Kindness at HBCUs: Re-thinking Institutional Culture

Written by. Dr. Elfred Anthony Pinkard.

It requires little. Every human being is capable of giving it and it is always welcomed, well received and appreciated. Its impact transcends racial, ethnic, religious, gender, economic and national boundaries. It is a fundamental human act that can change behavior, attitudes and elicit strong, unfiltered emotion. Some give it freely and genuinely while others lock it away behind dead eyes and a hardened, fearful spirit. Some consider it a sign of weakness and refuse to offer it. It is rarely mentioned in lessons of success and achievement. Sadly, we see its absence manifest almost daily around the world in acts of gut-wrenching violence as human beings fight, kill, maim, brutalize and bully each other.

In the moments following a horrific act of human mayhem, we lament the lack of kindness in the world. We are raw and afraid and quest to do something big and noticeable to tame the violence among us. Somehow we fail to imagine that a change might begin with our own singular commitment to being kind.

We are not accustomed to thinking of university environments in terms of kindness. We have most probably been conditioned to imagine the university as a space where kindness is not a requirement for productivity and successful outcomes. Yet, campus communities are living, learning and workplace environments where multi-generations live, learn and work. The nature of these human interactions are important and meaningful. The espousal of kindness as an institutional value and the practice of kindness as an institutional imperative can yield the most forward-thinking and innovative policies and practices. Talented students, faculty and administrators are drawn to and remain at universities where kindness is actively practiced. The institutional saga at places where kindness matters is uplifting, joyful and exciting and the narrative is passionate, convincing and genuine. The shared experience is a good one and everyone understands and embraces the challenge of being kind even in the face of daily stressors, frustration, demands, expectations and the unanticipated.

Being kind is subversive. It upends the prevailing notion that kindness is weakness and that excellence and workplace efficiency can only be assured with unyielding, rigidity and an uncompromising leadership style which relies on fear and intimidation. Unfortunately, many of us have come to expect these environments which have left us jaded, suspicious and hardened. Kindness is unrecognized and mistrusted when it is offered and some have become incapable of receiving or returning it. This is the shame of what occurs at too many institutions.

I love historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and my commitment to these institutions is unassailable. I have spent nearly 40 years at HBCUS and have been proud of every moment. While I will continue to work for and on behalf of HBCUs, I have come to know that they, like all institutions, are seriously flawed. This is admittedly not a particularly noteworthy revelation as the ills and challenges of these institutions have been thoroughly chronicled. What might surprise, however, is my opinion regarding the source of these institutional woes. I believe strongly that the dysfunction, inefficiency and malaise at too many HBCUs is rooted in the lingering vestiges of the enslavement of people of African descent. The persistent and deeply ingrained notion that we are unworthy has resulted in a collective disdain and disregard for one another. At the basic level of institutional life, this manifests as abysmal customer service and treatment of our students, staff and faculty, draconian institutional polices which disadvantage faculty and staff, operational ineffectiveness, unrestrained, mean-spirited gossip and tyrannical leadership. Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that many are unwilling to show up daily and give their best selves to their institutions, students and colleagues?

No amount of foundation money, federal legislation and support or innovative intervention will save HBCUs until all those who care about them commit to a simple but powerful imperative-being kind to one another. What is required is a radical transformation in institutional cultures which results in kindness that is genuine, heartfelt and borne of personal commitment to reimagining how one treats and expects to be treated.

If HBCUs are to overcome and re-craft the current narrative about their value, purpose and relevance, as a people, African-Americans must confront and undo the most debilitating consequence of our enslavement in the Americas, notably, the internalized self-hatred and the attendant belief that our communities and institutions are not worthy of our absolute best. As a people, we must become capable of seeing one another, genuinely liking what we see and behaving accordingly. Advocating kindness as a potential game-changer for the survival and sustainability of HBCUs will, no doubt, seem to some reductionist. More significantly, being kind to one another represents our collective willingness to admit to and undo the lingering pathology which has emotionally, psychologically and spiritually shacked us as a people since our freedom from enslavement. The prevailing images of Black people killing and disrespecting one another are so pervasive that Black people loving one another and behaving with authentic kindness toward one another is, in contemporary America, a revolutionary act!

HBCUs are at once much celebrated and much maligned as places of great promise, opportunity and challenge. The legacy of these institutions is far reaching and touches, in some way, the personal histories of every African-American. They are also an important part of the communal story of African-Americans. While these are American institutions, they are uniquely ours and their survival is uniquely our responsibility. Might we begin to imagine a generation of HBCU leaders who unapologetically embrace kindness as personal mandates which intimately informs their approach to leading? If so, might we also imagine radically transformed institutional cultures and collective behavior at many HBCUs and, in so doing, proclaim strong, vital and vibrant institutions where operational efficiency, institutional excellence and kindness effortlessly coexist.

150 150 Higher Education Leadership Foundation