A national report probes the problems that historically black colleges and universities face, as there is new talk in North Carolina of consolidating some of the state’s public HBCUs.
In “Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Facing the Future,” Wilmington native Phillip Clay, a former chancellor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), looks at the hurdles faced by schools and offers solutions to keep them relevant and sound in the 21st century.
Ultimately, it is in everyone’s best interest that HBCUs thrive, said Clay, a trustee of the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation, whose philanthropic efforts include supporting many of the nation’s 105 HBCUs.
“Across the South, there are about 300,000 students in HBCUs and if these institutions were to fail or to be degraded, what happens to those 300,000 students?” Clay questioned. “The national goal is to increase college going, retention and graduation. When you let these schools degrade, you miss that opportunity.”
Clay is also a member of the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. Harry D. Smith, a member of the UNC Board of Governors (which oversees the state’s 17 public schools) revived talk earlier this month of cutting cost by consolidating some public schools. The state’s public HBCUs – Winston-Salem State, Fayetteville State, N.C. A&T State, Elizabeth City State and N.C. Central – and UNC Pembroke, with its large Native American student population, are most often cited for consolidation with larger, majority white schools.
Clay said he doesn’t believe consolidation is the answer.
“I’m not sure what problem is intended to be solved, but each of the schools has their own mission and they’re many miles apart,” he said. “The idea that there would be some intermediary arrangement doesn’t seem to have much value.”
N.C. Sen. Earline Parmon said rumors of consolidation are just that for now – rumors. But she acknowledges that such talk has gained traction since Republicans won control in Raleigh last year. In March, Parmon’s Forsyth County Republican colleague Sen. Pete Brunstetter, publicly floated the idea of merging schools for the sake of efficiency.
“It’s something that myself and other members of the legislature are keeping an eye out for because this has been rumored for some time,” said Parmon. “…I think within a few years it’s definitely going to be on the table.”
Parmon, who serves on the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee – the governing body that would have to approve a closure or consolidation if it were proposed – said she would not support such a measure, calling it a “disservice to the state.”
[pullquote]“For years, there’s been talk about merging the HBCUs in North Carolina with other universities in the system – that will not happen while I’m a part of it,” [/pullquote]she said. “…I think it would be a terrible mistake. It would be horrible for education because each of our HBCUs are distinctive; they have specific purposes.”
Admittedly, money is tight, but Parmon said closing any of the state-run institutions is not the answer.
“We have one of the best university systems in the United States and I just don’t think that there’s room to consider this,” she said. “I just don’t think there’s any merit for even consideration of closing any of our universities.”
State Rep. Marcus Brandon, a fellow member of the Oversight Committee, said he would vehemently oppose any proposal to close or consolidate one of the state’s HBCUs. Brandon, who represents Guilford County, believes closing any of the state’s universities would be detrimental to the communities they serve from an economic standpoint.
“This is whole towns we’re talking about,” he said, noting that college towns like Elizabeth City would be the hardest hit by closures. “At the end of the day, what you’ll do is put a whole town out of business.”
Brandon, a senior and a fourth-generation student at N.C. A&T, said calling for the closure of an HBCU would only serve to widen the political divide that exists in the General Assembly.
“I don’t think it’ll be any political will to go through with it. It would be a deal breaker for most people, including myself, in terms of diplomacy,” he declared. “If you start messing with the higher education institutions, ones that we all went to and we all hold sacred in our hearts, that is a deal breaker. I don’t think they want to go down that road.”
Enrollment is down at HBCUs across the board and there have been widely-reported cases of some schools having to close because of financial reasons. In his report, Clay suggests that HBCUs themselves can do much to ensure their survival and the success of students. He believes partnerships with other universities and businesses can enhance schools’ educational offerings, expand opportunities for student development and increase schools’ visibility and competitiveness. But he asserts that there is no universal solution to fix what ails HBCUs.
“I think it’s probably worth looking into the issues associated with each university,” he said. “…It’s important to find out why enrollment declined, and that’s a different story in each institution.”
It is not gloom and doom for all HBCUs. Winston-Salem State is booming and graduating more students than ever.
Chancellor Donald Reaves says he doesn’t think the university is in any danger of being closed or consolidated. He says schools like his are doing some consolidating of their own, though, in these fiscally-tight times.
“When you talk about consolidation, there are a lot of things you can do that make a lot of sense,” he stated. “You can consolidate back room functions. We have an agreement with the (UNC) School of the Arts, we perform their audits. Those sorts of things can take place, but it’s easier said than done to close a campus. What are you going to do with it once you close it?”
As with most of its peers, WSSU’s struggle to attract and retain the best and the brightest students is ongoing, Reaves said.
“At one time we had the monopoly on black talent in this state, and that’s when African American students didn’t have the choices that they do today. In order to make ourselves attractive, we have to compete,” he stated. “It’s a tough world out there.”
To read Clay’s full report or to learn more about The Kresge Foundation, visit http://kresge.org.