I often read HBCU presidents’ complaints regarding the students that matriculate to their respective colleges and universities. Many of the complaints leveled by them point to the various shortcoming of the students. For example, they assert that students are grossly unprepared, lack the discipline and focus to complete college, and that it is difficult to ascertain why many who attend their universities are actually enrolled in college at all.
After contemplating these characterizations of today’s students by extant leaders and reflecting on my experience as a student at an undergraduate HBCU a little over 30 years ago, it occurred to me that although many of my generation of students came from socioeconomic backgrounds similar to today’s HBCU students , the students at today’s HBCUs lack transformative leaders. These leaders were not always sitting in the office of the president 30 years ago, but they were interspersed across campus in various departments.
This difference explains why many from my generation have fared better educationally and professionally than contemporary HBCU students. The leaders that ushered us through the college experience never attempted to blame their inability to inspire excellence on student shortcomings. Contemporary leaders often talk about the students they have versus the students they want. My rejoinder is that once we embrace the students we have, they become the students we want.
Furthermore, transformative leaders embrace and welcome both the challenge to educate students and the college-accountability measures making their ways through the various legislatures across the country. Let me reiterate that leaders do not make excuses; they see the student challenges and efforts to increase efficiencies as opportunities to remake their respective institutions, and they do not embrace an attitude of entitlement. HBCUs cannot continue to remain open if the leaders and faculty of these institutions continue to languish in mediocrity.
Not all HBCUs fit into this category, but a good number do. It is not possible for us to produce outstanding students if we are bastions of mediocrity. It is time for HBCU leadership to have a “Come to Jesus meeting,” as my grandmother would say, and evaluate whether they are still viable educational entities given their inability to increase alumni giving, become less dependent on subsidized education, increase graduation and retention rates, and, most importantly contribute to the advancement of the country in the way the MITs and Stanfords of the world have done. For instance, two graduate students created Google in the engineering department at Stanford. I know of no HBCUs today, which can boast of an accomplishment of this nature.
Finally, many HBCUs who cling to their original mission are charged with educating the first in their families to attend college, who often are the least prepared. This by itself is a herculean task given the dwindling support to subsidize public education, coupled with the much-needed movement to tie funding to graduation rates. The new accountability measures being imposed on HBCUs have increased the decibel-level of excuses emanating from HBCU leaders. My advice to these excuse-making presidents is to step down if you are unable to transform the culture and the college. Why am I so unsympathetic? Because leaders who accept these jobs come in knowing the challenges they will face beforehand. If you accept the challenge, accept the responsibility because leaders are needed, not excuses!