‘Cookie Lyon,’ politics, and the evolution of HBCU advocacy

JARRETT L. CARTER, SR.
GUEST COMMENTARY

Howard University alumna Taraji P. Henson recently earned headlines for insisting that her son transfer to Howard following a racial profiling incident at his previous school, the University of Southern California.

The move, thought by some to be a statement of social justice advocacy, was as powerful a pop cultural statement on the value of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as it was on the eroding state of respectability politics for Black students at predominantly White schools.

Around the same time, University of North Carolina Board of Governors Member Harry Smith was declaring a new day of austerity for the state’s higher education system.

Campuses with low enrollments, subpar graduation, retention, and job placement rates, as well as the state’s five public historically Black colleges, will face tough questions, he said. HBCUs are a singular target.

“People have been ducking this conversation for a long time,” according to Smith.

No surprise
Henson has long been vocal in her support for Howard and all historically Black colleges, even starring in a film about Tennessee State University’s golf program. For a tenured celebrity to attach HBCU advocacy to a Black America’s trending focus on social justice is not only warranted, but also desperately needed.

Smith’s comments aren’t surprising either. A 2013 New York Times editorial, “The Decline of North Carolina,” revealed the casualties of Republican politics on poverty, public education and voting rights.

We know
Those of us reared in HBCU communities and campuses can relate to the anecdotal, life-changing power of the HBCU experience. The notions of caring professors, exposure to the diversity of the African Diaspora, professional networking, the legacy of social justice and community mobility is something with which all of our physical senses and cultural sensibilities can identify.

So we fight government attempts to close or marginalize our campuses, all the while knowing that what is best about HBCU culture cannot and is not measured for federal higher education data.

While we know that the HBCU is a conscious choice and not a last resort for most students, we also realize that the lack of success by students given a shot at college who otherwise would not have it is what fuels the anti-HBCU narrative.

The lives that are saved and the communities that are improved because of the HBCU aren’t reflected in graduation or retention rates, or sprawling campuses, or powerful sports teams in NCAA competition.

No. An HBCU is just a place where a Black mother can send her son and know that it is more likely than not that he will complete a degree without being bullied or attacked by police. But in the public square, it is not a storyline good enough to counter the questions of relevance, resources and respect.

Under attack
Opponents say HBCUs drain taxpayer investment and interest through race and underperformance.

And while they understand that no school that is underfunded will perform as if it is replete with cash, it is an easy argument to move the lunatic fringe to action.

So, we go back and forth in a familiar cycle of hunter and the hunted. State legislators attack an HBCU, alumni and students rally and bring national attention, the legislators fall back and grumble about how Black students and public dollars would be better off going somewhere else, so they withhold more funds during the next budget cycle.

We’ve seen it play out in attacks on Florida A&M University, Southern University of New Orleans, Albany State University, Elizabeth City State University, South Carolina State University, and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

These efforts don’t get the same coverage as Black students being attacked at White schools, but they are just as degrading, dehumanizing, and destructive to culture and perceptions about Black people.

So to bring more Black students to HBCUs, to convince more Black people of the importance of HBCU sustainability, both Henson and Smith’s perspectives must become second nature in our advocacy and outreach strategies.

We must do more
We must still emphasize the family atmosphere of the HBCU, but support that with data and examples that show that Black students can achieve professional goals set at HBCUs, and can become nationally recognized in a range of fields, even today.

HBCUs must do a better job of establishing and promoting professional networks, in bringing established alumni back to campus to serve as mentors and donors, and in connecting corporations to the campus for career and philanthropic pipelines. Our institutions must connect with alumni and students, and develop them as recruiters, spokespersons, fundraisers and legislative lobbyists for HBCUs.

Those that do not take these steps, or believe that they will always have a decent cross-section of students to make tuition goals, will not have the chance at a rude awakening; they will be dead.

Compassion and productivity are not mutually exclusive. But until we make the connection between the two, we should be frightened at the prospect of a caring Hollywood star being our best hope against higher education officials with their eyes on the data and their fingers on triggers.

Jarrett L. Carter, Sr. is the founding editor of HBCU Digest (www.HBCUDigest.com).

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