For years, historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, as they are commonly known, have occupied a special space in the pantheon of American higher education. Founded during a period of hostile, entrenched and legally enforced segregation, these extraordinary institutions have exceeded expectations in unforeseen ways. From the start, black colleges depended upon white philanthropy and later state government for financial support. They enjoyed a pure monopoly on African-American students and faculty members. And almost single-handedly, they created the nation’s black middle class, comprising teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs.
Today, black colleges are iconic institutions, considerably more than centers of higher learning. Whether rural or urban, public or independent, they are repositories of history, art, culture and politics. Their campuses feature buildings with distinctive architecture housing priceless works by African-American artists, muralists, writers, composers and sculptors. Their libraries contain volumes of books, journals, monographs and myriad products of research by African-American scholars. Every black college has a story to tell: Hampton University’s Emancipation Oak; the monument to the United States Colored Troops who founded Lincoln University in Missouri; Jubilee Hall at Fisk University, named in honor of its renowned choral group that traveled the world raising money to support the school. The list goes on.
Yet desegregation of higher education has devastated black colleges. About 90 percent of African-American students are enrolled in majority colleges and universities. As result, notwithstanding their historic significance and their past and current contributions to higher education and American society, many black colleges are imperiled -- and have been for quite some time. In fact, whether they care to admit it or not, for a variety of reasons, some beyond their control, many HBCUs are in a death spiral and may not be salvageable.
Now is the time for candor and self-assessment. Many people, even ardent HBCU supporters, including the author, find it difficult to face the hard truth: some HBCUs need to seriously explore options that include pruning or culling. And for others, it may be time for an exit strategy that could include merging or closing.
A Quest for Sustainability
In 1986, Hugh Gloster, then president of Morehouse College offered this sobering assessment: “History has shown that the private black college experiences a very slow death … you will have an increasing number of weak private colleges lose accreditation, and they will lose enrollment, and then they will lose financial stability. Now, whether they will die is another question.”
Gloster’s prescience is remarkable. Since 1986, five private HBCUs have lost accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges: Bishop College, Knoxville College, Mary Holmes College, Morristown College and St. Paul’s College, which considered merging with St. Augustine’s University before closing in 2013.
Wikipedia lists at least 15 black colleges that have closed, including Leland College, Natchez College and Roger Williams College. Also, following the Flexner Report in 1910, five black medical schools closed -- leaving two, Howard University Medical School and Meharry Medical College, until 1975, when the Morehouse School of Medicine was established. In short, closing HBCUs, often private ones, has happened before.
Black colleges are not monolithic. Some are strong academically and financially; others struggle to stay afloat. Some are research oriented and doctoral granting, while many are noteworthy for outstanding professional degree programs in nursing, business, social work and the production of graduates in STEM areas. Nonetheless, declining enrollments and small endowments are rendering many black colleges vulnerable.
A Hard Look at Reality
Kent John Chabotar, president emeritus of Guilford College and a college finance expert, has found that colleges with 1,000 or fewer students, in rural areas, without large endowments and without market niches, are on the path to closure. A number of independent HBCUs fit this profile. Within the last two years, SACS has put eight HBCUs on warning or probation. Each institution must take a hard look at itself and determine if it has the resources and momentum to go on.
And the objective must be more than mere survival. As Benjamin Mays reminds us, “Not failure but low aim is sin.” Sustainability must be the ultimate goal for each institution. A struggling HBCU should carefully assess its overall condition to determine what, if anything can or should be done to achieve such sustainability. In that evaluation, here are several options it might consider.
Adopting a new business model. Black colleges desperately need a new business model that is intentional, innovative and committed to change. That will probably require confronting an organizational culture rooted in obsolete business practices or identifying a niche or center of excellence that distinguishes it from the competition. But fundamentally it means exploring options to increase revenue, contain or reduce costs, and restructuring to achieve strategic goals.
Creating a new vision. It has been said that “without vision the people perish.” Higher education is no longer the exclusive preserve of traditional colleges and universities. In addition to majority institutions, online universities, for-profit institutions and two-year colleges aggressively compete with HBCUs for students and faculty members. A new vision might lead to eliminating programs and subsequent redeployment or reduction of faculty. It could also entail establishing mutually beneficial strategic partnerships and alliances with four-year and two-year institutions to contain costs, eliminate duplication of effort, and create joint-degree programs that respond to new or emergent market demand.
A handful of HBCUs are currently pursuing some of the aforementioned strategies, a development that augurs well. The new vision should also recognize that being an HBCU and embracing diversity are not mutually exclusive. This concern should be addressed, as some HBCU alumni have expressed reservations about recruiting students from other races. Yet since their inception, HBCUs have been open to white students. In a few states, white students enjoy a majority at formerly all-black institutions, such as Bluefield State University, West Virginia State University and Gadsden State Community College in Alabama. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, at a quarter of HBCUs in the country, at least 20 percent of the students enrolled are non-African-American -- underscoring the fact some of those institutions are actively recruiting white, Asian and Latino students to increase diversity and raise revenues.
Committing to recruiting the best talent for the presidency and governing boards. Recent reports on the American college presidency point to the increasing challenges of the role and the difficulty in recruiting top talent. There is a dearth of future institutional leadership generally and at HBCUs in particular. Yet more can be done to recruit and prepare leaders for the presidency and to serve on governing boards.
HBCU boards must also be intentional about the type of leader required to achieve predetermined or anticipated goals. They can do a better job of performing due diligence and properly vetting applicants for president. Often there are instances of recycling former presidents who have failed previously. Trustees and presidents also must work to create a harmonious relationship and commit to an annual assessment of the president and the board toward improved performance. At the same time, boards must be willing to listen to the president and give that person time to make necessary but difficult changes.
While the most important decision a board makes is hiring a president, the board, too, must be equal to the task. That means recruiting strong leaders with specific skills --- finance, technology, knowledge of the academy, marketing and branding, etc. -- that will enhance board effectiveness.
Fostering meaningful engagement among key stakeholders. Shared governance is essential to fulfilling the mission and potential of colleges and universities and should be encouraged within the context of institutional culture. Faculty, staff, students and alumni must enjoy meaningful and appropriate roles in leadership and governance, and they must feel that they have a voice. In addition, friend raising is antecedent to fund-raising. Creating positive experiences for students when they first enroll and throughout their time in college increases the likelihood they will financially support the institution after they graduate.
Money is necessary but not sufficient to remedy the ailments of HBCUs. Any substantial investment in black colleges should be intentional. This can be accomplished with specific inducements toward innovation and a commitment to incentivizing HBCUs to develop bold and creative solutions to the daunting challenges they face. Creating and responding to incentives may prove to be the most consequential action possible under the circumstances.
This conversation must begin with the governing board. Indeed, the future of black colleges is absolutely dependent on effective board governance. Boards have a sacred duty and responsibility to the institution and its various stakeholders -- they must, as Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, reminds us, “get governance right.” The president and the board chair must act as thought leaders and partners, and boards should work diligently to become capable of guiding the institution during an era of enormous change and an uncertain future.
An effective governing board does not shrink from confronting harsh realities and making difficult decisions. The board of General Motors reluctantly eliminated Pontiac and Oldsmobile, but it helped save the company. Print publications that successfully adapted to new technologies are still operating, while competitors that failed to change their business model are not.
Whether the boardroom is corporate or campus, governance matters as never before. Governing boards can be reluctant to change, but it is always better to be on the vanguard of change in order to manage it advantageously. Now is the time for boards at black colleges to take stock and act decisively. Doing so could result in actions designed to achieve sustainability.