCCU, especially Benjamin Newton Duke who took over leadership of the endowment when brother James B. Duke died a year after its establishment in 1924. The Dukes donated just over half of the acreage upon which NCCU sits and its main campus performance facility is the B.N. Duke Auditorium. The first interracial collegiate basketball game, known in sports history as The Secret Game, in the segregated South occurred in 1944 between the then-North Carolina College for Negroes and the Duke intramural team comprised US servicemen attending the medical school. The relationship between the two universities, IMHO, remains today much closer than one might expect based on the 2006 Duke lacrosse episode.

What's so special about HBCUs?
A September 2008 post here provides more background on HBCUs and the debate over the purposes they serve today. Here are a few relevant facts about HBCUs that are most relevant to the readership of the ScienceBlogs network:

From an article by Michelle J Nealy in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, "While HBCUs represent only 3 percent of all colleges and universities, they enroll close to one-third of all Black students. Forty percent of HBCU students pursue four-year degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, and about half of all Black students in teaching fields attended HBCUs. Three-quarters of all African-American Ph.D.s did their undergraduate studies at an HBCU, and, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the total economic impact of the nation's HBCUs in 2001 was $10.2 billion."

Rochelle R. Bush wrote, "Spelman College and Bennett College produce over half of the nation's African American female doctorates in all science fields."

Xavier University in New Orleans, the only Catholic HBCU, is particularly notable in the biomedical fields. From their website:

  • According to the U.S. Department of Education, Xavier continues to rank first nationally in the number of African American students earning undergraduate degrees in both the biological/life sciences and the physical sciences.
  • The College of Pharmacy, one of only two pharmacy schools in Louisiana, is among the nation's top three producers of African American Doctor of Pharmacy degree recipients
  • In pre-medical education, Xavier ranks first in the nation in placing African American students into medical schools, where it has been ranked since 1993.

HBCUs moving forward
But HBCUs are not just for Black students. In North Carolina, the student body of HBCUs generally range around 70% to 80% African-American. The fastest growing segment for many HBCUs is the first-generation Hispanic college student. HBCUs are also an exceptional value and accept students whose high school performance may have been suboptimal because of secondary school issues beyond their personal control.

But that is history. The focus of the symposium was on HBCUs moving forward and clarifying their purpose for the future and defining their role in higher education that is financially sustainable while consistent with their historical mission. African-American students have a much wider choice of institutions now than in the 1960s and are often very heavily recruited by top-tier, Research I universities. Many schools are now also offering the "nurturing, family environment" that epitomized HBCUs for decades. The chronic underfunding of HBCUs often makes them appear less desirable since the other fringe, creature comforts offered in the competitive higher ed market - recreational facilities, for example - may be less than optimal at some institutions.

The unifying introductory message from NCCU Chancellor Charlie Nelms was that to move forward as a collective institution, HBCUs need to share successful approaches and not be fearful of adopting programs developed elsewhere. Nelms spoke of the benefits of distributive leadership and lamented that "we keep starting over and over." Nelms, together with journalist and public relations director Cynthia Fobert, wrote this provocatively titled article, HBCU Reconstruction (PDF), that first appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of the American Council on Education publication, The Presidency. The post-Civil War Reconstruction era in the United States was when most HBCUs were established in order to provide formal education to newly-freed slaves.

The PDF is a great primer for those not familiar with HBCUs but should also be read by those who care about and work at HBCUs.

"The future of HBCUs will be determined by their competitiveness, responsiveness,
and relevance," he writes.

The NCCU HBCU Symposium featured some of the most influential voices in higher education today, not just Black higher ed. Most notably, the keynote address was given by the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. The full text of his comments can be found at the Department of Education website.

Duncan noted that HBCUs have served the important role of providing opportunity for advancement of students most often neglected by historically White institutions and may were originally established as teacher's colleges. I particularly loved this statement from Secretary Duncan which I tweeted from the symposium under the hashtag #hbcusymp:

Ambrose Caliver, the first African-American research specialist hired by the U.S. Office of Education, captured that urgency in a single sentence 75 years ago when he wrote: "In the hands of the Negro teachers rests the destiny of the race."

As a result, Duncan issued two challenges to the HBCU representatives gathered:

  • "First, I want to see HBCUs taking the lead in improving teacher preparation programs and training a new generation of minority students, especially black males, to teach in our nation's public schools."
  • "The second challenge I would like to see HBCUs take on is the one I began my remarks with: Boosting graduation rates. HBCU graduation rates are significantly lower than those at non-HBCU two-year and four-year institutions. We know this is the case chiefly because HBCUs work with disproportionate numbers of students who need remedial coursework, have significant financial hurdles to overcome, or are the first members in their family to attend college. Individually, and collectively, these are huge challenges."

I was blown away to learn that less than two percent of US schoolteachers are African-American men. This simple fact accounts for many issues but most obviously influences that Black boys and teenagers do not often see people like themselves as educators and, informally, that there are fewer same-demographic mentoring opportunities for Black students as compared with White students. As we will discuss in subsequent blog posts and interviews, the comparative lack of a strong male influence in some Black households has tended to perpetuate a significant problem for Black men - an issue that is a hot-button for discussion and one for which I, as a White male, welcome comment on from those in the African-American higher education community.

The second point that Duncan raised is equally important. Yes, HBCUs have traditionally offered opportunity. And with traditionally challenging budgets, HBCUs have had to work harder on student retention and graduation than historically White institutions. The challenge to HBCUs is to somehow "get out of the remediation business." Duncan feels that we can do this by focusing on high schools that would otherwise feed African-American college ranks. One of his facts that I tweeted during the symposium: half of all US high school dropouts come from just 2,000 high schools and 75% of those account for Black and other minority dropouts. Those who do graduate from such schools are students who require the greatest magnitude of remediation.

I've worked in higher education with minority student recruitment and development in the pharmacy profession and broader biomedical sciences since 1992. I am convinced that opportunity can make up for poor college preparation. But funding problems in secondary schools are making it even more difficult for higher education programs that are also increasingly strained. I'm so impressed by how HBCUs do indeed reach out to secondary schools in their communities. My hope is that by training more and better-qualified teachers to work in those schools might increase the ultimate probability of success of underrepresented minorities in higher education.

We'll continue this discussion of the HBCU Symposium over the next few posts. Please feel free to ask questions and share comments.


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