In Defense of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

Medgar Evers Statue on the Alcorn University Campus (Courtesy of Yulonda Sano)
Medgar Evers Statue on the Alcorn University Campus
Courtesy of Yulonda Sano

This editorial by Board Chair Douglas Bender, addresses the ongoing challenge for survival faced by Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). It is a reminder of their importance to not just African American but to the entire United States.

It feels as if though there is an outright assault being launched against anything having to do with the progress of Blacks in America right now…and I don’t like it. 

Political conservatives in almost every state in the United States have attacked government training programs that focus on valuing diversity. They have also tried to censor classroom instruction on racism, and books about BIPOC and other communities are constantly banned in classrooms and public libraries. 

In 2023, at least 65 bills to limit DEI in higher education were introduced in 25 state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. Nine bills, including one recently passed in Alabama, have become law. 

This attack on DEI is part of a larger backlash against racial justice efforts. In October 2020 President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13950, banning federal training programs focusing on dealing with systemic racism. Although the ban was later removed by President Joe Biden, EO 13950 became a template for most of the educational gag orders, or bills introduced to limit positive DEI-related efforts.

In April 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which prevents training or instruction on systemic racism and sexism. The latest creative act of dysfunctional nonsense comes out of my childhood home state, Mississippi, and the matter has now become very personal for me.  

Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, told Mississippi Today recently that he wanted to start a conversation in his state when he filed Senate Bill 2726, which would require the governing board of Mississippi’s eight public universities to shutter three of them by 2028. While the bill provides that all eight institutions of higher learning be considered, three of those schools, Jackson State University, Mississippi Valley State University, and Alcorn State University are HBCUs in a state where 38% of the population is African American. 

Many of us have heard this song before. The words aren’t easy to sing, and we won’t dance to the beat. HBCUs are and have been constantly under attack since their inception and we can’t trust that objective motives are at work in this situation. Folks need to be reminded of why HBCUs cannot and should not become relics of the past.  They are responsible for a disproportionate number of African American leaders in politics, civil rights, economics, and many other areas.  Among the HBCU graduates are W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. Martin Luther King, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and the current Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris. 

While I recognize that there may be legitimate fiscal challenges driving this matter of campus closure, a more urgent potential problem rests in the unintended consequences that may occur if Senate Bill 2726 is adopted, especially if two or more of the institutions closed are state-supported HBCUs. 

As a proud graduate of Alcorn State University (BA – Political Science, 1975) and a ‘semi-retired’ corporate executive who worked for some of America’s most well-known organizations including Miller Brewing Company, Uncle Ben’s Foods, and M&M/Mars, I am most grateful for the role Alcorn played in my life in the form of a superb education. In fact, I am certain I would not have been as successful as I am as a productive citizen of this country were it not for my university education.

An education from our Mississippi HBCUs is a unique experience which prepares a person for whatever challenges she or he may face in our ever-changing world. In my case, Alcorn prepared me for the rigors of the corporate world, traveling around the globe, representing international businesses, and by extension, the United States. I remain today in great demand as a business consultant and executive coach, and I serve currently as an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California Bovard College where I teach Black and non-Black graduate students the skills and values I first learned at Alcorn. I currently chair or have chaired several national nonprofit organizations that impact the lives of thousands of individuals. Alcorn taught me the value and responsibility of reaching back and I have been doing that all my adult life.   

Experts have recently noted that the enrollment of Black students, especially young Black men, is down significantly at all institutions of higher learning. This is especially troubling for HCBUs since these institutions still collectively teach more than 344,000 students. HBCUs represent the last best hope of many of these young Black men if they want to pursue higher education. Each of the three state-supported HBCUs in Mississippi with a combined enrollment of more than 13,000 students, have an impressive history of producing impactful individuals in society who might otherwise have never attended a college or university.  For that reason alone, they are vital to the future of Mississippi and the nation. 

I don’t envy the difficult job Mississippi lawmakers have. They may think that by rejecting the bill, they may anger some of their conservative supporters.  I would urge them to consider a quote by boxing legend Muhammad Ali, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” Alcorn took a risk on me, and I reaped successes that are still unfolding. 

My story is just one of many stories where the investment of state-supported HBCUs in the most impoverished youth of the state have yielded significant results for Mississippi and the world. Everyone across the United States should call on Mississippi legislators to keep these schools open. Everyone across the U.S. needs to advocate for equitable access to quality education in every college and university across the nation including especially those HBCU institutions which have always had as their special mission, the education of those long denied access to higher education in this nation. That’s what America is all about…or at least that’s what we say it is.