Although well-intentioned, the recent meeting of black college presidents with President Donald Trump has generated mixed feelings and questionable potential outcomes. Secretary Betsy DeVos equating HBCUs with school choice is but one example of this fraught relationship.
Washington can be seductive, its elixir intoxicating. Even the most grounded may benefit from occasional reality therapy. The spectacle of dozens of respected African-American leaders meeting with a showman skilled at manipulating people for public consumption was at once amusing and sobering.
As requested, President Trump signed an executive order moving the federal initiative on historically black colleges and universities from the Department of Education to the White House. Repositioning may help, but who leads the agency may be more important than its location. That is because the incumbent always defines the role. A seasoned, well-connected executive skilled in the ways of bureaucracy can accomplish a lot without the cachet of the White House. In any endeavor, the caliber of leadership makes a huge difference.
The organizers of the meeting also sought a commitment of $25 billion for scholarships, technology and facilities. This is a tall order given the president’s budget priorities. HBCUs are not monolithic and needs vary. Some schools enjoy solid academic reputations and financial footing; many others struggle to survive. Some appear to be on the verge of collapse without federal aid.
Although they are iconic institutions, money may be necessary but not sufficient to solve what ails our nation’s black colleges and universities. To varying degrees an outdated business model, a lack of vision, leadership challenges in the presidency and on governing boards, and the absence of meaningful engagement among key stakeholders – faculty, staff, students, and alumni – pose serious threats to their existence. Sustainability rather than mere survival must be the goal. Benjamin Mays, whose legacy is Morehouse College, reminds us that “Not failure but low aim is sin.” The Lenten Season is a good time to meditate on this wise counsel.
It is time to confront harsh realities. For a variety of reasons, some beyond their control, whether they want to admit it or not, many HBCUs are on a death spiral. Is it not better to prune and cull and target support to those schools that are willing and capable of making tough choices to achieve sustainability?
One has to admire the governing board of Sweet Briar College. The decision to close may not have been executed gracefully, but its trustees deserve credit for acknowledging what appeared to be insuperable odds. Afterward, alumni rallied support, a successful fundraising effort was launched, the board was reconstituted, a visionary president was recruited and a new future was charted.
Change is inevitable. However, it is always preferable to be in a position to manage change rather than have it manage you.
Alvin J. Schexnider is a former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University. He is a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards and the author of Saving Black Colleges.