The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why historically black colleges matter

Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. (Courtesy of Mario Boone)
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Ronald A. Johnson is president of Clark Atlanta University, a private institution created in 1988 through the merger of Atlanta University and Clark College. Both of those schools were founded in the 19th century.

By Ronald A. Johnson

I was selected as Clark Atlanta University’s fourth president in February 2015. I am deeply honored to have been asked to lead this internationally recognized epicenter of African American higher education as its new chief executive officer. I join the ranks of hundreds of presidents, men and women, who carry the torch in leading historically black colleges and universities.

In leading HBCUs, we inherit a legacy of unconditional love, a bastion of enlightenment and a proven change agent that has stood through time. I am eager to extend that patrimony into the future.

According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, 9 percent of all African American college students, or some 300,000 annually, attend HBCUs. While this may seem small, the institutions’ positive imprint on this nation is disproportionate. For example, 40 percent of black U.S. Congress members, 80 percent of black judges, 50 percent of black lawyers and 40 percent of the nation’s black engineers are products of HBCUs. Even so, the case for these institutions continues to be questioned.

That said, the demand among African Americans for a quality education in a nurturing environment is increasing: Clark Atlanta University’s official census cites nearly 1,200 new undergraduates enrolled this fall, making this the largest freshman class since 2007. During this same time period, more than 1,900 sophomores, juniors and seniors returned to the university, which represents the largest number of returning students since fall 2011. Clearly, we are providing what our students are demanding — academic rigor, internships that position them to successfully enter the workforce, meaningful and impactful community service opportunities that build character, and a host of legacy-related activities.

Nevertheless, CAU, like all other colleges and universities, must meet the demands of the changing landscape of higher education. We have launched a review of our business model, academic programs, student development, research, technology, community relations and fundraising engines to prepare to take the university into its second 150 years. We will reinvigorate the university through the prism of innovation, transformation and entrepreneurial insight, building on our internationally recognized strengths in the STEM fields and in the humanities. Just as important, we know and understand that employability and scholarship come as a package, and our collective efforts have to direct graduates to places where they can find jobs and participate in the growth and development of communities worldwide.

Concurrently, many other presidents of HBCUs and I have been traveling across the country to participate in national forums, panels and discussions regarding our current and future roles in the higher education space and our impact on America and the world. We are raising the alarm about the increasing lack of affordability of a college education as a form of 21st-century disenfranchisement and as a national crisis, particularly for the historically underserved. Against this backdrop, we all are employing strategies and mobilizing our institutions to think differently about how we recruit, educate, retain and graduate students.

I have spent the past year meeting with parents, alumni, corporate partners, political leaders, foundation representatives, other universities and a panoply of supporters in Metro Atlanta and across the country. Most importantly, I have spent many hours hearing the imagination and dreams of our students who have come to us from all parts of the world. They come to us to find solutions to the world’s challenges. They are demanding and pushing us to help them find the opportunities to be change agents and problem solvers. For them, the HBCU experience is as relevant as ever.

Of particular interest in Atlanta is our involvement in and partnership with the broader Westside community. Together, we will address public education, affordable and safe housing, health disparities, and urban blight and abandonment. From our inception, CAU and the other HBCUs have provided leadership, support and a blended strategy of “town and gown” to help eradicate these scourges that plague our closest neighbors.

The enormous talent pool that will be lost if these issues are not coherently and urgently addressed poses an existential threat to our nation. At a point in history where our country, more than ever, needs to engage all of its best and brightest to compete on a global stage, HBCUs remain national resources that produce exemplars of innovation and citizenship. We must be woven into a future that our country can build together.