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'Imagine HBCUs Differently'

September 13, 2011

Almost quadrupling in just a few months the number of students who attend summer courses is uncommon at any university.

For M. Christopher Brown II, the new president of Alcorn State University, a historically black public land-grant university in Mississippi, it wasn't quite good enough. In the past, the university enrolled about 500 students in summer courses. Brown set the provost a goal of 2,000, with a bonus offered for achieving it. They ended up with about 1,900, and as happy as Brown is about the increase, the provost isn't getting his bonus.

"We laugh about it," Brown said. "But you've got to have a metric. You've got to have a goal."

Since becoming president in January, Brown has launched a series of initiatives designed to tackle some of the largest problems threatening Alcorn State and some other historically black colleges and universities, such as stagnant enrollments; low retention and graduation rates, particularly among black males; financial instability; and a lack of student interest in what such institutions tend to offer.

Brown's objective is to reposition Alcorn State as a growing regional public university. His approach blends tried-and-true methods, such as reviving sports programs and traditions to connect with male students and alumni and donors, with some experimental initiatives, such as rearranging academic programs. In adopting these ideas, Brown is holding faculty, students, and administrators to standards -- sometimes very publicly -- that many would consider high even for institutions that do not face the same historical challenges as Alcorn State.

"Dr. Brown understands that he, as president of Alcorn State University, has a big challenge ahead of him, and that is how it should be," said John Silvanus Wilson Jr., executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. "In addition, he also understand what while there may be societal fault at the root of many of the challenges, his messaging and strategy is not entirely about inequalities. They are about strategic and innovative things that he and his team can and must do, regardless of how the challenges came about."

'Changing of the Guard'

At 38, Brown is the youngest president of a historically black institution in the country. Despite his relative youth, Brown held a variety of positions prior to becoming president. He was a faculty member and worked in nonprofit administration before entering higher education administration. Before coming to Alcorn State, Brown served as executive vice president and provost at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, a private, historically black university. Prior to that, he was dean of the College of Education at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where only about 8 percent of the undergraduate student body is black.

Brown received his bachelor's degree from South Carolina State University, another historically black land-grant institution; a master's degree from the University of Kentucky; and a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. His academic background has focused on education policy, governance and administration, and institutional contexts, and he has written 15 books and monographs focusing on historically black colleges, educational equity, and professorial responsibilities.

Several people note that Brown shares numerous characteristics with two other young presidents at historically black institutions: Philander Smith University's Walter M. Kimbrough and Morgan State University's David Wilson. All three have written prolifically on issues of higher education and black education in particular. And all three, upon taking office at their respective institutions, have adopted ambitious agendas that deal with major challenges. Kimbrough was 37 when he was named president of Philander Smith in 2004, and until Brown's appointment, he was the youngest president of a historically black college or university.

"In a lot of ways, Chris Brown represents a changing of the guard in this particular sector of higher education,” said James T. Minor, senior program officer and director of higher education programs for the Southern Education Foundation. “People probably thought that Walter Kimbrough was an anomaly when he took office as young as he was. But Chris Brown’s presidency really does mark the beginning of a new era of new leadership."

Wilson, of the White House initiative, and others have suggested that leaders of black colleges need to talk less about history and more about arguments that appeal to business and political leaders. Brown seems to agree -- he talks a lot about metrics. He wants enrollment at 5,100 undergraduates by 2013. He wants summer enrollment at two-thirds of enrollment, a push he considers important to helping students graduate in a shorter period of time, saving them money and reducing the risk that they drop out. Increasing summer enrollment also provides extra revenue. Since the university is designed to operate on a two-semester budget, the revenue generated through summer enrollment can be used for campus improvements, incentive pay, and faculty development. "We have to keep the buildings running during the summer anyway," Brown said.

He said everything on Alcorn's campus is outcomes-based. "You're going to have a goal, and you're going to bring me back an outcome," he said. "If you hit it we're going to talk about how you hit it. If you don't hit it, we're going to talk about why you didn’t hit it."

He attributes his leadership style to the time he spent as an administrator at the American Educational Research Association and the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute of the United Negro College Fund. He said those experiences gave him a feel for what corporate governance entails, the importance of good fiscal management, and holding people accountable.

Not only are eyes on Brown because of his youth and background, but individuals also note the historical importance of Alcorn State and the shoes that Brown is filling. Unlike most historically black land-grant universities, which were founded in the wake of the 1890 Morrill Act, Alcorn State was founded in 1871, under the first Morrill Act of 1862, making it the first black land-grant university in the country. Hiram Revels, the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate, resigned his seat to become the university's first president.

For much of its history, the university focused on its traditional land-grant mission of research and training in agricultural and technical fields. But it branched out over the years, adding schools of nursing, education and psychology, and business. Its student body in that time has been mostly black.

In recent years, lawmakers have proposed merging Alcorn State with other historically black universities in the state and eliminating programs that are not pulling their financial weight. Alumni have lobbied hard against such a move, and wanted a leader who could stave off those threats. Percy Norwood, president of the university's National Alumni Association, said he thinks they found that person in Brown.

Brown doesn't think it's enough to stay within Alcorn State's historical context. The expectations of historically black institutions, particularly public ones, are changing, he said. "It is very clear that we are one of Mississippi’s eight public universities, and the only university in southwest Mississippi," he said. "While we acknowledge the university's historic role and historic enrollment patterns, we are a public provider of education, and we have to make sure that we don’t couch and condition the future into terms that defined the past."

