The Urgency and Fear of Now: The Atwood Institute and the Future of HBCUs

I had the privilege of announcing last week, along with the Kentucky State University Board of Regents our newly created research center, the Atwood Institute for Race, Education and the Democratic Ideal. Our executive leadership endorsed this idea for several reasons, but chief among them was the opportunity for KSU to lead both national conversations and research in each of these critically important and intersecting areas.
The time has come for institutions of higher learning, especially HBCUs, to be more aggressive about the advancement of scholarship in spaces and within topics of import to “all” communities. Right now, the heavy lifting of the delicate condition of black America and other marginalized populations is being done by several worthy black and white scholars employed by non-HBCUs. The nation is hungry for leadership, not from an individual or within a cause, but from an institutional approach that portends a holistic and indigenous response to solving the most vexing issues of our time.
Fifteen years ago, the late Congressman William H. Gray III summoned me from a career in predominantly white, research-intensive higher education to lead the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute of the United Negro College Fund. The Patterson Institute focused primarily on African American educational attainment from birth to adulthood. More specifically, we focused on the role of black colleges in producing educated citizen for the middle-class taxpayers for the nation. We released several important volumes and held an international conference celebrating the global implications emerging from the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.
That was then; how do we chart a course in this new space?
Today, the higher education terrain is more tenuous and uncertain that ever before. Many private HBCUs are perilously close to closure as a result of increasing expenses and declining revenues. Concomitantly, public black colleges are challenged by shifting demography in the southern states and the pro-black student programming of historically white institutions. These trends conjoined to the silent effects of demands for public accountability, the call for measured achievement in postgraduate matriculation or gainful employment, the absence of a national group think on the utility of our unique cohort of institutions, and the realities of a post-Obama America proffer a fertile breeding ground for research on us that is conducted by us.
We are in the midst of interpolated social crises in collusion with covert economic, political and industrial emergencies unlike we have ever witnessed for the better part of 50 years. And while HBCUs have maintained their unparalleled importance and delivery of black human capital to address these issues, our institutions no longer move with collective dispatch in elevating the thinking or the value of these issues for those outside of our gates. The seat at the table for the likes of Charles S. Johnson, Booker T. Washington, Johnnetta B. Cole, Samuel D. Proctor, and Mary McLeod Bethune have long been empty.
Further, our most persistent challenges in public health, political access, wealth building, workforce utility, and educational attainment are not being addressed in corpus by HBCU researchers or thought leaders. This is not to criticize our campuses or those who toil as faculty and researchers at our institutions; rather it is to hearken all of our attentions to the resource challenge among HBCUs, and to again make clear how urgent the times have become in spite of what we may or may not have in the way of enrollment, facilities, or extramural funding.
The Atwood Institute is a function and focus of the above priorities. Its seed funding was repurposed from monies typically reserved by the institution for presidential civic memberships, country club access, and health club dues. While each of these things are necessary for a leader to build relationships within the community, fundraising prospects and goodwill for the institution, in the short and long term, they are not the best investment for my institution when weighed against the prospects of elevating Kentucky State and HBCUs to the national forefront and/or influencing policy conversations on racial, educational, or democratic disparities.
The Atwood Institute will function as part talent incubator, part research hub, part town square and part conscience for the HBCU community. In all of the areas where HBCU work in surveying, conversation creation, analytical interpretation and “mother-wit” have gone unnoticed even among our own campuses, we hope to close that gap by exposing the voices and ideas which speak truth to the power of our collective existence and individual identities.
What are the effects of underfunding on HBCUs, and through them, the development of communities of color nationwide? What is the analytical impact of student political mobilization in HBCU communities over the last 50 years, and how has state and federal policy been shaped as a result? What are the cross-sections of secondary education, industry, and poverty in this nation, and what are the best institutional practices being created at HBCUs to address these issues? What are the implications of the shifting racial and ideological composition of our faculty, students, and administrative ranks?
The answers to these questions are essential to the survival of all HBCUs. They incorporate elements of the liberal arts, science and mathematics, social science, and the pre-professions. Additionally, the synergistic chorus of answers to these research queries help to create a narrative of the American experience that can only be chronicled from the perspective of our campus contexts and histories.
Even more, the Atwood Institute will reify the role of 1890 land grant institutions in addressing the agricultural concerns of global communities. The national silence on food deserts, the rural poor, aquaculture, and produce/livestock commodification leaves a wide swath of new territory to promote our extant knowledge bases for the public good. The potential lengths of influence on policymaking, industrial development, and social identity as we know it are immeasurable.
The Atwood Institute is presently seeking its inaugural director. Soon, we will be hiring faculty and scholars who will serve in joint, permanent, and visiting roles. We are engaging foundations to advance the key questions at the intersections of race, education, and democracy. This is more than our contribution to American democracy; it is the definition of the same. And as we foster more equal opportunity and level understanding of facts and perspectives, we are prepared to make the case for the future of HBCUs as an essential part of our national social enterprise.
Some might ask why Kentucky State is best for this work, why we are the first HBCU to offer such an initiative, or what makes Kentucky an ideal incubator for such ambitious undertaking. It is because we, like most other HBCUs, seek excellence in all things.
If Kentucky State University fails to launch, or worse yet tarries in beginning this work, we risk the true indignity of irrelevance, the question of which has grown in its ugly attachment to the discourse surrounding HBCUs in recent decades. But unlike many institutions, the Thorobreds of Frankfort fervently believe in the urgency and fear of now.
In The Fire Next Time James Baldwin writes, “and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be, indeed one must strive to become, tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of man. (But remember: most of mankind is not all of mankind.) But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
We cannot wait. We cannot fail. We cannot depend on others to do our work.