Nikole Hannah-Jones’s decision to reject her belated offer of tenure from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in favor of an endowed professorship at Howard University is a massive victory for HBCU Nation. Yet as our schools ride the wave of America’s massive racial reckoning and millions of dollars flow into Black college funds, they have done so in favor of only a few hyper-prestigious schools while ignoring the vast majority of Black colleges. And this pattern must change.
For decades now, as legacy blue-chip corporations and A-list philanthropists write their HBCU checks, the recipient was predictably one of the schools that I lovingly refer to as the Big Four Plus One: Howard, Morehouse, Spelman and Hampton, and a revolving fifth that could be Tuskegee on one day, or Fisk or Xavier University of Louisiana on the next. With very few exceptions, these are the schools that get the big cardboard checks delivered by tuxedoed “VPs of Black Folks.”
These checks have merit — they underwrite tuition, faculty salaries and facility management. But they also draw positive media attention for the donor, whose reputational interests are then served to a greater degree than they would be by giving to lesser-known HBCUs. These less fortunate (and mostly state) schools serve not only the majority of HBCU students but also a massive share of degree-seeking Black Americans. And candidly, they serve the more broadly egalitarian original purpose of HBCUs: to educate the descendants of enslaved people on a nonselective basis, regardless of financial ability, in both the humanities and in technical, mechanical and agricultural disciplines.
It is important to distinguish between private and public HBCUs. The Big Five would argue that private donations are their lifeblood, and that public schools are lucky to also receive government funding. That is only partially true.
First, even private HBCU donations have been inequitable, as evidenced by the financial struggles of Morris Brown and the dozens of HBCUs that have closed since the 1900s. The public trough has never been enough to support the institutional health of public HBCUs, many of which were birthed through the Second Morrill Act of 1890. These “land grant” schools were given federal lands to start up, but are largely funded by state legislatures, many of which were long dominated by racist Dixiecrats and now by extremist Republicans. Although these groups don’t share a party, they share a goal: the intentional underfunding or defunding of HBCUs by not believing them to be as worthy as state flagship schools, or not believing that they should even exist. Indeed, a macabre parlor game in public HBCU circles is to examine the state legislative budget proposals each year and then prepare to fend off not only draconian cuts but also the inevitable push to eliminate our schools by merging them with another in the state system.
I applaud Hannah-Jones’s decision to reject being tolerated in favor of being celebrated. That said, it continues the pattern of the rich getting richer, which contemplates scholarly talent as well. My soul would have jumped for even more joy had she chosen North Carolina A&T and arranged the philanthropic support to further her career there. I dream of the day when Cornel West, upon being spurned by Harvard leadership, will take his prodigious talents to his home-state HBCU, Langston University, much like how W.E.B. Du Bois taught at Atlanta University. When high-profile scholars elevate an institution, money, attention, enrollments and prestige follow. And a greater base of Black students is served and prepared for leadership.
MacKenzie Scott is leading on this issue by directing substantial amounts of her personal fortune to lesser-known HBCUs, most of them public. But these schools cannot rely on the singular largesse of a unicorn. We alumni of the lesser-known, yet heavy-lifting, Black colleges must do our part to send real dollars back home. Corporations have to become more engaged in direct support of their hometown Black schools, both by immediate dollars and indirect opportunities such as employee recruitment and workforce development.
And while the Big Five remain critical to the success of HBCUs overall, the media and general public should understand that schools such as Shaw, Johnson C. Smith, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and my own beloved Alabama A&M are just as vital to producing the current and next generations of global leadership.