When Alcorn State loses students, it doesn't lose them to other historically black public institutions in the state like Jackson State University and Mississippi Valley State University; it loses them to the big public institutions -- Mississippi State and the University of Southern Mississippi. So Brown said the institution has to start viewing itself on that level, on everything from performance to campus life. "If they've got Starbucks, I've got to have Starbucks," Brown said, noting that, in addition to the coffee house, his campus now has most of the conveniences of a large public university except for a movie theater and a hamburger restaurant.

Viewing the institution as a regional public university means a different set of expectations for outcomes, too. Brown's goals for efficiency -- which he derives from other regional public universities -- can sometimes seem daunting. For example, Brown wants Alcorn State's first-year retention rate to be at about 85 percent, which would be on par with most public flagship universities. Right now Alcorn State's first-year retention rate is at about 60 percent.

State officials also envision a new role for the university. Administrators see a growing Alcorn State as a transformative force in the southwest corner of Mississippi. “Under the leadership of Dr. Brown, I believe Alcorn will serve as a major economic driver and development tool as it expands its offerings to meet the current and future needs of businesses and citizens in that area of the state,” said Hank M. Bounds, Mississippi commissioner of higher education, in an e-mail statement

Norwood said alumni not only support the direction Brown is taking the university, but expect it. If Alcorn State is seen as a growing regional university, the threat of merger or closure is minimized, he said. "It's hard to underfund something when you're growing," he said. "If you’re not growing, if you're declining in enrollment, then why should they fund you when students are going elsewhere?" Faculty members expressed the same sentiment.

Minor, who has worked with Brown for several years in various capacities, said Brown's focus on changing the nature of Alcorn State shouldn't be a surprise. "He has always imagined HBCUs differently in terms of how they were organized and the outcomes that are experienced," Minor said.

A Long To-Do List

At the top of Brown's to-do list is growing the university's enrollment. While the institution has the capacity to serve 5,100 students, it has not been close to that in recent years, with enrollment hovering at about 3,700. During the nine months Brown has been in office, administrators have worked to raise that number. Enrollment this year is 4,193, an increase of about 19 percent from the previous year. That increase is significantly higher than the state average of 5.2 percent. Brown intends to raise enrollment to full capacity by 2013. Jackson State University, one of the other black colleges in the state, saw an increase of only 2.5 percent over last year, and Mississippi Valley State University, the other, saw a drop of 4.2 percent.

Brown attributes the enrollment success to several initiatives in the enrollment office. The first was simply setting a goal. Before Brown arrived on campus, there was not a clear enrollment management strategy. The second major change, Brown said, was from viewing the university as a historically black college in Mississippi to viewing it as a regional university in Mississippi.

Brown wants the institution to focus on drawing students from the counties around the university, as well as from a national base of students.The remote nature of the campus -- about an hour from the closest interstate -- can be a turnoff for students who grow up in rural Mississippi. But it might be attractive to students who grew up in urban environments, Brown said. He hopes to bring in clusters of students from different cities to diversify the student body.

He would like to make the university more diverse in ethnic terms, as well. Right now, more than 90 percent of the university's student body is black. Brown said other races should make up about 15 percent. The university just hired its first director of diversity to improve that number.

At the same time that Alcorn State is growing enrollment, Brown also hopes to improve the quality of the student body. Right now, the average ACT score for incoming students is about 20. Brown hopes to raise the score for regular admission to 22, making 20 the score for conditional admission.

Wilson, from the White House initiative, noted that Brown is good at selling and enhancing the “value proposition” of the university – showing potential students and their families, as well as alumni and donors, what students gain from an education at the institution.

Brown is also making an effort to revive athletics and the traditions associated with them. The university used to play its opening football game every year against Grambling State University in Louisiana, in a match-up called the Port City Classic. That tradition lay dormant for 19 years. The two universities revived the Classic on Friday in Shreveport, La. Grambling State won, but faculty members and administrators said alumni and student turnout for the game was strong.

Brown's long-term plans for the campus are ambitious. He recently asked faculty members to consider a proposal to break up the School of Arts and Sciences and nest the physical and natural sciences in the same administrative unit as the departments housed in the School of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, an initiative he hopes will encourage more students to study sciences and bolster male enrollment. Men currently make up 40 percent of the student body. He also asked the faculty to consider setting up a university college that all freshmen would enter into before moving into their majors, a change he hopes will improve retention and graduation rates.

While Brown is advocating these changes, he said he's not going to impose them, a message that faculty members appreciate. ”He really believes in shared governance and faculty governance," said Barry L. Bequette, dean of the School of Agriculture, Research, Extension, and Applied Sciences. "He’ll put something before the faculty assembly and faculty individuals, and provide input and see where it goes from there.” Dickson Idusuyi, president of the Faculty Senate, said faculty members like that Brown is open to collaborative decision making and hearing their input on issues.

For the most part, Bequette said, faculty members have reacted positively to Brown's plans. "You're always going to have people who don't like change," he said. "They prefer things to stay the same. But a lot of us realize that HBCUs have a lot to offer that we haven't been able to offer yet, and making us stretch is a positive thing for the university, and for the state and the nation."

"There's a lot of enthusiasm surrounding guys like Chris Brown," Minor said. "Part of what he's done is capitalize on the enthusiasm surrounding his appointment. The smart ones take advantage of that, because that window only stays open so long."

 

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