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Trusteeship Magazine

A Question for....John S. Wilson: What Is the State of HBCUs Today?

November/December
2012

John S. Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and newly appointed president of Morehouse College, talks about some of the challenges facing the nation’s HBCUs in the modern world, and how they can remain not just relevant, but thrive.

What are the unique governance challenges and opportunities facing HBCUs?

HBCUs face challenges similar to their counterparts, especially since most colleges and universities are both tuition-driven and have small endowments.

When it comes to the governance challenges and opportunities facing HBCU trustees, it is less about their harder circumstances than their higher stakes. Why? Because HBCUs are legislated as mission-driven versus race-based institutions. The Higher Education Act of 1965 defined them as accredited institutions founded prior to 1964—there were 117 at the time, and now there are 100—with a principal mission of educating African Americans. That means it does not matter that seven HBCUs are now no longer predominantly black. Their racial composition aside, they are a finite resource. Once one closes its doors, it cannot be replaced.

Thus, the governance pressures are unique and extreme. To be the trustee of an HBCU is to have charge of an irreplaceable national treasure, or to nurture an endangered species. And if HBCU trustees do not do their jobs well, the world will lose a class of institutions that were pivotal stabilizing forces in the aftermath of slavery and that still have an impact on the character of our nation.

You have committed to tackling low graduation rates. What role can HBCU boards play there?

Each HBCU board has a charge similar to the mandate given to our office by President Barack Obama—namely, to strengthen the capacity of HBCUs. That work will inevitably increase graduation rates. Thus, each HBCU board might adopt these same four strategies we selected as capacity-enhancement levers for all HBCUs: capital enlargement, or driving more public and private funding into HBCUs; campus enrichment, with an emphasis on enhancing the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curricula; strategy development, or finding new approaches to realizing operational excellence; and perception enhancement, with a special emphasis on identifying, fortifying, and amplifying the value proposition of each HBCU. When boards work hard in these four areas, they will realize far greater outcomes, especially with respect to student graduation and success.

What changes in public policy and practice would benefit HBCUs?

More HBCUs would benefit by recognizing the shift toward competitive funding in America’s public and private sectors and then battling the best for that funding. We’ve seen a similar change through programs such as Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods, which have generated new excitement about the prospects for measurable, fundamental change in K–12 education in America. States, districts, schools, and programs that did not win grants may still have been strengthened by the improved thinking, planning, and partnering they experienced, thanks to the exercise of having applied. In working with federal agencies and private foundations, competition is the surest path to better performance and outcomes, institutionally and individually. HBCUs will undoubtedly benefit from adjusting to this changing, “survival-of-the-fittest” environment.

HBCUs have a rich tradition in this country. How do they stay relevant in the 21st century?

In higher education today, “relevance” means being able to produce graduates who are either a great fit with the existing and emerging world economy, or those who are fit to meaningfully transform it and the way we understand and function in it. Any institution pointed toward true excellence at one or both of those outcomes must have a robust platform upon which to work. Today, that means having a state-of-the-art human, financial, physical, information, and academic infrastructure. HBCU relevance will increase when their boards function with a far more detectable urgency about securing their institution’s infrastructural competitiveness. It will increase also when their boards help to illuminate the ways in which their campuses represent a stellar return on investment for all potential partners.

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