HBCUs must Rethink Holistic Operations

Updated: Oct 10, 2017

by Dr. Teresa Hardee




There have been many articles and reports recently about the future of historically Black colleges and universities, touching on many aspects of what needs to happen in the HBCU arena. Below is my opinion of other factors to consider:


HBCUs have strong traditions growing out of the days of racial segregation in the United States. Many of them are defending their historic missions in the 21st century in light of the fact that they are faced with responding to demands that are more market-driven. In addition, African-Americans are attending non-traditional schools like the University of Phoenix (UPX) which is siphoning off many potential students that otherwise might enroll in an HBCU. In fact, UPX was the number one producer of Black graduates for 2010-2011.


To compound matters further, many publically funded HBCUs are already struggling financially and depend more heavily on state appropriations and financial aid than their counterparts at majority White institutions. To make matters worse, the recession that began in 2007 has put even further strains on HBCUs and is forcing them to consider fundamental changes to their landscape. However, these challenges can provide HBCUs with an opportunity to repackage their presence in higher education and transform their institutions by ensuring that they continue to produce graduates that can compete in the national and global marketplace.


There is no shortage of information pertaining to the challenges facing HBCUs or higher education in general these days. HBCUs are still facing familiar issues — inadequate revenues, enrollment pressure, leadership stability, technological challenges, governance and on and on. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of issues, but rather, to reflect some of the major issues that HBCUs must grapple with both now and in the future.


By chronicling some of the major issues, HBCUs can begin to form ideas about the relative placement of the issues along some meaningful spectrum that will allow them to make reflective analyses. How HBCUs solve these challenges by making informed decisions will determine how they will distinguish the important things from the not so important things and be able to effectively offset some of their key challenges which are shown below:


1. Inadequate Resources — While it is not their sole source of funding, state appropriations often provide a significant source of the overall budget for the college or university (public). Over the last several years, other demands of state resources have lessened the pot for higher education each year as other constituents are vying for the same limited state resources.

2. Enrollment Pressure — Competition for well-prepared students is fierce and can only be expected to increase.

3. Transformational Leadership — Effective leadership requires executives and senior leaders that will make an indelible positive impact. Transformational leaders focus more on high impact interventions that improve the quality of education, customer services, and administrative efficiencies.

4. Technology — Networked intelligence and broadband capabilities are revolutionizing the provision of education. Virtual classrooms are now common, and distance education programs are becoming a regular part of course offerings. However, given the common economic realities at HBCUs, can they marshal the necessary investments in technology in order to compete effectively?

5. Governance — Getting everyone to play a constructive role in a power sharing arrangement can be difficult; however, the rewards can be great if it is done well. The need for cooperation and collaboration has never been greater, given the accelerating rate of change in higher education. HBCU boards of trustees can play a positive role by observing the delicate balance of providing governance oversight, while at the same time, avoiding administrative overlap.

6. Marketability/EmployabilityWill limited resources impact one’s ability to seek gainful employment in areas that are in demand in the job market? Has academic program planning taken into consideration what market demands exist as they consider program cuts or alterations? HBCUs must endeavor to ensure that their programs are meeting the needs reflected by the current and anticipated marketplace; otherwise their relevancy as a source of supply in certain disciplines or fields might come into question. This concept of return on investment on a student’s marketability and employability is now creeping into the student/parent’s vernacular and they will begin to measure the type of position the graduate gets, the length of time it takes to become suitably employed, and the compensation package received.


All issues are not of equal salience, and therefore, HBCUs should try to place them in some structure that permits examination of their level of contribution to the total challenges facing them. This creates somewhat of a “force field analysis” or, stated differently, an assessment of the strength of the forces for and against any changes suggested to address the challenges facing that aspect of higher education. Remember the famous speech by President Eisenhower where he referred to the environment as the “military industrial complex” and its entrenched interests? Implementing changes in entrenched environments on some campuses can be met with considerable resistance. A structured approach to peeling back the layers of issues facing HBCUs is a reasonable way to proceed along the path to providing reasonable strategies for making lasting positive changes.


Can HBCUs rethink their holistic operations in ways that will allow them to cut costs and preserve programs? Historically, colleges and universities have not shown a great propensity for change but will have to if they plan to remain competitive. I tend to gravitate more toward concrete areas where I believe that strategies based on informed study can help to positively change an organization.


Many colleges and universities must rethink and/or revamp the operations of their organization. Sure, some have done some tinkering around the edges, but the initiative to fundamentally rethink how they do business has mostly eluded higher education. It takes an enormous organizational commitment to pull something like this off. The current economic climate has forced new realities on HBCUs in particular, and colleges and universities, in general, throughout the United States. Structural changes indicate that there should be a fundamental rethinking of the higher education milieu at HBCUs.


Dr. Teresa Hardee is the vice president of finance at Delaware State University

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