A Call to Action

Charlie Nelms, the Chancellor at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) recently wrote a policy paper calling for the strengthening of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s). He also issued a call to action to those public and private funders that support these important institutions. Specifically, Nelms called for a National HBCU Reinvestment Act.

Rightly so, Nelms pointed out in the paper that the only federal initiative with the express purpose of strengthening HBCU’s was the Higher Education Act of 1965. Yes, there have been federal initiatives that have indirectly had an impact on HBCU’s, but often even when HBCU’s or their students have been written into federal legislation monies have been diverted to other institutions and populations. Given President Obama’s call for the United States to bolster its college-educated population, Nelms wants to see the federal government as well as state governments, foundations, and corporations investing in HBCU’s and their students.

Nelms sees many areas within HBCU’s that must and should be strengthened. First and foremost, he calls for a reinvigorating of the campus infrastructure of HBCU’s. For decades, HBCU’s were funded at dismal levels—even private HBCU’s suffered because philanthropists gave them pennies compared to what they gave historically White institutions (HWI’s). In order to compete with HWI’s, HBCU’s need to have better equipped facilities, enhanced technology, and support for deferred maintenance (that is surely the result of those decades of unequal funding).

The NCCU Chancellor calls for the expansion of research programs at HBCU’s, noting how important it is for faculty to stay fresh and familiar with research. Moreover, he makes the connection between conducting research and good teaching as well as the connection to the performance and retention of students. HBCU’s need better infrastructure to secure large grants that make it possible for faculty to pursue active research agendas. On many HBCU campuses, there needs to be a change in mindset among administrators, giving faculty who pursue research reduced teaching loads.

Nelms urges HBCU’s to consider succession planning in two areas: faculty and executive leadership. He stresses the need for faculty who are committed to the historic mission of HBCU’s as well student engagement. Likewise, he wants HBCU’s to cultivate future leaders who are innovative, inventive, and who trumpet the importance of HBCU’s on a national level. HBCU’s are vital to the success of the nation, and according to Nelms, HBCU leaders need to be consistently vocal about their institutions’ value.

Globalization of the HBCU curriculum is also vastly important to Nelms. He wants to see HBCU’s reaching out to the growing Latino and Asian populations of college students. Increasing racial and ethnic diversity on HBCU campuses is somewhat controversial among HBCU leaders and alumni but to bolster enrollment it is necessary.  Nelms also sees the benefits of diversity on the HBCU campus.  He calls for the internationalization of the HBCU experience, with more long-term study abroad programs and opportunities to learn critical languages such as Arabic and Chinese.

Lastly, although Nelms calls for external support for the ideas and needs mentioned above, he is also critical of HBCU boards of trustees that engage in day-to-day managerial activities rather than holding HBCU leaders accountable for effective leadership. Too often HBCU trustees restrict the actions of presidents rather than offering guidance and securing funds for the institutions. In order to garner much needed financial support from external sources, HBCU’s need to show that their trustees are not only active in terms of big picture decision making, but that they are contributing financially and raising funds from others.

For a call to action that urges all of us not to leave the immense talent among HBCU students (and potential students) untapped, take Nelm’s policy paper seriously and better yet, take action!

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