Obama's Agenda for Black Colleges

August 25, 2009

President Obama recently chose John Silvanus Wilson Jr. to be the new director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, replacing George W. Bush's appointee, Leonard Haynes. Although Wilson is a Morehouse College graduate, he has an Ivy League pedigree much like the president. His professional background is at majority institutions, including George Washington and MIT. Wilson also has a proven record as a fundraiser and he believes wholeheartedly in demonstrating outcomes and adding value through the educational process. With his choice of Wilson, the country’s first black president made his perspective on HBCUs clear.

Wilson’s leadership comes at a difficult time for many black colleges. Much like other under-resourced colleges and universities, HBCUs have suffered disproportionately during the present economic crisis. The situation is due in large part to black colleges' commitment to serving disadvantaged students – while they are themselves disadvantaged by a history of underfunding and discrimination. Due to tightening budgets and lower enrollments, some HBCU leaders have had to take drastic steps in order to keep their institutions alive, including laying off tenured faculty. In recent months, for example, Paul Quinn College, Barber-Scotia College and Clark Atlanta University have faced accreditation challenges and/or financial crises that have left them in a delicate balance. Other HBCUs have consolidated programs and are putting contingency plans in place for next year’s continual economic crunch in order to remain healthy.

For those watching and listening to President Obama, it is apparent that, although he acknowledges societal and systemic racism, he also promotes individual responsibility – hewing a middle path between left and right. When Obama’s ideas are applied to the HBCU context, you get a leader like Wilson, who recently noted that the age-old HBCU mantra of “doing more with less” or “surviving against great odds” is no longer viable in an Obama-era. In Wilson’s words, “we need to shift from how to survive to how to thrive.”

Interestingly, I gave a talk to a group of HBCU leaders last month and explained the Obama perspective as I see it. Our new president is focused on outcomes, success, and accomplishments – he wants to see measurable results. He is not interested in hearing the reasons why we can’t succeed, but how we can succeed.

President Obama is not a product of the Civil Rights movement in a traditional sense and as such, he is not as focused on supporting and sustaining institutions such as HBCUs merely because it is the right or moral thing to do. Although I believe that our president is wholeheartedly committed to social justice, I also think he is a pragmatist who consistently puts policy and action above politics. Obama knows that the only way for HBCUs to thrive and excel in the current economic and social environment is if they put their shoulder to the wheel and focus on increasing degree attainment and other student outcomes. HBCUs need to show, in measurable ways, that they are adding considerable value to the lives and livelihood of their students.

Many of the nation’s HBCUs have been operating from an outcomes-based perspective, increasing their graduation rates and sending students to graduate school at a pace that is significantly higher than their historically white counterparts. However, other HBCUs have not been focused on outcomes and need to redeploy their efforts. Graduation rates in the teens, regardless of an institutional mission dedicated to serving low-income students who are often underprepared by their primary and secondary schools, are not acceptable. Under an Obama administration, it will no longer be enough to boast of the family-like, nurturing environment at HBCUs. Instead, those black colleges with low graduation rates and questionable student outcomes will need to demonstrate measurable results.

Not only will this outcomes-based type of approach help HBCUs in the eyes of the federal government, but it will lead to increased success in the areas of corporate and foundation fundraising. Using an argument of “need,” may have worked in the past, but fundraising messages have changed (one need only look at CARE’s I Am Powerful campaign); donors are much more likely to respond to accomplishments and messages of success. In addition, donors are increasingly asking for data and evidence of degree attainment prior to committing to an institutional gift.

HBCUs are particularly vulnerable in the area of fundraising. Of the nation’s 103 black colleges, only three have endowments in the top 300: Howard University, Spelman College and Hampton University. Low endowments mean fewer dollars available for operating costs and institutional financial aid. HBCU endowments are low for a variety of reasons. These institutions suffer from a history of unequal state and federal funding. In addition, foundation and corporate support has not been given at the same rate to black and white institutions; historically white institutions have received significantly more money, even when size is taken into account.

Another disadvantage comes from the fact that alumni giving, which is critical to building endowments has been and continues to be lower on average than at historically white institutions. These lower rates are due in part to African Americans’ historic lack of access to wealth as a result of systemic forms of racism. With that said, HBCUs need to take more responsibility in the area of fundraising. For decades, HBCUs neglected to ask their alumni to support their institutions, making the assumption that alumni had little to give and doubting the return on investment of money and precious time spent cultivating alumni contributions. More recently, HBCU's have reached out to alumni and giving percentages are growing.

In John Wilson’s words, it’s time for “a new approach to talking about HBCUs.” With an increased focus on success and attainment, these venerable institutions of higher learning will be poised for the future.


Marybeth Gasman is associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. A historian of higher education, her books include Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press). She is also the co-editor of Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Triumphs, Troubles, and Taboos (Palgrave).

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