When Soinknē “Sunny” Morant first visited Xavier University in New Orleans, she felt right at home. The leafy campus brimmed with bright, young Black scholars. “Nobody in my family has ever gone to college,” says Morant, a pre-med biology major from Killeen, Texas. On pace to graduate one year early, in May 2020, the honors student dreams of becoming a doctor: “I want to give back to my family, community and country.”
Xavier, founded in 1925 by Catholic nuns, is among 101 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The Higher Education Act of 1965 formally defines an HBCU as “any historically Black college or university that was established prior to 1964 whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans.”
The first few of these institutions pre-date the Civil War, with some 90 colleges for Black men and women established between 1861 and 1900 in northern states and throughout the South to provide training and racial uplift. Today, HBCUs enroll an estimated 300,000 students.
And the U.S. Department of Education records show that while HBCUs represent about 3 percent of colleges and universities, these schools enroll about 10 percent of African-American students—and yield 22 percent of Black-earned bachelor’s degrees and 25 percent of STEM degrees. Moreover, the campus experience is enriched by traditions that run deep at HBCUs, from Greek-letter organizations to homecoming marching bands.
Increasingly, Black women are at the helm of HBCUs. A 2017 American College President Study noted that only 5 percent of college presidents in 2016 were women of color. While the data doesn’t extrapolate the number of African-American women, experts place sister presidents around 31.
“In an industry such as higher education that has been male-dominated for many years, it’s critically important to acknowledge diversity and the accomplishments of women, more specifically women of color,” says Michael L. Lomax, Ph.D., CEO, and president of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), an educational advocacy organization that supports private-member HBCUs. “They work hard each and every day to improve educational outcomes for students.”
In Alabama, Lily D. McNair, Ph.D., is president of Tuskegee University. Andrea Lewis Miller, Ph.D., is the first woman president of LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis. Aminta H. Breaux, Ph.D., is president of Bowie State University in Maryland. Glenda Baskin Glover, Ph.D., is president of Tennessee State University. She’s also the international president of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, whose AKA- HBCU Endowment Fund has pledged to distribute $10 million to qualifying institutions. This is just a snapshot of visionary Black female educators.
“We celebrate our sesquicentennial this year,” says Roslyn Clark Artis, Ph.D., the first woman president in the 150-year history of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. “It’s a time of transformation.” Appointed in 2017, the HBCU- trained attorney has already reduced tuition costs, increased enrollment, and developed the first M.B.A. program at the college, in which its 2,200 students can major in subjects ranging from cyber security to sports management.
Benedict is also among 24 HBCUs participating in the UNCF CareerPathways Initiative, which is designed to help HBCUs and predominantly Black institutions (PBIs) strengthen outcomes of professional placement. Funded by a $50 million seven-year investment from Lilly Endowment, the initiative aims to ready students for a rapidly changing, competitive, and technology-driven world. “We want to provide learning experiences that prepare students to enter the modern workforce and global marketplace,” Artis says.
Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., was dean emerita of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts when Spelman tapped her to serve in 2015. The liberal- arts college, which dates back to 1881, has about 2,200 coeds of African descent from across the globe. Spelman’s offerings run the gamut from curatorial studies to documentary filmmaking to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses.
“We are the leading producer of Black women who complete Ph.D.’s,” says Campbell. The National Science Foundation designated Spelman as one of the six “model institutions for excellence” for its track record of recruiting,
retaining and graduating women of color in the sciences. In 2019 the college received a $2 million grant from the Department of Defense to support the school’s Center of Excellence for Minority Women in STEM, which will serve as a hub for undergraduate research and training.
Oprah Winfrey, Tom Joyner, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and Steve and Marjorie Harvey are among the celebrities who have provided financial support to HBCUs. Billionaire businessman Robert F. Smith, who generated headlines in May 2019 after pledging to pay off the student loans of Morehouse College grads, is building an army of techies and entrepreneurs.
Through his Fund II Foundation’s UNCF STEM Scholars Program, stellar high school seniors are awarded packages of up to $25,000 on an annual renewal basis, including internships and wrap-around support. Xavier’s Morant is a recipient of the program’s funding. “This scholarship changed my life,” she says.
We are the leading producer of Black women who complete Ph.D.s.”
—MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL,
PRESIDENT, SPELMAN COLLEGE
One doesn’t have to be a wealthy donor to champion HBCUs. In 2017 Jessica L. Brown, a Howard University alumna, launched the College Gurl Foundation to introduce Black high school students to HBCUs. The non- profit hosts free college bus tours, educational activities and an annual scholarship luncheon. “It’s up to us to invest in our youth to create a world of promise,” she says.
THE EDUCATION STRUGGLE
While some schools have strong finances and healthy endowments, others are fighting to survive. Bennett, founded in North Carolina in 1873, has weathered financial and accreditation woes, but public support has helped with its comeback. In March, the National Council of Negro Women met in D.C. with the leadership of Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University, which was established by educator Mary McLeod Bethune in 1904. A campaign is underway to save the lone university named for a Black woman.
These HBCUs are not the only ones struggling. “Unfortunately, despite their outsize role in serving our nation’s most underserved students, these schools have historically been under-resourced compared with other institutions of higher education,” says Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee.
Last year Congress passed the FUTURE Act, a piece of bipartisan legislation to authorize permanent funding for HBCUs, tribal colleges or universities (TCUs), and minority-serving institutions (MSIs). The bill, which President Donald Trump signed into law in December 2019, provides HBCUs with $85 million in annual federal funding. It also simplifies the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
“HBCUs provide pathways of opportunities for millions of Americans who are from first-generation and low-income families,” says Representative Alma Adams (D-NC), who is among the lead sponsors of the measure and the founder/co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus. The graduate of North Carolina A&T State University and retired Bennett professor notes, “I am a witness to the power of these institutions, which molded many of today’s leaders.”
The FUTURE Act was backed by the White House Initiative on HBCUs; the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC); Tim Scott (R-SC), the only Black Republican in the Senate; and organizations such as the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), UNCF and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
The brainchild of N. Joyce Payne, Ph.D., in cooperation with Miller Brewing Co., Sony Music, the NBA, Reebok, and the American Association for State Colleges and Universities, the fund, named for the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice, represents publicly supported member HBCUs. Its president and CEO, Harry L. Williams, believes the issue of HBCU sustainability is crucial. “If another HBCU, private or public, shuts its doors, we can never create a new one,” he says. “So we have to be proactive and find bold and innovative solutions to ensure HBCU survival in this global and ultra-competitive higher-education marketplace.”
Collette Pierce Burnette, Ph.D., president of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, agrees. The school, which was founded in 1875, offers an urban- wildlife concentration within the biology program and a degree in environmental justice, among others.
“Our students apply an interdisciplinary approach grounded in systems thinking, critical pedagogy and critical writing to address issues with an equity perspective,” she says.
It’s critically important to acknowledge diversity and the accomplishments of women, more specifically women of color, in higher education.”
–MICHAEL L. LOMAX, PRESIDENT AND CEO OF UNCF
HBCUs are at the nexus of social justice and academics. Tougaloo College, established in 1869 and situated on 500 acres in Jackson, Mississippi, played a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement. The school has also produced over 40 percent of Black physicians and dentists in the state, and it ranks among the top 25 U.S. institutions whose graduates earn their Ph.D.s in the science and engineering disciplines.
Carmen J. Walters, Ph.D., the school’s second woman president, who came aboard last summer, welcomes students who desire to build on Tougaloo’s legacy. “See yourself. Find yourself. Be yourself,” she says.