HBCUs must exist, panelists say

HBCUs must exist, panelists say
February 19
00:00 2015
(Above: (L-R) Panelists at the 2015 North Carolina HBCU Political Action Summit held at WSSU on Feb. 12 were Dr. Corey D.B. Walker of WSSU; Ayana D. Hernandez of North Carolina Central University; Douglas A. Wilson, former political director for the N.C. Democratic Party; and Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry of  Wake Forest University. )

Students from 11 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the state descended onto the campus of Winston-Salem State University last week to talk about how they could contribute to making sure the doors of those institutions remain open.

The 2015 North Carolina HBCU Political Action Summit was hosted by WSSU Student Government Association along with the Young Invincibles and the UNC Association of Student Governments.

The summit kicked off on Feb. 11 and lasted through the remainder of the week. Students participated in sessions on the local and statewide impact of N.C. HBCU’s enrollment, recruitment, programs, and funding; and advocacy training along with meetings with legislative aids and state legislators.

“We felt that we needed to start creating spaces so that we could talk about the issues that HBCU’s face, to celebrate the good things about us, work through some of the issues that we have and to tap into some of the power we have as students,” said WSSU SGA President Olivia Sedwick. “We are going to Raleigh, not expecting anything immediate, but to start conversations because clearly these conversations aren’t being had. This is about having discussions around HBCU relevancy and how we determine what things are important to them based on what’s important to us.”

The summit also included a panel presentation on Thursday, Feb. 12, that discussed funding models for HBCUs, including state and federal appropriations and program support. The panel was open to the public and held in the Campus Hall of the Donald Julian Reaves Student Activities Center.

“This was about not only empowering the students but also empowering the communities around these HBCUs,” Sedwick said. “Everyone has been very receptive and they are enjoying the content.”

Panelists were Dr. Corey D.B. Walker, dean of the school’s College of Arts, Sciences, Business and Education, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, politics professor and executive director of the Pro Humanitate Institute at Wake Forest University, Ayana D. Hernandez, associate vice chancellor for University Relations at North Carolina Central University, and Douglas A. Wilson, former political director for the N.C. Democratic Party.

“Historically, black colleges remind us of the segregated history of higher education as well as the necessity of developing every individual’s right to think. We also tout the ways that historically black colleges have educated African-Americans disproportionately in light of segregation,” Walker said. “We’ve done that because of the belief that African-Americans, all Americans and indeed all people, have the right to control their own intellectual, material, political, social and cultural destiny.”

With the recent news that South Carolina State University could potentially be closing for two years, the topic of funding was an important one with the panel, especially after being asked if funding for low-income students has crippled HBCUs.

“I think that the problem we have with funding, from a political stand-point, is that the majority of HBCUs are in the South, where state houses and senates are controlled by the Republican Party. What I’ve noticed is that there tends to be a lack of attention from the House and Senate because a lot of these folks are not connected to HBCUs,” Wilson said.

The measure is far from law, but its approval by a three-member House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees state appropriations for higher education has caused the nation to pay attention. The two-year- suspension could negatively impact enrollments and create even more financial problems for the university. What many supporters of the measure are saying is that the effort will provide a clean slate for the university by firing all of its trustees, administrators and faculty members this summer, while allowing students who are enrolled on a scholarships to attend other public institutions of HBCU.

According to data from the U.S. Education Department, 14 percent of students graduate from the university within four years of enrolling, and the six-year rate is 36 percent.

“I feel like there are some really hard stats around many HBCUs and graduation rates. Those tough statistics are part of what allowed open-ended attacks on those HBCUs for the purpose of closing doors. I think as we make cultural arguments we have to be really cognizant, aware and capable of addressing those questions,” Harris- Perry said about how HBCUs should push back against online colleges and focus instead on their on campus experience to help off-put graduation rates. “The story is that government money is going toward the schools that are failing to graduate these students. That is what’s being said. There are these narratives that can be made about the four-year graduation rate.”

Students from Elizabeth City State University attended the session and faced the same threat as SCSU currently does a year ago. The University, which will celebrate its 125th anniversary on March 6, faced closing in the spring (2014) after a provision was included in the preliminary Senate budget that would have allowed the UNC Board of Governors to conduct research into whether or not to close the institution.

The news sparked outrage among supporters, members of the Legislative Black Caucus and alumni, who quickly generated a petition to keep the doors open, even though the college has seen a large drop in admissions over the past five years.

School officials have blamed the falling enrollment on tougher admissions standards.

The Senate later voted unanimously to remove the budget provision.

Sophomore Class President Ajanae Willis knows all too well how that type of information can impact students and their learning experience.

“The attacks came as devastating. Yes, our school was in a transitional state, just like S.C. State, but the fact that people who claim to support higher education can try to attack these universities when they’ve played a part in putting us in those situations is not OK,” Willis said. “They’ve played a major role in affecting the demographics of our university, just like S.C. State. The very fact that those who claim to support us could actually think of something like that (looking at a study to close the school), was a very rude awakening.”

Willis said that the fact that the two schools, in different states, are going through similar situations shows that there is a need for the summit and unity throughout all HBCUs.

“We need to air our issues, learn from other schools and to be apart of the progress for unity for African-American education. When ECSU was under attack, the most support we got was from HBCUs,” she said. “Our sister schools do care about us and it’s so important for us to be on one accord. We need backing from schools that understand our demographics and our future goals as black people. We need schools that are going to understand that.”

Sedwick hopes that the conversations continue on a yearly basis.

“There is nothing like working in community. That’s something we’ve lost over the years,” she said.

“… We need to be having these conversations more between ourselves, communities, legislators and institutions.”

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Chanel Davis

Chanel Davis

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