Meet the Two Most Powerful White Women in the HBCU Sector

I got a text this morning from a dear friend and HBCU advocate.

Who knew two of the most powerful people in HBCUs would be two white women who never went to one - Marybeth Gasman and MacKenzie Scott?

Gasman is arguably the highest-profile researcher on subjects of culture and philanthropy within the HBCU sector. Scott is the single-most prolific donor in the history of HBCUs and on the list of the nation’s higher education benefactors at large.

On any given day, both of them can redirect the global narrative on HBCUs with a report or a donation. It is easy to blame the HBCU community for being derelict in any way in defining its own narrative, but it would be wrong to do so. Giving in our sector has increased by millions in each of the last four years.

Enrollment, while fluctuating, is becoming more diverse and our graduates more readily positioned for success in a wide number of fields thanks to evolution over the last 150 years in academic program development, legislative lobbying, and industrial demands.

Gasman and Scott’s power is simultaneously appreciated, reviled, and unchecked, largely because their influence has been constructed and fortified by racial inequities. But what makes this an even tougher realization for the HBCU community is that we are positioning Vice President Kamala Harris as the representation for what real power in benefit to HBCUs looks like.

This is what makes the heroism of Vice President Kamala Harris so difficult to manage within our sector. An article published in Axios this morning illustrates the conflict.

Vice President Kamala Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, is the first graduate of a historically Black college or university to enter the White House — and her background reflects the changing demographics at HBCUs.

Why it matters: Harris‘ accession highlights the often overlooked legacy of HBCUs, which have educated Black students for generations. Today, the schools also attract Latino and Asian American students, as well as students from immigrant families, amid a transforming nation.

While Harris’ visibility and success are examples of what HBCUs can do for students, they aren’t examples of how the HBCUs themselves can be transformed. There is a reason why Axios and the world overlook HBCUs, despite generations of immensely successful graduates who have amassed power within their fields of expertise.

It is because that power rarely has transferred back to HBCUs in the form of public or private resources; or, at least the transfer has been so incremental that it does not overwhelm public perceptions about the competitiveness between historically Black and predominantly white institutions.

Harris isn’t close to being the person who can, with a phone call, change the trajectory of an institution. With the exception of Oprah Winfrey, how many HBCU graduates well-known or unknown can prevent an HBCU from facing negative accreditation status with an unsolicited multi-million dollar check?

How many of our researchers can yield a multi-million dollar research grant from an international foundation, or get dozens of HBCU faculty members published in multiple peer-reviewed journals in a matter of months?

That’s power we need and don’t have. And until the institution focus becomes growing this kind of influence in-house, HBCUs will always have to depend on the kindness of strangers.

The text concluded:

It’s nice that we can hold up Warnock and Harris and Abrams as representational hallmarks. But as long as HBCUs are at the whim of federal and state dollars appropriated by people with no real sense of their value (and many who literally DO sense their value, their greatest motivation is to defund them) and philanthropic interests which do not perfectly intersect and align with their missions, they’ll always be in jeopardy.