What does it mean to be more than an HBCU? Morgan State President David Wilson was recently profiled by the Baltimore Business Journal where he stated that he wanted Morgan to be viewed as “more than an HBCU.” Throughout the piece, Dr. Wilson spoke about his perception of the limitations of an institution if it’s solely known as an HBCU.
He elaborated on Morgan’s infrastructure and programming improvements, especially surrounding research capacity, and compared Morgan to other well-known universities. Despite the great research coming out of fellow HBCUs like North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M, and Alabama A&M; Wilson made a point to compare Morgan to schools like Temple and Johns Hopkins.
This isn’t by accident, this is a concerted effort by Wilson to separate Morgan from the HBCU space. At some point in the last few years of Wilson’s tenure at Morgan, the term HBCU or any mention of Black or African American lineage has been removed from Morgan’s institutional profile information on all press releases. Recently, HBCU Digest tweeted on the negative reaction this can create among HBCU stakeholders, both inside and outside of Morgan State.
The history of HBCUs, especially one like Morgan, is steeped in struggle and oppression. In spite of these things, they have triumphed through growth and advancement of their students, graduates, and communities. Distancing the university from the rich history of HBCU culture is an action that can be viewed as an effort to gain more credibility from communities and stakeholders outside of our universe; to attract dollars and attention from those who believe the stereotype that HBCUs are a second-level tier of rigor and respect in higher education.
Stakeholders should also take Dr. Wilson’s words with specific caution, given the changing profile of the university over his nearly 10 years as president. The total percentage of Black students at Morgan has dropped over 10% over Wilson’s tenure while overall enrollment growth has been relatively flat. With a new five-year contract, that number may continue to grow to the disadvantage of black students in Baltimore City and throughout Maryland.
There are many institutions which have continued to embraced their history while responsibly advancing causes of diversity and opportunity. Virginia State University, the 2018 HBCU of the Year, proudly showcases its historically Black lineage as a point of pride for past, present, and future university stakeholders. VSU is an example of how a university can continue to grow and innovate and collaborate with government entities while keeping an eye on its worthy past and distinguished future.
This move by Wilson at Morgan isn’t unique, many HBCU leaders have begun the process of trying to transform their institutions for the 21st century as higher ed continues to evolve. This subtle action is a covert public relations campaign of never mentioning the school as an HBCU or having every picture of students not representing the true demographics of the student body, faculty, or staff. Many predominantly white institutions have done this as well to prove their universities are more diverse than they really are. These actions on both campus types are based on lies, but for HBCUs, it borders on an institutional shaming of their heritage and community, and a willingness to commit cultural treason for minimal support beyond the HBCU base.
In Trump’s America, HBCUs bear a distinct responsibility to stand up for and to proudly claim who they serve and why they serve them. Our nation demands a true representation of what these institutions have done for the world by forcing the issue of racial equality in social and labor movements. Morgan is a Carnegie Classified Preeminent Public Urban Research Institution, yet these labels did not protect the university from the state system illegally duplicating many of its signature programs and withholding funds from the school over decades, as proven in the Maryland HBCUs lawsuit ruling.
So why would the president of Morgan, who himself is an HBCU graduate (Tuskegee), move to distance the institution from its own lineage?
The answer seems simple; the pressure and push for diversity in higher ed has led presidents like Wilson to move their campuses as close as they can to the model of peer PWIs. This is a huge mistake which could lead to the “gentrification of HBCUs;” stripping our beloved institutions of their identities solely for financial gain, and turning their backs on the communities they were developed to serve.
Members of the Black community have always been told to “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps” in the face of oppression. HBCUs are the “boots” of the diaspora; without these institutions staying focused on Black people and our issues, what will spare our communities from gentrification, shuttered black businesses and lost culture? Nothing will remain but a distant history of campuses which once produced the highest quality of Black graduates now focused on the interests of others beyond our campuses in the name of resources and acclaim which were never meant for our schools or our people.