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Taking the Emotion Out of the HBCU Relevance Debate

In 2011, I engaged in five months of crisis management as the public relations director of an HBCU. A public debate raged about merging that university with a neighboring institution as proposed by the Louisiana legislature. The HBCU "won" when the legislature took the idea off the table, but it didn't come without some bumps and bruises. The students and alumni were justifiably angry; but they were enraged to the point of yelling at legislative meetings, public name-calling, and even threatening the university's president in the middle of it all. Emotions are powerful, so they can turn tension into ugliness real quick.

Part of PR is determining how to win the confidence of the public even if it means taking an unpopular stance with stakeholders. For example, the foundation of the state's proposal was the HBCU's low graduation rate as defined by what I and many higher ed professionals believe to be a seriously flawed formula. The neighboring institution's graduation rate wasn't much higher at the time. One of our inconvenient truths was that two institutions with low graduation rates didn't guarantee a bigger, better institution. Why use tax dollars for a risky merger when they could be used to improve each institution while keeping the city's higher ed options diverse? The general public saw the logic in that argument, but the HBCU's stakeholders' collective anger made it difficult to make that argument work.

At the center of the HBCU relevance debate is value. Critics point to issues such as fiscal mismanagement, low alumni giving rates, poor facilities and accreditation challenges as blindspots among HBCUs. HBCU alumni are absolutely right to fight these critics with everything they've got, because HBCUs continue to serve as a foundation for Black students to acquire the tools to succeed after college. What dilutes HBCU alumni's argument in this tense debate is a penchant to engage in emotionally-charged verbal brawls like some that I saw as a PR director and much of what I see on social media.

Here's the game. Many HBCU critics are very aware of their language, so their goal is to enrage HBCU supporters rather than engage them. But too many HBCU alumni go for the cheese with public name-calling (including use of the n-word), yelling, petulant clap-backs, and the infamous "I said what I said" argument--my favorite. Such a lack of emotional intelligence nullifies the thoughtful arguments of HBCU stakeholders and supporters. Do better, y'all.

As a former HBCU PR director, my advice to you, HBCU alumni, is to know the difference between making and argument and arguing. First, don't let data throw you off. One reason I hate the "data doesn't lie" argument is people lie and people create data. For example, the glaring weakness of the graduation rate formula is that it neither considers several types of students, the original intent of the formula nor the population of students served. Think of it this way, a research institution serves a distinctly different type of student than liberal arts institution with moderate admission standards. The data thrown out to devalue HBCUs are often filled with biases. Critics absolutely hate to answer questions about the data, because most of them are either complicit in manipulating data or they flat-out don't know what the hell they're talking about.

Another thought is to turn arguments about relevance into conversations about expanding the definition of quality education. One of the most under used resources for HBCU supporters is a landmark 2015 study completed by Gallup. They looked beyond traditional institutional effectiveness data points and found that there had been virtually no consideration given to the impact institutions have on alums' wellbeing. Challenge society's popular view of power suit-wearing alumni living their best lives in corporate suites and golf courses. Expand people's thinking to a conversation about intellectual development, wellbeing, and servant leadership as marks of having received a quality education. As the parent of a future college student, I want to know that his experience will help him build confidence in addition to setting him up for financial success. There is hard evidence at your fingertips to show how HBCUs do that.

Speaking of financial success, one of the biggest lessons I learned as an HBCU PR director is that alumni who do well financially are quick to support their alma maters. But let's be clear, support is more than writing checks. Stop treating well-off HBCU alumni like ATMs. All HBCU alumni should give what they can when they can if they're going to engage in this HBCU relevance debate, so stop trying to depend "that Oprah money." Instead, encourage these valuable alumni to use their platforms and resources to publicly talk about how their HBCU experiences led to their financial success. If you're nice and patient, the donations will follow.

There is no doubt that HBCUs have a firm place in the college marketplace. We know they provide access, signature academic support and culturally competent environments to students who deserve to enjoy the higher education experience. None of that matters, however, if HBCU supporters are more preoccupied with getting the last word in verbal brawls than thoughtfully speaking their fact-driven truths about the richness of the HBCU experience.

Five great pieces, of many, that provide ammo for HBCU relevance debate:


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