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HBCU leaders approach fall reopenings with caution and optimism

Several September games, including the Southern Heritage Classic and homecomings, have already been canceled

“Normal” takes on a new meaning at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) when the worst health crisis in 100 years strikes the country. The same goes when the nation suddenly is thrust into the most defining civil rights movement of its generation.

In 2020, the two struck the world – and, naturally, the HBCU community – just months apart, packing a simultaneous punch as summer began. The disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic and of police brutality and overall societal injustice against African Americans were acutely felt on Black college campuses everywhere.

The most recent manifestation of that is last week’s cancellation of several classic games, including the Sept. 12 contests between Florida A&M and Southern in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the Southern Heritage Classic game and weekend in Memphis, Tennessee. Homecoming events at North Carolina A&T State, Winston-Salem State and North Carolina Central have also been canceled.

HBCUs are taking different approaches and views of COVID-19, which began disrupting campuses in late February and has no true end in sight, and the anti-racism protests that grew from the horrific slaying of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day some three months later.

On one hand, HBCUs have had to make the best of what they have, but prepare for the worst, from slashes of state and federal funds to nosediving enrollment and returns to, as in the case of Morehouse College, widespread job losses. On June 1, with an estimated 25% drop in enrollment for next fall, Morehouse put in place 13 layoffs, 54 two-month furloughs and 194 pay cuts.

For the roughly 100 HBCUs, the facts of life have never changed and were not going to be better in a pandemic. “Traditionally, HBCUs have been underfunded, and right now that underfunding is magnified,’’ said Tennessee State president Glenda Glover. “That comes home to roost.’’

On the other hand, Glover was one of many HBCU administrators to assert their leadership as the nationwide protests grew in June. In her position at Tennessee State, as national president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and with a coalition of 13 prominent Black female organization leaders, on June 12 she offered Floyd’s daughter and granddaughters full scholarships to an HBCU of their choice.

All over the country, HBCU students, faculty and alumni led and participated in protests, supported those who marched and connected with those who wanted to engage. One of the many marches in Baltimore during the first week of protests started at Morgan State University, was led by students and alumni and included school president David Wilson.

It all took place while the schools navigated the uncertainty of the near future because of the pandemic. But the commitment to the principles of Black Lives Matter was never uncertain.

In fact, said Grambling State University president Rick Gallot, “This is a really good time to be at an HBCU. Black lives have always mattered.”

While the movement has illuminated the mission of these historic institutions, the scramble to serve the students and the community as the pandemic worsened has proven to be a testament to their survivability.

These HBCUs – Grambling State, Tuskegee University and Albany State, two public and one private – are under pressure from both forces and it isn’t letting up anytime soon.

Grambling State University

Two of the many common themes across the HBCU landscape emerging from the COVID-19 crisis are the technology gap and the uniqueness of the situation. Grambling, a 5,200-student university in Louisiana, was in the paths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Gallot, president of Grambling since 2016, was a state legislator when those hurricanes hit. As sudden as those storms were, he said, the university and region had more warning than this time.

“We’ve seen disruptions before, is what I’m trying to say, and we always find a way to work our way through these challenges,’’ said Gallot.

The technology gap is less of a challenge than it might have been at Grambling. Other HBCUs and African American students at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) face steeper challenges. Gallot was as concerned as other executives that students did not have the equipment, Wi-Fi access and other infrastructure needed to finish spring classes online and be ready for the upcoming academic year.

But Grambling was more prepared than most, he said, thanks to federal and state funding in recent years directed to upgrading those technologies, and to build what will be the first digital library at a Louisiana college, and the first at an HBCU. The library broke ground in September.

Grambling State president Rick Gallot: “We’ve seen disruptions before, is what I’m trying to say, and we always find a way to work our way through these challenges.’’

Grambling State University

“We are really in position to handle this moment in time, where technology is so critical to the delivery of education,’’ Gallot said.

He also noted how important it is that state government, led by Gov. John Bel Edwards, has followed federal health guidelines. The state has needed prudent leadership, Gallot pointed out, with the oil, tourism and gaming industries taking a fierce hit from the recession. Plus, under previous administrations, state funding to higher education was slashed, and the domino effect once again did the most damage to HBCUs at the bottom of the hierarchy. All that put even greater weight on enrollment to keep the school functioning.

Gallot said the early numbers for returning and incoming students for the fall 2020 semester are strong – so strong that the women’s dorms are already sold out and the men’s dorms are close. The state university system announced in mid-May that it expected campuses to be open to students next semester, and so far, Grambling has plans to do so. If the economic downturn is to affect enrollment, it won’t happen quite yet.

“From the standpoint of gauging student interest by their interest in housing,’’ Gallot said, “then I think it’s a good indicator that interest is still strong in attending Grambling State University. We have a housing shortage problem, which is probably a good problem to have.’’

