Essence Fest program focuses on evolving role of historically black colleges
For panelists as well as the packed hall Saturday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, it was not a matter of debating the continued need for historically black colleges and universities, but rather an opportunity to address their evolving role as well as some of the challenges faced by the 105 institutions falling under that designation.
The program, part of the 2011 Essence Music Festival, was titled “Black in America: Promise, Pride and Power of the HBCU Education.”
It briefly examined the current state and function of the schools established before 1964 with the specific intention of providing higher education to African-Americans.
For panel attendee and Spelman College graduate Jennifer Reid, the decision to go to an HBCU was a result of a high school career spent surrounded almost entirely by white peers. “I wanted to be around other smart, black women,” she said.
Spelman, Reid said, gave her a “life-changing” and “empowering” college experience. She agreed with a continued need for strong HBCUs, saying they offer an atmosphere of education and community that cannot be found elsewhere.
Another panel attendee, Erinn Daniels, said the history of HBCUs was an important part of why she wanted to attend the type of school that was once the only option open to African Americans.
“We don’t want to forget the past,” said Daniels, who attended Florida A&M, “But it’s not just about remembering — it’s also about thinking about the future.”
The panel, moderated by CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien, included John Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs; Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund; Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund; and Maj. Gen. Mark McDonald.
“It is still a challenge in post-racial America to be black,” Lomax said, describing the social and psychological college setting that gives young African-Americans the self-confidence and self-identity needed to become leaders. “We prepare African-Americans for leadership,” Lomax said. “It’s demonstrated in the statistics.”
Taylor emphasized a continued need to “diversify corporate America” and to ensure that HBCU students graduate “career-ready” and on a path to be not just employees but employers.
The panel also discussed areas where HBCUs need to improve, such as expanding their online presence and focusing on retention.
With a large amount of scholarship money available, Taylor acknowledged, the issue today is less about access and more about preparedness and a commitment to education.
Wilson touted the Obama administration’s backing of an increase in Pell grant funds, as well as an overall commitment to the survival and success of HBCUs.
When O’Brien questioned why the vast majority of HBCU students are women, Lomax said, “We haven’t cracked the code on that one, Soledad.” He cited a need to reach young men earlier and give them a “sense of who they can become.”
McDonald touted the strong partnership between HBCUs and the military.
Taylor called for less “coddling” and said black churches need to become less “blingified” and more focused on supporting scholarships and professorships.
For Reid and Daniels, both of whom pursued graduate degrees, the foundation set during their years at an HBCU played a large part in their success. “What I left with was more valuable than a degree,” Reid said. “It was a sense of pride.”
Daniels echoed the sentiment. The larger historical context and nurturing environment, she said, “teach you to be proud of yourself.”
Although the issue was not raised during the panel discussion, the program came against the background of the recent effort to merge historically black Southern University at New Orleans with the predominantly white University of New Orleans.
One of the arguments cited by proponents of the move, which did not win legislative approval, was the fact that only 8 percent of SUNO students graduate within six years, one of the lowest rates in the country.
Though only vaguely familiar with the recent SUNO uproar, Reid said she could not overstate the importance of having a productive HBCU. “It’s extremely detrimental to underserve an already underserved population,” she said.