Leading Successful HBCUs: Part I

Many HBCUs have closed over the last three decades and many are in serious trouble financially and in terms of leadership.

Here to discuss this issue is President William B. Bynum of Mississippi Valley State University.

Q: First, what would you say has been the principle function of HBCU’s in the last three decades and what, on a related issue, do you think have been the particular challenges to these types of institutions in the United States?

A: We know that HBCUs, of course, were created to deal with the educational gap and all that was happening to folks of our race. What is little known, though, is HBCUs have always been open to and granted access to other races. However, the principal function has been, of course, to make sure that there’s an educated population within the African-American race and to make sure that those upward mobility opportunities were afforded African-Americans so that we could have similar opportunities to advance in this country, as have other races.

We never got to separate but equal, but of course the opportunity was – I think folks knew that it would be in the better interest of the country to have an educated black citizenry. That’s why HBCUs, of course, were created. Ultimately, it is in the best interest of the country to have that educated citizenry.

The major issues that are facing HBCUs – the challenges – are the lower enrollments that we are seeing now. Obviously, we know that there’s a significant gap. Only 3% of blacks who are choosing higher education are choosing HBCUs. That number is significantly down from where it was pre-1970. We know that’s a major issue: low enrollment.

Graduation rates. We’ve come under fire because of our published graduation rates and how we are faring against other types of institutions with greater resources. That’s been an issue or challenge. However, whenever those facts and figures are given, they never account for or control for the fact that HBCUs are dealing with the first-generation college population. And in terms of socio-economic difference and where our students are coming from, there’s a significant disadvantage. Unfortunately, people are comparing as if it’s an apples to apples comparison, when you and I both know that’s way far from the case.

When you look at the few amount of resources HBCUs have been given, one of the facts I like the most is, while we only receive 3% of the black-going college population, HBCUs are producing between 16 and 17% of the degrees that are earned by African-Americans.

Q: Given the social shifts we have seen in the last three decades and the challenges to HBCU’s, what do you feel needs to be done to preserve these institutions?

A: First and foremost, let me be very clear on the record that there is still a significant need for HBCUs in this country. We are still a relatively young country when it comes to integration and full participation by African-Americans.
For some reason, even though we saw Civil Rights laws in the late ’60s and early ’70s come to pass, people are assuming that a lot distance can be made up in the 40 years since that time. You and I both know, as educators and researchers, that that’s not a long time. But people are expecting HBCUs to have made up all of that gap, even though they haven’t been provided with the amount of resources they need in order to do so.

But here’s what I’d like to get at. First, they are still needed and necessary because HBCUs still provide a sense of nurturing and mentoring that predominately white institutions still are not able to do. I make a point every time I speak to a high school student, students who are considering higher education, to emphasize the fact that HBCUs have an entire campus that is dedicated to their success – not two or three persons who are responsible for minority students. You’ve got a whole culture and environment of people who are invested in the history and success of those people at HBCUs and because of the population that is being served.

If HBCUs close, those other schools are not seeking to serve those students who we serve, who may be coming under-prepared from high school but simply need some remedial work. You can gauge one thing, but you can never gauge a person’s heart and how much determination and willingness they’re willing to put into something.
I think HBCUs give people that opportunity to demonstrate that, despite what they may have dealt with in earlier life, if they have the wherewithal and the drive and ambition, that they can be extremely successful people.

What we need to do to stop the conversation about closure and merger and those things is there’s no doubt we’ve got to find new ways to navigate the terrain. The days of more coming is not there. We’ve got to be very resourceful. We need to be sure that we are sending the message that we, again, are open to all races. We know there’s no doubt we need to build our endowments. Of course, you and I know that there are only about five HBCUs that have endowments above $100 or $150 million. Endowments are what sustain an institution, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re building our endowments.

And, of course, we’ve got to continue to produce high-quality graduates that compete in a global society. That’s going to be extremely important. Of course, our graduates continue to exemplify themselves. One of the other figures I like, which I don’t have the exact percentages, are the number of Ph.Ds., like you and I, in this country. A large percentage of those persons started out at historically black colleges and universities. That is extremely important.

Finally, the online programs. Because of what is happening in terms of being able to reach those non-traditional learners and students, HBCUs have to be very nimble and really look at improving their online classroom offerings.

Q: Obviously the last three decades have seen shifting trends in education with African American students and other minority students accepted at a whole range of higher education institutions but how have HBCU’s responded to these trends in particular?

A: You’re absolutely right. As we just talked about, as I look at that pre-1970 number of our students who went to HBCUs versus the three percent it is now, we are facing stiff competition. Obviously, because most young people today have been raised in a totally different era and time, they are used to certain things. They are more open. Obviously, they are more technologically savvy, and they’re used to amenities that oftentimes are not as available at HBCUs.

There’s no doubt that when we’re comparing Mississippi Valley against Old Miss and Mississippi State, our physical plants aren’t the same. A lot of those students are choosing those other predominately white institutions because, physical plant-wise, all the HBCUs have not been able to keep up the way other schools have.
We say today, students make decisions as they’re walking, meaning what they see. “What type of room am I going to be living in?” Obviously, we all know there is a preference for single rooms, not the double occupancy small room. We know the tendency is for individual or small group showers, not the gang [?] showers we often see in older residence halls. We know students want to see wireless all over the place. We know students want to see knew student unions and recreation centers.