That interest was just as strong in early June, Gallot added, after Floyd’s death while in police custody ignited a whole new conversation in the campus community. It included the contrast between the experience on their campus and for Black students at PWIs elsewhere in Louisiana.

While city and state officials reached out to Grambling faculty, administrators and alumni for guidance and support, Gallot pointed out, two faculty members at the University of Louisiana Monroe were put on administrative leave, and another was fired for racist social media posts, including one that referred to former President Barack Obama as a “monkey.”

That response, Gallot said, is what makes Grambling and other HBCUs so vital for Black students in the middle of turmoil like this: “They won’t be racially profiled on campus. They won’t have racist things posted on their campus or disgusting things written on their walls because they’re Black. Those things just do not exist on our campus.”

“They won’t be racially profiled on campus. They won’t have racist things posted on their campus or disgusting things written on their walls because they’re Black. Those things just do not exist on our campus.” – Grambling president Rick Gallot

Alumni have also stood in the gap as the pandemic wreaked havoc on Grambling’s financial outlook and encouraged students and parents to stay committed to next year. They have been just as aggressive supporting anybody related to the school who is involved in the protests. Gallot said the virtual meetings have grown in number and size during the summer.

All the plans for the fall semester come with an asterisk, he said, and for now students are still scheduled to return on time in August. The early-season schedules for the football team and marching band have not been altered yet, and the Bayou Classic in New Orleans is still set for the weekend of Nov. 28.

“There are a lot of moving parts to all of this,” Gallot said of the pandemic planning, and the Black Lives Matter movement has moving parts of its own.

However, he said, “It’s not like we’ve had to gather a crisis communications team here. … What we do is what we do every day.”

Tuskegee University

Challenges at large public HBCUs in ordinary times – and now during the coronavirus crisis – are daunting enough. At smaller, private universities, such as Tuskegee University in rural Alabama, they are multiplied.

Yet, while the world of HBCUs is often invisible to white America, Tuskegee is not. “When you have founders like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver,” said vice president for student affairs Kimberly Scott, her pride audible, “and when you have the Tuskegee Airmen as part of your legacy, it carries a long way.”

Because Tuskegee is a hub for science, technology and engineering and is located in an isolated, heavily agricultural area, Scott, school president Lily McNair and the rest of the Tuskegee administration willingly took on the responsibility for educating its community about COVID-19. In some cases, it meant aiding in testing. It continues to do that as it tries to stay ahead of the ever-changing coronavirus impact.

The current plan (as of mid-June) is for a hybrid scenario of in-person and remote teaching. Like every college of every size, in-person classes mean designing dorms, classrooms, dining halls, public spaces and athletic and recreation areas to accommodate social distancing. All of those areas have to be sanitized in new and costly ways, and personal protective equipment has to be made available to all.

“They come here for the culture, the experience and the connections that they make here on campus with alumni and employers and we want to continue to provide that unique experience. So, delivery is important, making sure that it’s high-tech and high-touch.” – Kimberly Scott, Tuskegee vice president of student affairs

That likely will mean having fewer students on campus. Tuition, fees and room and board for the just-concluded academic year at the school that has an enrollment of about 3,000 students cost a little over $33,000. Add the anticipated slashing of Alabama’s higher-education budget because of the economic downturn, and it’s a steep climb, Scott said.

“It means we are looking at other means of seeking funding and not being as reliant on state,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been extremely reliant upon state, [but] the reality is, we do receive it.” Again stepping into the breach is a very vibrant group of alumni, faculty and staff who, despite the disruption in their lives and careers, have multiplied their efforts to communicate with returning and prospective students.

The goal, health and safety permitting, is a return to campus, Scott said, because no matter how many of the technological hurdles are cleared for remote instruction, their preference is “trying to find out a way to maintain that connection that is a part of the HBCU experience.”

“They come here for the culture, the experience and the connections that they make here on campus with alumni and employers,” she said, “and we want to continue to provide that unique experience. So, delivery is important, making sure that it’s high-tech and high-touch.”

Scott brought all of this up in mid-May. It was brought to vibrant, active life at the end of the month as the protests evolved and grew, affecting Tuskegee people now spread across the country as summer began. Everything the school had put into place to keep the lines of communication open to students during the health crisis became even more critical, as students organized their own demonstrations and alumni reached out to offer their experience and give support.

But Scott made clear, “I don’t think our faculty and staff and students look at it as a responsibility that is daunting. It’s just part of the fabric of Tuskegee.” One of McNair’s first acts after the Floyd demonstrations began to spread, Scott added, was to email all of the students, reminding them that “Tuskegee has been at the forefront of the civil rights movement.”

