The highly untenable situation in which most black colleges find themselves today did not occur overnight. The portents of desegregation were unmistakable. A handful of black college presidents were sounding alarms more than three decades ago, yet their warnings went unheeded. In part, this may be attributed to a lack of a sense of urgency on the part of leadership.
Yes, historic inequities fueled by racism and benign neglect have caused irreparable harm to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). If we are honest, we will concede that some of our wounds are self-inflicted: inept leadership, the recycling of failed former presidents, and ineffective board governance. The list also includes tepid alumni support, a lack of vision, and resistance to change. Today, black colleges require exceptional leadership in the presidency and on governing boards. Both must lead with the urgency circumstances demand.
In a speech delivered in 1857, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass famously declared, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” What, one may ask, is the relevance of Douglass’ exhortation today? Simply put, if HBCUs are to be saved, their alumni and key stakeholders must provide strong leadership and financial support in the spirit of the urgency of now.
Organizations require a certain type of leader at different stages of their life cycles. Now more than ever, black colleges urgently need exceptional leadership in the presidency and on governing boards. Doubtless, this is a tall order for many schools, but as American novelist James Baldwin might say, it is the price of the ticket. If current trends continue, many black colleges will have to close their doors; sadly, a few have already shuttered. Presently, several more are on a slippery slope down a similar path.
Rather than wait for the inevitable, why not embrace the urgency of now? It behooves key stakeholders, including alumni and higher education leaders, to step up, demand change, and assiduously work to achieve sustainability—for those schools that seriously desire it.