An open letter to the leaders of HBCUs: How to sustain and support a successful future

7th December 2020

Author: Johnny D. Jones, EdD, PhD

Historically Black Colleges and Universities play an important role in US higher education, and make a significant and important contribution to society and the economy more broadly. In this blog, building on his new book Leadership of Historically Black Universities and Colleges: A What not to do Guide for HBCU Leaders, Johnny Jones writes an open letter to current and future leaders of HBCUs outlining the key areas that need to be addressed and nurtured in order to sustain and support their successful future.

Dear HBCU Future Leaders,

Leadership at Historical Black College and Universities (HBCU) plays a vital role in the United States' educational and economic impact. It is also a significant contributor to this country's foundation. The nation's HBCUs generate $14.8 billion in economic impact annually, which is equivalent to a ranking in the top 200 on the Fortune 500 list of America's largest corporations These institutions generate 134,090 jobs for their local and regional economies (Source: United Negro College Fund). As of the last records in 2014, the 50,000-plus HBCU graduates in that year could expect total earnings of $130 billion over their lifetimes – that's 56% more than they could expect to earn without their college credentials. Based on the future of our country and world, HBCUs must react, adapt and focus on their strengths and their unique contribution.

We know that the next semester, academic year, the years to follow, will be challenging for all universities and colleges – the COVID-19 pandemic is already having and will continue to have a vast impact on education. This is especially true for HBCUs. In responding to this national and global crisis, HBCUs need to focus in on their economic contribution to the nation, and their responsibility to this. HBCU leaders need to view helping the American economy grow beyond Covid-19 as part of the HBCU’s responsibility; they need to support and enhance job creation through HBCU strategic education amidst this crisis; they need to fulfill American constitutional requirements and supporting educational citizenship growth and leadership amid COVID-19; and they need to deliver, where applicable and feasible, customer-client-consumer-constituent centric services with excellence for COVID-19 effected, affected, and infected populations throughout America and eventually worldwide.

Beyond the pandemic, future HBCU leaders need to focus in on the strengths, skills and steps that need to be taken for the long-term success of these schools, and the leadership characteristics that this requires. These include having the necessary skills and confidence to know that you are the right fit for leadership with the appropriate personal character, the spiritual center, the academic credentials, the professional expertise, and the professorial experience to take our HBCUs to the next level beyond and above the historical HBCU institutional challenges with accreditation, enrollment, leadership incompetence and financial matters. All future HBCU leaders must be prepared and ready to meet these challenges with personal values, professional commitment, and strategic frame theory leadership vision.

To this end, I offer the following narrative in preparation for your leadership opportunity:

  • Take ownership to be a servant leader to the Underserved Populations at our institutions: for several decades, there have been champions, advocates, and guardians of and for HBCU underserved college students who are the first generation and often overlooked by conventional and traditional American higher education. My recent book looks at creating goal setting, self-philosophy, facing impediments, finding purpose, measuring progress, leveraging resources, and other areas related to student success and sustainability in the HBCU academia.
  • Implement Empowerful Informatics at HBCUs: HBCU leaders must create ways to help students, parents, families, communities, and HBCUs find the balance for personal empowerment, academic enlightenment, and economic efficiency.
  • Create real Values and a true Vision: HBCU leader values should be fundamentally grounded to support the institution's mission and vision. This philosophy will guide your inner strength and outward strategy as a leader. Philosophically, I believe that this grounding is fundamental to anchor a foundation for our students who sometimes come to HBCUs with personal, academic, and emotional challenges. I consider many students who come from voiceless, marginalised, and vulnerable stages and stations in life can succeed against the odds with the institution's help and commitment. Our challenges at HBCUs will be meeting them where they are and guiding them from that grounded foundation.
  • Understand, and practice resources distribution and evaluation: As HBCU leaders evaluate resources, it requires the practice of transparency, stewardship, and solvency. Mainly when resources are limited, the need to be transparent is imperative. That said, there is also a need to hold HBCU leaders accountable for measured performance, productivity, and progress toward success with students. However, I do believe that resources must be provided to empower staff and faculty to be successful with students.
  • HBCU Life-Line through Accreditation: After addressing institutional issues concerning students, staff, faculty, and coronavirus, it is always an HBCU leader’s priority to restore accreditation and restructure all the College's finances by advancing a comprehensive approach to development, fundraising, alliance building with corporations, government, and philanthropic foundations.
  • Finally, pride investment at HBCUs: Pride investment – "Something that is invested through the act of devoting, using, or giving of time, talent, and emotional energy, to achieve something great" (Jones, 2009). I urge HBCUs to distinguish itself from other higher learning institutions – to develop their "niche" in a marketplace that requires institutions to promote the unique educational experience only they can offer while providing quality training to the industry in the region. Establishing this niche entails determining what the institution does well and channeling resources to support and develop those programmes to re-conceptualise a more student-centered, cost-effective, industry preparedness, community engagement, and academically sound organisation, through sound HBCU leadership.

By focusing on these key areas, and really considering and recognising the place and contribution of the institution to its region, student base, and American society, future HBCU leaders can secure the longevity and success of these important schools, even though turbulent times.

Only through pride investment,

Johnny D. Jones, EdD, PhD

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