Despite current leadership crisis, HBCUs still matter

HBCU presidents may come and go, but their mission remains an important one.

By Harold T. Respass

Over the past several years, there has been a great deal of writing noting the high turnover in HBCU leadership, with presidents and chancellors being fired, pressured to resign, or pushed into retirement.

It’s no secret that many HBCUs are plagued by financial and managerial woes that leave students and alumni disenchanted, and employees disgruntled. Some have even ventured to question whether HBCUs still need to exist in the 21st Century, and whether black families should send their children to these historic and often-troubled institutions.

Despite their many flaws, HBCUs still fulfill a vital and admirable function in education.

Like many people, I grew up in a poor, single-parent household, where mere survival trumped any detailed talk about getting into and completing college.  My HBCU, Winston-Salem State University, prepared me to now manage a $15 million book of business at the fourth largest company in America, helping universities to spend their resources more wisely. I didn’t plan in my wildest dreams to work in Corporate America, but I was prepared to do so.

This isn’t just about great curriculum. Not only did my HBCU provide knowledge, but also, through observing real examples of Black leadership and through opportunities to assume and practice leadership, I gained the confidence I needed to walk into any meeting, with any race, class, or age group, and know that I am capable of leading the discussion and accomplishing my mission.

The unique self-affirming amalgamation of black history, music, and culture, along with a host of student activities and leadership and governance opportunities, leave many HBCU alumni well-equipped for the rigors of the workplace and a changing world.

Many alumni have sparred in classrooms over large topics like civil rights and politics, creatively budgeted and fundraised for an organization to pull off an annual show, performed with poise and precision in athletics or a marching band, and served their community through Divine Nine and other service organizations. This mixture of academic rigor, leadership development, and cultural and historic awareness, is a foundry for success.

Leadership development and empowerment are the untold story of HBCU success and HBCU alumni have an obligation, now more than ever, to spread their story.

Harold T. Respass is a 2009 graduate of Winston-Salem State University, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., and host of The Respass Report, a podcast on politics, social justice and more. This commentary originally appeared here.

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