As I continue to process my feelings about the unspeakable events in Charlottesville and the current climate in our country which birthed them, I was recently forwarded a link to an article which served as my tipping point. As a zealot of this sacred space called Historically Black Colleges and Universities, this article praising the creation of a program designed to create presidents of Minority Serving Institutions (including HBCUs) out of mid-level managers who are “5-7 years from becoming presidents,” reminded me of my invisibility as a leader in the HBCU community. The article highlights the efforts of a Center director and professor at an Ivy League institution, and her efforts “to shape the next generation of university presidents who will lead the country’s minority serving institutions.”
“There are 650 minority serving institutions across the country. We really don’t have leadership training programs for future presidents that are specifically focused on these minority serving institutions”, the article said. And I thought to myself, “we, the actual leaders of these institutions, and our work are invisible.”
While I applaud anyone who genuinely supports the goal of strengthening MSIs (particularly HBCUs), this assertion is not only false, it is offensive and problematic.
Most troubling is the assertion that this program is the first of its kind. This egregious statement clearly ignores the blatantly obvious: The longest sitting HBCU president, Hampton University’s Dr. William M. Harvey has himself produced 10 plus presidents and hosted the Executive Leadership Institute to introduce and nurture the next group of HBCU presidents. But this article’s assertions render his contributions to the space invisible. Also invisible is the work of Drs. Charlie Lyons, Dorothy Cowser-Yancy, Edison O. Jackson and Johnnetta B. Cole, who have mentored, guided and sponsored past and current presidents. As a new president who has benefited from HBCU leadership development and mentorship, I can attest that HBCUs are already earnestly committed to cultivating the next leaders. But again, our contributions are invisible. My inherent and genuine love and respect for the HBCU space left me feeling unsettled over this realization that those of us who are toiling in the fields each day are invisible to the broader populace.
I am also curious to learn how the center’s leaders have arrived at definitive conclusions about what HBCUs need. When was the last time they gathered a wide-range of HBCU leaders together to determine what we need, how we could partner or how they might come to better understand the challenges we face? Has the center’s leadership interfaced with our chief advocacy agencies (UNCF, TMCF, or NAFEO) to ascertain how we address the impending leadership void? What is pervasive, is this constant assertion of an individual who is presented as “our” expert and apparently “our” savior. One must also question, did the funders who backed this latest endeavor ever ponder the question of offering these grants to a coalition of HBCUs which have already demonstrated their commitment to leadership development, as opposed to investing in an already resource-rich Ivy League institution? Anyone truly committed to equity work can see the center’s culpability in maintaining institutional and structural racism. Although there genuinely may be good intentions, the creation of and collection of funding for such an institute that, at best, will facilitate a trickle down effect to disperse resources to the institutions it purports to help, is disconcerting.
Had there been real dialogue and real interaction with a wide range of HBCU leaders, I am sure we could have come to some honest assessment of what HBCUs need, and on our terms. Unfortunately, this set of contradictions is a familiar trope — others believing they know what is best for us, and then telling us that we should celebrate their support. This phenomenon bears a striking parallel to colonialism and what my students refer to as “Columbusing.”
Frankly, I have had enough of so-called HBCU advocates on the outside of the community using their privilege to develop a false narrative which demeans more than 180 years of leadership and accomplishments of HBCU leaders and alumni. HBCUs were founded in the face of racism and lack of access to traditional higher learning institutions for African Americans. And, despite continued institutional racism, HBCU leaders have matriculated thousands of America’s finest thought leaders, business executives and philanthropists, notwithstanding the absence of financial support and resources afforded to many predominantly white colleges and universities. Alas, in the eyes of many, these contributions are also invisible.
As an HBCU alumnus and as the president of Wilberforce University, the nation’s first private HBCU, I welcome anyone to advocate for our beloved HBCUs. However, I ask that you honor the literal blood, sweat, and tears that have cultivated the HBCU landscape for over 150 years. Consider Wilberforce University founder Daniel Paine’s foresight to purchase an institution to which the opportunity to obtain an education would be present for negro men and women, though it would be denied elsewhere. Many HBCUs are distressed, but not for the lack of passion, effort or even accomplishment. Rather, from the historical lack of equal investment, and from the continued insistence on marginalizing our value and contributions to present society.
In his earth-shattering biographical novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison said, “you often doubt if you really exist…you ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful”.
HBCU leaders will not curse, nor will we strike out for the sole purpose of your acknowledgement of our existence. Instead, we will do the work which requires you to “put some respect on our name” while we are “reclaiming our time.”