How to Erase the Shame of Cosby’s Legacy in HBCU Culture?

Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution today about the shame of Bill Cosby’s position as the standard-bearer of HBCU philanthropy.

Armed with a platoon of statistics and anecdotes about how much a major gift exceeding more than $30 million could permanently transform any single HBCU campus, Dr. Kimbrough presents a tough statistic to Black America on Cosby’s historic $20 million to Spelman College in 1988.

The tragedy is that 30 years later this is still the largest gift ever given to a HBCU. As Cosby’s legacy has crumbled before our eyes, and dozens of colleges and universities pulled honorary degrees with performed moral indignation, no one has tried to erase this record.

This is not Dr. Kimbrough’s first public shaming of the philanthropic community, and particularly those living on the black side of town. Five years ago, he took hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre to task for a sizable gift he made to the University of Southern California, and then took partial credit for another gift he made to Compton High School.

In the case of Dr. Dre and USC, he broke down the futility of giving to colleges and universities already replete with resources. In this case, he is framing an argument of how more philanthropy is needed for HBCUs and counter-balancing Cosby’s gift with Cosby’s crimes as leverage for more support of HBCUs.

From a general perspective, it seems understandable. “Don’t let a rapist be one of our greatest donors” seems to be Dr. Kimbrough’s central theme. But is this an effective call for philanthropy on behalf of and within the HBCU community? If making black folks feel guilty about the plight of HBCUs were an effective tool, Dr. Dre would have written a check to an HBCU instead of a public high school.

Black celebrities would be writing checks instead of wearing sweatshirts. And enrollment would be sky high thanks to parents, teachers, pastors, guidance counselors, and relatives expecting and demanding for young people to attend black colleges.

Few wealthy people donate to absolve guilt. They give to build a legacy, to level action with good intention and ideas, and to make a difference in alleviating suffering or spurring advancement. The same philosophy could be applied in asking one percenters to use their giving power as a prosecutorial tool to bring justice against Cosby on behalf of HBCU communities.

It may sound good, but it probably won’t work.

The themes we can weave together from Dr. Kimbrough’s public pleas create the strongest question we can ask of ourselves and of black America. If history, homecoming, black girl magic, black boy joy, Black Excellence and being lit aren’t enough to attract students in numbers larger than 10 percent of the total population of black college students nationwide; if irrefutable data on the industrial impact of HBCUs in the applied sciences, agriculture, education, social services, and healthcare is not enough to attract higher percentages in alumni giving rates; and if 70-plus presidents, including Dr. Kimbrough himself, going to the Oval Office to meet with one of the most reviled U.S. presidents in world history is not enough to get black folks to give, then what exactly will it take?

If the best and most desperate elements of our culture being on constant loop in social media and the general news cycle and haven’t done enough to amplify the alarm on the facilities, programmatic and financial aid needs we have on our campuses, then what else can the black elite, working class and everyone in between use for convincing?

Because the scary truth is that Cosby is two things at once to the HBCU community. He is a sexual predator, and the most prolific donor and marketer of our sector by way of his iconic sitcom ‘A Different World,’ which directed more tuition revenue to HBCUs over a multi-year period than any other time in sector history.

Cosby’s shame is a contemporary, non-racist package of the same shame which created HBCUs as a discriminatory system of keeping blacks out of PWIs, which keeps HBCUs underfunded from state and federal resources, and which allows public HBCUs to be victimized by governors and state houses seeking to subvert black colleges through covert and explicit means.

But we deal with that shame while seeking out ways to exorcize the horror of Cosby from our financial and cultural histories.

Dr. Kimbrough is correct in the sense that one big check makes this all disappear. But history has a bigger point to make. So far, a rapist is the only one who cared enough to make that kind of a difference for our schools. And very few things because of him or in spite of him, may change that reality.