One of Scott’s first acts was to organize a Zoom event in early June, “Know Justice, Know Peace,” that included a panel of experts and a pair of student campus leaders, rising seniors Sydney Jones and Cedric Davis. Jones and Davis also participated in area protests on behalf of the school.

Like Grambling, Tuskegee offers something PWIs cannot to their Black students, Scott noted, remembering her experiences at several non-HBCUs, “places where you’d see the Confederate flag displayed,” she recalled. On the contrary, she added, “On this campus, we’re supposed to be the leaders.”

Amid all of this, Tuskegee still has to function in a fairly regressive political atmosphere, in which state officials have mishandled stay-at-home orders that have resulted in spikes in coronavirus infections.

“One day when you think you have answers,” Scott said, “the state opens up and it changes the dynamics again, and you see more cases being reported. So that makes you a little leery about the choices you make.”

Albany State University

If any HBCUs live in fear of the coronavirus pandemic, they might be the 10 located in Georgia, including Morehouse and Albany State, the largest public HBCU by enrollment in the state. Fear is not the word school president Marion Fedrick used, but there is always a wary eye cast at Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who has not followed federal health guidelines in reopening the state’s economy. There has also been a surge in new coronavirus cases reported in Georgia recently.

The decision-makers have listened, she said, when she voiced her concerns or made her priorities clear. “At the same time,” she said, “where the great challenge is that when people say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do it because it’s OK to do it.’ It has a great impact on us.

“So, we’ve had to say, ‘You know what, yes, everything’s open, but we are not. The campus is not open. Technically, it is not open. People are working, but the biggest part of the campus is not open. We are not open. It’s not available. We will not be there to service you.”

Much of everything else, though, fits into her advice to students, faculty and staff at a recent town hall meeting: “Please get comfortable in the vagueness, because we won’t have answers immediately, we won’t have answers in the short term, and there are some things that will take us some time to do. But we’ll think it through and figure it out.”

Given how the coronavirus is surging in Georgia, questions remain whether Albany State students will be able to return to campus this fall.

Albany State University

That includes many of the students being unsettled, and being close to ground zero for the virus in Georgia. The campus was shut down and emptied at roughly the same time in late March as an outbreak hit the city of Albany, traced to a pair of funerals held in late February and early March.

Albany, with an enrollment of about 6,000 students, “is such a close-knit community, such a caring community; everybody walks around with these huge, humongous hearts, which makes it such a great place to be, so anytime this person gets sick, everybody is aware, everyone wants to help,” said Fedrick.

“I mention that because it impacts the core mission of what we are doing, and that’s providing instruction to students, so we have to think through that, how we support our community. It’s part of our mission.’’

Besides the anxiety of the sudden halt to classes, the immediate exit, the change in teaching and the uncertainty about next fall, like many HBCUs, Albany State wrestled with the repercussions for students who were homeless, had unstable, unsafe home lives, or had aged out of foster care.

“I get worried about people wanting football, people wanting fall sports. They say, ‘We’ll be fine,’ and they may be right. I hope they’re right, if that’s the decision we make. But we do have to think about it, we do have to weigh it.” –Albany State president Marion Fedrick

“We have had students reach out to say, ‘My home life is not conducive to learning,’ ” Fedrick said. “Some students are now taking care of siblings or others that they did not have to do while they were living on campus. Some of the environments that students went back to – we were the safe place, and we learned that quickly as we were asking students to move. We had students who just told us, ‘No, we’re not moving,’ and we told them, ‘Yes, you have to move, and move back home or wherever it is you go.’ ”

The school ended up keeping a dorm open for those students. It likely will face a similar issue if the school reopens next fall, a decision that is still far off.

As other schools have claimed, enrollments and incoming student commitments are ahead of last year’s pace, Fedrick said. There are too many variables to predict anything, and that includes not knowing which of their options will be put into effect for classes.

“Just to be here, they’ve already overcome so many things and faced so many things, so they come with a level of resilience that I think we totally underestimate,” she said. “They see it as, ‘I can overcome this, I can fix this.’ Even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing, when you still come and sign up for class in the middle of a pandemic, that’s exactly what they’re doing.”

The flip side of doing right by the students is staying aware of those who are more invested in their own health and safety – physical and mental – than the Albany State community.

“I get worried about people wanting football, people wanting fall sports,” Fedrick said. “They say, ‘We’ll be fine,’ and they may be right. I hope they’re right, if that’s the decision we make. But we do have to think about it, we do have to weigh it.

“What do we do when the pressure comes? Because the pressure will come, one way or the other. The pressure will come. So, we just have to plan for it.”

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture. He also is the author of "It Was Always a Choice: Picking Up the Baton of Athlete Activism," published in 2022.