Moving Past ‘Doing More With Less’

Anyone who works at an HBCU, attended an HBCU, or does research related to HBCU’s has heard the phrase, “HBCU’s do more with less.” In many ways, this phrase builds internal strength. It is a constant reminder to students, faculty, and administrators who work tirelessly that even though there are fewer resources, HBCU’s do an admirable job of educating students and preparing them for future careers and study. HBCU’s add value to their students.

A few years ago, I was at a meeting with Johnnetta B. Cole, the respected former president of both Spelman College and Bennett College for Women. Those at the meeting were talking about the ability of HBCU’s to stretch resources and Cole said, (and I’m paraphrasing) “I’m tired of doing more with less—I want to do more with more.” Her line got some laughs, but everyone in the room got the point. HBCU’s need more resources and “doing more with less” has hurt these historic institutions over time.

The mantra of “doing more with less” could be setting HBCU’s up for failure in the area of funding and fundraising. In 2007, I wrote a book titled Envisioning Black Colleges. It is a history of the United Negro College Fund, and while researching it, I discovered the inequities in funding bolstered by some national foundations. The historical record showed that some foundations had extensive discussions about just how much money they should give HBCU’s and often these conversations ended with a familiar phrase such as ‘They can do it with less’ or ‘They don’t need too much money.’

Fortunately, the relationships between HBCU’s and many foundations have changed in the past couple of decades. Foundation leadership has evolved, with many people of color serving as program officers (the entry point for most grants). In addition, many of the major foundations have HBCU initiatives that have given large amounts to these institutions and their advocacy groups.

Still, one wonders how funding of HBCU’s would change if those institutions more loudly vocalized a “do more with more” perspective, and asked for the funding they really need to make substantive changes and sustain their institutions.

One other discovery I made while writing Envisioning Black Colleges was that, during the 1950s and 60s, many HBCU’s asked for substantially less than their similarly sized, historically White counterparts (of course, context made a difference). They undersold themselves, and as such the funders gave them less.

As someone who often advises HBCU’s on their grant-proposal submissions, I continue to see this problem on occasion today. HBCU’s need to tell their success stories more boldly and ask for what they need (and more).

HBCU’s have a proven track record in a number of areas and, in fact, they substantially outshine majority institutions in preparing students for graduate school. Imagine what would happen if HBCUs had more resources. Imagine the difference in the fields of medicine, science, teaching, and engineering, for instance. These fields would be much more diverse in terms of practice, teaching, and research.

Not only should HBCU’s adopt Johnnetta Cole’s “more with more” mantra, but foundations and funders should examine their funding strategies and make sure that HBCU’s are funded in ways that capture what is possible, rather than what is merely probable.

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