The Way We Talk About HBCUs

Jelani Cobb writes in the New Yorker today about Howard University and its president Wayne A.I. Frederick, offering a long-form feature of Howard’s struggles in a political and social climate which has yielded a Trump presidency, and questions about HBCU identity as it darts in and out of the consciences of America and Black America.

The read is a good one; more in-depth than we’ve seen in a while. It is also the second feature of an HBCU president in the last several months, joining Adam Harris’ October 2017 profile of Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Both men are deserving of the coverage for longevity in a culture that is maligned outside of our borders for the same. Their stability in the realm of uncertainty deserves accolades on its own, but it also adds to the notion that too many of us, even those working hard to advance HBCU narratives in public spaces, do not understand what black colleges need most, and the complexity of how to deliver on these needs.

There have been no shortage of features on HBCU leaders through the years; hero epics for presidents like Benjamin Mays, Frederick Humphries, Johnnetta Cole, Earl Richardson, William Harvey and several others aren’t made without media affirming them for students and alumni over a course of many years. But those days have passed; the average college presidency, historically black or otherwise, is just over six years. Part of that truncated average is because the problems facing higher education are so prevalent, good boards understand that campus leadership must be turned over quickly to ensure that a president’s strong suits meet the current needs of a campus, or the campus will face instant crisis.

Terrible boards get rid of presidents because they are unliked or unpopular, or because they failed to pick the right fit for their campus. And most of the HBCU boards in between these two simply can’t afford to keep a good president, because good presidents realize quickly that a good career isn’t one that is transformative, but rather, one which allows a campus to function with enough normalcy to survive.

Understanding presidential brevity is the first step of understanding HBCU culture beyond its entrenched and comfortable tales of past inequities conquered, opportunities given to the least fortunate, and scientifical unexplained cultural resilience.

In exposing the leaders of these scrappy institutions, most black reporters, writers and critics are working hard to show the humanity within the ebony tower; to examine the wisdom, humor, insecurities and optimism of the folks responsible for keeping doors open not only for operations, but for the dreams of a race.

But in exposing humanity by way of our leaders, which again is hard-earned and long-overdue, we insulate ourselves from the dialog that will truly save black colleges; the inextricable ties to industry that have made HBCUs seemingly indestructible for generations.

Higher education is an industry where the all of its most important actors are temporary artists attempting to paint a canvas which will resound through the ages. Students who only remain at a school for four-to-six years define a legacy of competitive value for a degree and a student body standard, both of which shape the identities of alumni donors and corporate partners.

Presidents and their cabinets are around for less than 10 years, working to develop five-year strategic plans the likes of which they won’t see completed, lobbying for funds to repay debts which will take 20 years to conquer, for more than 70 percent of students whom will not complete their college educations within six years, and for capital projects designed to stand for 30 years in good condition, but which will be technologically obsolete in less than five years.

And they are working to do all of this without crime, scandal and in the face of daily, searing political opposition.

To this end, the story of HBCUs is not found in a resilient past, or the limitless talent of today’s presidents – the story is in how the United States will continue to function as the world’s most powerful nation, as most of its citizenry goes backwards in its ability to amass wealth, knowledge and work ethic.

The story is how black colleges have thrived off of the nation’s obsession with social and economic hierarchies to advance its narrative of manifest destiny. This is, that rich white people should receive a life of opportunity and happiness, poor white people deserve the opportunity to dream for the same, and that everyone else benefits from whatever byproducts the first two rules yield.

Now that America is not far and away the smartest or most productive nation on Earth, the country is scrambling to find a way to culturally and industrially embrace its victim classes to teach them how to think with innovation and populism.

HBCUs have done it – they converted the descendants of slaves and made of them a middle class, excelling in all fields of industry, culture and political nuance. And because this experiment worked better than the rich white men who demanded it in the late 1800s thought it would, resentment has surrounded these campuses for generations, thriving public Ally in forms of unbalanced media coverage, unequal funding, disparate community development and policies which punish open-access enrollment and reward limited industrial training.

Those same elements intended for harm are exactly what America now needs most. No one could’ve guessed in the early 1900s that attempting to make all black people teachers, preachers, farmers and nurses would have, more than 150 years later, been the exact professions America needs in desperate number.

No one could have imagined that by allowing black folks to perfect a system of higher education for citizens woefully underserved by public secondary education, we would construct a system that even research-intensive institutions are hard pressed to learn in 2018.

So instead of our black journalists and thought leaders examining this ironic reality, we are now hustling backwards – we are working to memorialize temporary voices in a chorus singing about a new America, a song which is generations-old to us, but which now presents opportunity for HBCUs to emerge as models for the making of its new intelligentsia.

It is not disrespectful to say that while Dr. Frederick and Dr. Kimbrough are important figures, they aren’t even close to the story of Howard’s role in staving off gentrification in Northwest Washington D.C., or Dillard’s role in erasing generational poverty in New Orleans.

If and when those issues are solved, Frederick and Kimbrough won’t be in office to see them, so rather than profiling their lives, we should be profiling their commitment to eliminating these issues, and how their work takes form in the development of scholars, researchers and activists who will solve these problems.

The HBCU story is not best told through the examination of it’s people; it is told by the byproduct of its mission. Everybody knows well the story of Muhammad Ali, but very few know the name of the gym which welcomed him as a youth.

Everyone knows about Trump’s rise to the presidency, but no one knows the names of the law firms which helped him to understand tax law and municipal permitting, which allowed him to skirt regulations and amass wealth to build a brand over 30 years which put him in position for election.

Black lives matter; just as much as the institutions which cultivate them for success. Our storytelling and advocacy have to reflect this truth, even if it’s not one we’re used to sharing.

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