Saving HBCUs That Don't Want to be Saved

Paine College vowed last week to fight the loss of its accreditation, clearing the way for alumni and community members to raise enough hope, money and goodwill to preserve 134 years of history from the crushing weight of the last decade marred by industrial change, executive incompetence, and managerial lawlessness.
Simply saving Paine today won’t make it sustainable for tomorrow. Even if we can raise enough money to keep one of Augusta’s key economic drivers open for another year or two, it won’t save the school from a Department of Education aggressively working to prepare the country for a future in which the only schools likely to survive are large schools with majors that help save, improve or lengthen lives.
Paine could have been one of those schools – just like Barber-Scotia College, Knoxville College, Morris Brown College and Saint Paul’s College before it. All of these small, private black schools had the history and potential to do something great for the black communities which surround them, and yet all fell prey to similar outcomes.
The HBCU concept is one worth dying for. But it is hard to devote a similar loyalty to these campuses, these specific parcels of land, buildings and history, which did not adjust to how the business of higher education was changing around them, and didn’t align strategy with what was best for business and students.
Even if they could come back, the rules which now oppose their existence would be too much to overcome. The federal government two weeks ago said that financially risky schools could lose access to federal student loans and grants for their students.
And just as that announcement was made, stories pop up in major newspapers across the country to prepare the American public for the new era of higher education.
The Washington Post reported last week that 40 percent of all college and universities enroll fewer than 1,000 students, three of which closed last month.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the return of the manufacturing industry will be intimately tied to community colleges producing the next wave of its labor force.
The New York Times is eulogizing the law school as we’ve known it; a bulletproof professional program to produce high earning graduates who are willing to pay costly tuition costs for the right to practice and live among the nation’s highest earners.
The University of Wyoming has declared financial exigency, not because enrollment at the state’s flagship institution is down, but because tax revenues from its energy industry have fallen dramatically enough that the school has to shave $40 million from its next budget.
The question we have to ask is if HBCUs remain as a necessity which can birth invention in black communities. If the answer is no, then black America is better off without these schools attracting bad leadership and negative headlines for the entire culture.
But if we need them – all of them – then they have to pursue unconventional approaches for survival. And that could mean that schools like Paine seek partnerships or mergers with public institutions. If that means Paine becomes Fort Valley State University at Augusta, then so be it.
If that means Grambling State University has to join the Southern University System, if it means Voorhees College has to join South Carolina State University, or Fisk University into Tennessee State University , then those are prickly ideas which may sting in the short-term, but will aid black students and communities in surviving beyond just a few years.
Schools like Paul Quinn College, Shaw University, Howard University, Tuskegee University and Virginia State University are on the rebound under strong presidential leadership. But their stories of success too often are washed out by headlines of financial unsteadiness, lack of resources and the lingering questions about relevance.
Tides have changed for HBCUs in the last six months, thanks to a swell of interest from prospective students seeking to avoid rampant racism exposed at predominantly white institutions. But even with renewed national interest from black communities, several HBCUs are seemingly in the last moments of institutional life, while schools like Elizabeth City State University, Cheyney University, and dozens of private HBCUs whose death certificates are being signed in the privacy of exemption from public disclosure about finance, prepare for their shameful last rites to be read in local and national media.
Every HBCU isn’t on the ropes, but all HBCUs should be on alert for what’s next. Death is coming for several campuses, and soon. It will be sudden, swift, and painful to every community which will mourn respective centuries of mobility and emancipation – erased by industrial demands and black negligence.
And most sadly, like Paine, we won’t be able to say we didn’t see it coming. We’ll have to confess that we saw it the whole time, and never cared to do anything about it.