Unfortunately, because of those low endowments, because of some of the lack of funding received from institutions, we haven’t been able to keep up with those predominately white institutions. That’s a major reason why we’re losing students.
I’m always saying while need to do some of those things, we need to continue to stay true to our mission. That is the holistic development and education of students. We need to maintain our small class sizes and our individual attention and the fact that we really do nurture students. We need to stay true to those missions.

Often, what has happened is that a lot of HBCUs have become — and this is a little more controversial statement, so let me see if I can say it correctly — we’ve changed our mission and our focus by trying to chase other schools, and we really just need to stay true to our mission.

For instance, there are schools that I know about and have been affiliated with who had good retention rates and good graduation rates, to have sought to “recruit” a better quality student. They have changed their admission standards in order to go after a higher SAT or GPA or ACT score student. In turn, they were not looking to serve students who had historically done extremely well at those institutions.

I think we have to be very careful at HBCUs about what we’re really chasing. Again, we need to get back to the basics and get back to our foundation. We need to really understand we have a certain niche, and our niche is being able to work with students and prepare students and wrap our arms around them, give them the support and individual attention and nurturing they need, so that they can, indeed, really prosper and graduate. We should not be too focused on trying to compete with what are supposedly better quality students.

Personally, I don’t believe in that. As a sociologist, I know that you look at a student’s high school grade point average. What has happened is too many HBCUs put emphasis on SAT and ACT scores, which we of course know our students don’t do as well on. However, many schools are changing their standards and putting more weight on a one-time test as opposed to what students have demonstrated during the course of their academic career in high school.

We’ve got to be very careful how we respond to some of those trends, but in the case Mississippi Valley, we’re going to stick to our foundation. We’re going to stick to our mission in terms of what we were founded to do. We’re going to continue working with students who desire higher education who understand, “I may not be as prepared as I needed to be for college; however, I’ve got a heart, I’ve got a willingness, I’ve got a desire to learn. If I’ve got a caring, dedicated, committed faculty, while I may enter at one point on entryway, I’m going to be even with those students at Ole Miss and Mississippi State by the time I exit.”

Q: Although you just started your tenure at Mississippi Valley State University, you have been very successful at righting the ship through a number of different policies and programs. What, in general terms, has been your approach to preserving the legacy of MVSU, while making much need changes?

A: I think I’m shifting it because what happens, unfortunately – and you know this –what I’m trying to do is refocus faculty, staff and students on why we really exist. Why we’re here. That is, of course, being more student-centered and making more decisions in terms of what is best for our students.

My approach has been laying out expectations, creating an environment of transparency and producing a collegial working atmosphere. My vision for MVSU incorporates individuals working across the board to achieve our goals. I don’t believe in silos. I believe we indeed have to work as a team and across division lines if we’re really going to make sure the students persist.

We’re building on a traditional framework that work here while I incorporate those new ideas that will help sustains and contribute to the relevance of Valley. The vision, in case you haven’t heard it yet, that we’ve set is something that already existed on the campus. I’m just putting a new twist and a new emphasis and making it crystal clear what we mean. That vision is One Goal, One Team, One Valley.
That one goal is student success. We’re going to be about student success. Enrollment, holistic development, retention, graduation and career advancement. All decisions that we make need to be made with students first and foremost in mind. Not our ourselves as individuals, but what’s best for our students.

The one team is the university and community working together. It is extremely important that the university, especially a university like Valley in the area we’re in, that we make inroads and make it very clear that we want to partner with community stakeholders who are interested in this institution and see us an asset. We’re going to do that and make sure I’m reaching out to folks and letting folks know, “We want to be your education institution of choice.” For this area, this region, we want to be that institution. We’re working with the community to build those partnerships.

Finally, the one Valley, that is students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the institution actively demonstrating school pride and spirituality that is second to none. In case you didn’t catch that, that’s school pride and spirituality. The spirituality is intentional in the sense that that’s one of those foundational things we need to reconnect to in terms of an HBCU. When a student is connected spiritually – and I’m not talking about any specific religion; I’m talking about to a higher being and a different energy source – a student then gets grounded. They have a new perspective. As a result, they tend to persist longer. Some of those things are not about necessarily changing the academy, but getting folks in the academy to think in a totally different way. The institution has become too much about us as faculty and staff, as opposed to about serving the students who we enter for.

Here’s a quick example of what I mean by student-centered decision making that I’ve shared with the staff here. If there is an office that has two or more employees, there’s no reason that office should be closed any time during the 8:00-5:00 work day. What has happened is, often times because I want to go to lunch with a particular person or with whomever I’m working with, I may close that office down for an hour while I go to lunch, not understanding that that student who is in class or other activities, you never know when that student is going to need to frequent your office. For that student to have just a small amount of time to come to an office and then see a sign or no sign and no one in the office, that’s not being student centered.

Being student centered is, if there are two or more people in an office, that office should never close during the day. They should straddle their lunch hours so that the office is open the entire 8:00-5:00 workday. That’s what I’m trying to do – to get people to think differently about who we are really here to serve and to make sure students get a return on their investment for the dollars they are investing in their education.

Well, that concludes part I of my interview with President Bynum. In Part II, the president will continue to dispense expert advice on how to lead successful a HBCU.

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