Two years ago, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Institutions produced a groundbreaking report, outlining inequities in state funding to historically black land-grant institutions. 1890 HBCUs in states like North Carolina, Alabama and Florida were denied matching dollars in US Department of Agriculture support for research and cooperative extension, in programs that have been and always will be among the strongest for black colleges.
Agriculture is the world’s oldest and largest industry, and next to the Department of Education, the USDA is the largest funding resource for HBCUs nationwide. Because of HBCUs’ historic head start in the training of farmers, agricultural entrepreneurs and food and animal research, historically black land-grant institutions are among the crop of schools likeliest to survive the resource crisis among all colleges and universities.
APLU President Peter McPherson recently highlighted this truth, during the 125th anniversary celebration of the Morrill Act.
At campuses across the country, the 1890 Universities are making discoveries that improve the human condition throughout the world. Take research currently underway at Delaware State University. Researchers there are working on the genomic mapping of grains to reveal which seed varieties are needed to increase crop yields despite shifting environmental conditions that threaten to hamper global production. This research could prove indispensable as we work to feed a burgeoning global population that is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. At Georgia’s Fort Valley State University, meanwhile, researchers are working to improve energy efficiency in homes, lowering Americans’ dependence on fossil fuels and reducing a major budget item for low-income households. And at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, students and faculty are examining foodborne illnesses in research that could diminish the incidence of foodborne illness not just in America but across the world.
The survival of historically black land-grant schools, and their ability to thrive, will greatly depend upon our schools efforts to make the case for innovation and vision in the industry. APLU, the advocacy organization which represents the interests of America’s black and predominantly white land-grant schools, has taken steps to increase its lobbying power on Capitol Hill, while working to mobilize HBCU presidents and chancellors to develop a collective strategy for output.
But its Office of Access and Success, the division most responsible for interface with and representation of HBCU federal land-grant interests, remains under the leadership of interim vice-president and Tougaloo College alumna Dr. RoSusan Bartee, with no clear sign of a permanent leader on the way.
APLU is very different from groups like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, and the United Negro College Fund, in that it is primarily concerned with institutional capacity moreso than student access. But like these advocacy organizations, there is a certain amount of celebrity required to win headlines, and to win over legislators and power brokers.
The next vice-president will need familiarity with federal funding personnel, a command of data which demonstrates HBCU influence in national agricultural interests, and one who can meld the two with knowledge of how and why each HBCU land-grant functions within its own industrial and political contexts.
Hundreds of people around the country are probably fit for the job. Morgan State University President David Wilson’s career in cooperative extension spans HBCUs and PWIs over more than 30 years. And given his propensity to throw his name into consideration for other jobs, and the lack of a contract at Morgan, he would likely be a long shot, but a potential candidate nonetheless.
But there is one already in Washington who, according to D.C. insiders, would have interest if he got the call from McPherson — White House Initiative on HBCUs Executive Director Ivory Toldson.
Dr. Toldson has raised the profile of the WHI-HBCU since his arrival in 2013 as deputy director of the office. He has worked with HBCUs to position their programmatic strengths for federal funding opportunities, and has advocated for presidents and institutions to adopt performance-based metrics for presentation to public and private resource opportunities. He has publicly and privately met with HBCU brain trusts to serve as mediator between a president who has proven antagonistic towards HBCUs, and a Department of Education which wants to make HBCUs more successful but can’t out-policy individual states.
At APLU, the political headaches would be drastically reduced, while the advocacy and mythbusting opportunities which propelled Dr. Toldson to national recognition would remain. And at its core, the office presents the chance to promote hard evidence of how HBCUs create jobs, improve local economies, make people healthier, wealthier and more self-sustaining.
There is a tremendous focus on science and engineering for HBCUs, but going back to their roots, and the root of American economy, is where several of our largest and most active campuses will find their renaissance. All that remains missing is a quality leader who can command the time and respect of the HBCU community to do the necessary work in advocacy and awareness building.
Ivory Toldson is the right choice for this work.