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A Conversation with The President

This is why HBCUs matter, Mr. President

‘High achievers in HBCU-land are nurtured, not ignored’

I didn’t attend an HBCU as an undergraduate, but I wish I had. As an undergraduate at Boston College, I had to fight to prove I was smart, and this is the experience of too many young people at PWIs (predominantly white institutions).

At a historically black college or university (HBCU), I would not have had to fight to prove that I was smart and academically inclined. At an HBCU, I think, I would have been affirmed and celebrated.

At my undergraduate college, there was always “something.” I was once accused of cheating, and though the charge was disproven, I was stung by it, and began to approach the world with my fists balled up and a readiness to fight. I often say that I would be much less belligerent, more chill had I attended an HBCU.

This is why I believe that HBCUs matter, and why one of the high points of my life was leading Bennett College, the oldest HBCU for women, for five years. When I went to North Carolina in 2007, I was approached by young black women who attended PWIs in North Carolina and aspired to careers in economics.

They wanted to talk to me, they said, because their white professors were not so interested in cultivating them. Despite their high grades, they did not earn the mentorship of the professors who, for whatever reason, had closed their eyes to the potential that these young women had.

High achievers in HBCU-land are nurtured, not ignored. Professors seek them out and don’t shun them. There is something special about the HBCU space that is inspirational and fulfilling. It is something that is to be embraced and encouraged. In some ways HBCUs are a national treasure.

There are more than 4,000 four-year colleges and universities in our nation and a scant 100 of them (give or take a few, depending on accreditation matters) are HBCUs. So 2.5 percent of our nation’s colleges are graduating as many as 15 percent of our nation’s African-American baccalaureate degree holders, and a disproportionate number of those who go on to get advanced degrees, especially in the STEM fields. HBCUs are value added to our nation, but they are an underappreciated resource.

Black Lives Matter, and Black Colleges Matter, too. At some points in time, the White House has embraced this concept and encouraged it. The White House Initiative on HBCUs has sometimes been led by people who used the president’s imprimatur to engage federal agencies in providing funds for HBCUs. When Catherine LeBlanc led the White House Initiative under President Bill Clinton, she went directly to federal departments and encouraged (if not demanded) that they offer HBCUs contracting opportunities. After all, PWIs garner hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts. Why shouldn’t HBCUs participate in these research opportunities, either as contractors or subcontractors? LeBlanc successfully opened doors for federal agencies to work with HBCUs and to bring money to the colleges.

Under President George W. Bush, appointee Leonard Haynes worked to bring more resources to HBCUs. Haynes was passionate about engaging HBCUs in globalization, and was also part of the decision to offer HBCUs $85 million a year for 10 years to deal with issues of deferred maintenance and infrastructure. Those dollars allowed colleges to repair buildings, enhance technology, and provide services to students. What a surprise it was when President Barack Obama proposed that the Bush allotment to HBCUs was to end.

I don’t think that Obama ever fully appreciated the importance of HBCUs. He appointed a Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who had a clumsy relationship with HBCU leadership, and whose imposition of regulations to tighten credit requirements for federal loans caused HBCUs to lose 28,000 students in 2012.

Obama also appointed John Sylvanus Wilson, who currently leads Morehouse College, to lead the White House Initiative on HBCUs. He was criticized for the way that he scolded HBCU leaders, saying we were deficient and inefficient, and schools needed to merge or go out of business.

And so, as Obama goes to North Carolina A&T State University to engage in a conversation with students about excellence, I am both encouraged and concerned. I’m encouraged that our president is visiting an outstanding institution that is rooted in the civil rights movement. North Carolina A&T students (along with the women of Bennett College, too often unrecognized) are rooted in the struggle for civil rights. (Bennett College was the first institution in North Carolina to host Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when no church or other college could or would.)

I am encouraged that Obama will take the time to talk with students about his views about sports and academic excellence. But I am also concerned. I am concerned that our president has yet to embrace the HBCU energy and message, and I am hopeful that he not only takes the opportunity to do so at this meeting, but that he brings more than encouraging words.

In these last days of his administration, the president can use his executive orders to bring money to HBCUs, to mandate federal contracting with HBCUs, to curtail strict enforcement of Parent Plus loan qualifications, to provide additional scholarships for our outstanding students.

While neither Obama nor I matriculated at HBCUs, I have a profound appreciation for the history, heritage, and contemporary productivity of our colleges. I wish I could transmit that enthusiasm to Obama. I hope that the audience at North Carolina A&T State University says something that makes the president embrace our important work and use his waning days to lift HBCUs up!

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women. She is an economist, author and commentator who’s popular writings have appeared in numerous publications, such as USA Today, Black Issues in Higher Education, Ms.Magazine and Essence Magazine. She’s also appeared on CNN, BET, PBS, NBC, ABC, Fox News and MSNBC.