HBCU President Emerita: ‘Tell About HBCUs Instead of Talking About Them’

There is no shortage of negative stereotypes about historically black colleges and universities. In almost every area of the campus enterprise, there is a case to be made against our ability to meet even the most common standards of success. Campus shootings; slow processing of financial aid; instructors who don’t show up for classes; student-athletes who don’t meet basic academic requirements, declining enrollments; enormous debt; facilities in disrepair, falling graduation rates, and retention are just some of the common ones.

There are always exceptions – Hampton, North Carolina A&T, Morehouse, Spelman, and Xavier are among the institutions, which, depending on who is telling the story, are elevated as the schools which are the best at living out the idea of ‘HBCU.’

But for the sake of all of our institution, struggling or superlative, it is time that all of us stop self-persecuting. Denigrating institutions which have stood the test of time, doing more with less than any other institution in this country’s history, deserve far better from us.

I am a child of a Historical Black College and University. I was born and raised on the campus of Florida A&M University. Both of my parents were FAMU faculty members and were HBCU taught and trained. My grandfather who served as a physician at FAMU was educated at two HBCUs. My grandmother was educated at an HBCU. I attended FAMU-supported houses of learning from nursery school through high school and then attended and graduated from an HBCU in Virginia. My sister, my brother and both of my daughters graduated from HBCUs. I worked for 7 and ½ years as an administrator at a Historically Black University and I spent nearly 15 years as the first female president of a Historically Black University.

My lineage and career would seemingly give me the right to talk “about” Historically Black Colleges and Universities. But I’m not going to.

I acknowledge that there are flaws in the operations of the Boards of Trustees; in the competencies of senior administrators and staff members; that facilities leave a lot to be desired; that faculty are outdated in their instruction; and that the students need a lot of grooming and teaching and coaching. The infrastructures of these institutions could use some work and would benefit tremendously from an unlimited infusion of financial resources. Everybody with any experience with HBCUs knows well these realities.

But we rarely drill down to conversations about HBCUs in the context of “in spite of.” Every year, 106 federally recognized institutions of higher education graduate a cohort of students who, in spite of it all, leave these institutions and make a positive, measurable difference in this society. Whether its 133 or 2000 graduates, they are better people; more educated; more savvy and more responsible than the day they first entered their colleges or universities of choice.

In spite of all that worked against them – either by design, accident or cultural mores – these institutions graduate young men and women who make a positive difference in the lives of the people they touch over a lifetime.

The institution I was honored to lead for 14 years was once majestic in its rank and file of HBCU institutions. It was not nearly that when I arrived. Suffering from years of neglect; pilfering of resources; stagnant leadership and basic expectations, it was a far cry from what I expected to lead. But from the very beginning, I was struck by a population of students who were enrolled because they wanted – expected – better than from whence they came. Over 14 years I put together a team of faculty and staff that worked day and night to make that institution a learning environment where they would want to send their own children and which sent wide the signal “these kids deserve the best we can provide.”

We graduated more than 2600 students over the course of a decade, who today are throughout the country teaching, doctoring, managing properties, researching, managing construction sites, managing their own businesses, acting and performing, coaching, parenting – and making a difference in the lives of others. I hear from these students via Linkedin, Facebook and other social media and occasionally one will manage to find my telephone number and call me. I hear from those who could have attended any college or university in the country and I hear from the ones who, but for our institution “taking a chance” would have been lost to any number of sad outcomes.

They are bosses and change agents and parents. And they all say “thank you.” They don’t talk about the long lines at registration or the lousy food in the cafeteria. They don’t talk about the faculty they didn’t like or the staff persons who didn’t know the meaning of customer service. They dismiss the disappointment in the status of the locker rooms and laugh about the residence hall elevators that didn’t work much of the time.

They are grown now and they talk about the faculty member who didn’t give up on them. They talk about the Director of the Professional Development Center who taught them how to create an award-winning resume and how to dress and talk for an interview. They mention the Academic Achievers advisor who talked them out of quitting school. They talk about the coaching they received prior to taking the GRE and their experience in graduate school. They thank me for always having an open door policy for the office of the president and note the coach who kept them out of the justice system.

These students remind me of the neighborhoods they left behind and the friends they’ve lost who didn’t go to college. They grin and hang their heads when I remind them that they have to pay those student loans and that it’s time to start giving back.

There are probably hundreds of things that those of us that are guardians of these institutions should and could do differently. We talk constantly about those things – in the public and behind closed doors. But we need to begin talking loudly and frequently about the adults that these schools educate and push out into the world. In an everchanging tumultuous society, these adults work daily to provide balance and positivity.

We need to start telling the stories with names and faces of the adults for whom these institutions provided a safe haven – one in which they could make mistakes without fear of being ostracized, expelled or imprisoned. A place where even the librarian knew their names.

HBCUs are being challenged as never before. It is unlikely that, over the course of the next 20 years, more than 45 will survive. But it is time, for those of us who believe in the mission and who can realistically see the vision, to begin the discussion of how we preserve, strengthen and grow the survivors.

There is an Aesop fable entitled “The Old Man, The Boy and the Donkey”. The moral, loosely translated, seems to suggest that in a futile effort to please each individual, no one wins and all is lost. If we continue down the path we are on – the one where everybody is trying to save everyone, we are sure to lose them all.

And these institutions are far too important to a progressive nation to let that happen.

Dianne Boardley Suber, President Emerita, served as the first and only female president of Saint Augustine’s University for more than 14 years. Suber was one of the longest serving members of the President’s Advisory Board on Historically Black Colleges And Universities serving through tenures of both Democratic and Republican Presidents. Her career includes 15 years as an elementary and middle school principal.

She is currently Co-Principal of The Silvermane Group, a consulting firm specializing in executive leadership and professional development.