Barry Saunders

Saunders: Why HBCUs need to cast buckets among alumni

A graduate's mortar board pays tribute to a parent during commencement at N.C. Central University.
A graduate's mortar board pays tribute to a parent during commencement at N.C. Central University.

Cast down your buckets where you are – Booker T. Washington

A year ago, syndicated columnist George Curry wrote a piece asking “Is Obama trying to kill black colleges?” because some critics felt the dude was neglecting them at best, being hostile toward them at worst.

Somebody ought to write a more accurately titled piece: Are black college alumni trying to kill black colleges?

Oh, most will profess to the heavens their love for their alma mater, paying lip service to how much they learned there, the value of the lifetime associations they made.

When it comes to supporting those institutions, though, their money goes elsewhere.

Like Charlotte. Every freakin’ February.

Last week, I wrote about the annual CIAA basketball bacchanalia, when alumni of historically black colleges and universities go to Charlotte and blow mucho dinero while their alma maters struggle financially.

On Monday, I told you about philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and the largess he bestowed to create more than 5,000 schools for black children at the beginning of the 20th century. The only string attached was that the communities that received the schools had to contribute to them, either with money or sweat equity – doing the work to construct and keep them up.

Without exception, the recipients of Rosenwald’s charity were willing to do the work.

Are the descendants of descendants of those recipients willing to do the same, though?

Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in Louisiana, isn’t convinced that they are. I spoke with Kimbrough soon after Dr. Dre pledged millions to the University of Southern California and gave not a farthing to HBCUs. Kimbrough wrote an op-ed piece critical of the rapper.

“How do we get connected to people with that kind of wealth and get them to think differently about their philanthropy?” Kimbrough asked rhetorically when I spoke with him by phone. “The way it happens is, schools with money are able to get more money. It’s difficult if you don’t run in those circles. I know I can’t just write a letter to Dr. Dre and say, ‘I’m the president of Dillard University and I need $35 million.’

“People say ‘I can’t give $35 million.’ You don’t have to. If we had more schools that had a 50 percent alumni giving rate, we could get things done. ... If you don’t have that great wealth, then you have a greater mass of people who can invest, who can get things done.”

Yeah, good luck with that. There was a “greater mass” of HBCU alum in Charlotte last week, a mass that profligately blew through, by some estimates, $30 million on fun and frivolity. Now, I’m a big fan of fun, frivolity and profligacy – that’s why I’m in the shape I’m in today – but they shouldn’t be pursued at the expense of HBCUs and their continued existence.

If HBCU alumni gave more than the five percent they now give, Kimbrough continued, “then you could make a better case to philanthropists and other foundations to say, ‘Look, our people are really engaged.’ We can help get the attention of other people who would say, ‘We’re going to help them out because they’re trying to help themselves.’

“They want to know that you have some skin in the game, but we can’t keep saying we need people to give to our schools when we don’t even give,” he said. “We have to at least start with what we’ve got. It may be a little, but if we all give we can do a lot. We can’t keep waiting for somebody to bail us out. It’s a welfare mentality.”


A Charlotte businessman and friend called me this week and said my annual criticism of the CIAA Tournament was rooted only in my contempt for Charlotte.

Me? Contempt for Charlotte simply because it thinks it’s Jerusalem and Mecca wrapped up in a 704 area code?

Sure, I have contempt for the city and its inflated self-regard, but I’m keeping my real contempt powder dry for the CIAA officials who allowed the city to snooker them with a few shiny baubles and chump change.

The moolah blown in Charlotte last week on hotel rooms, food and booze – the prices of all of which were jacked up in honor of the CIAA – could have, if donated to the attendees’ alma maters, kept hundreds of financially ailing students in school, retained some professors and provided lab equipment and laptops for struggling schools.

Oh yeah, about that Booker T. quotation at the top of this column.

It was a parable from a speech Washington, an ex-slave who founded Tuskegee University – nee Institute – gave in 1895: The crew of a ship lost at sea kept sending out distress signals, pleading for fresh water. Another ship kept sending back the message, “Cast down your buckets where you are.” It eventually did and discovered all the fresh water it needed.

That’s what HBCUs and their alumni must do. Yes, we need government help, as does just about every other college and university.

By casting down their buckets where they are, among their own alumni, they’ll discover that they need less help than they think – and will receive more than they need.