HBCU Presidents and Leaders Discuss the Future of Colleges and Universities Post COVID-19

Earlier this week, The Higher Education Leadership Foundation hosted a timely conversation about the current state of historically black colleges and universities and their futures post COVID-19 on its podcast Forethought of our Founders. HBCU presidents from Bennett College, Southern University, Virginia Union University, and Wiley College weighed in on the importance of HBCUs and the students who attend not being left out of conversations as higher education institutions reimagine their business models after the pandemic.

Dr. Hakim Lucas of Virginia Union University and Bennett College President Dr. Suzanne Elise Walsh were guest panelists for the topic, ‘A New Normal: Now is the time to reimagine the current higher education business model.’ The live discussion was moderated by Wiley College President Dr. Herman Felton and Higher Education Leadership Foundation (HELF) Founder Dr. Melva Williams, vice-chancellor of Southern University New Orleans and Southern University Shreveport.

During the conversation, Dr. Walsh touched on Bennett’s fight for accreditation during the pandemic and how the health crisis has uniquely positioned the school.

I came in in August of 2019 and came in after a, an incredible fundraising campaign by my predecessor Dr. Dawkins where the college raised $9.6 million in 60 days. Our financial challenges are the only challenge that we have with our accreditation. And I say all this just to give context. So, we’re still accredited by SACS—and at the same time, we are pursuing this alternative accreditation while we work through the courts. And what I think is important about that is because of that financial status—because of that accreditation status—we had already been planning for a decline in enrollment for the Fall, just because we were in this precarious position,” said Walsh.

“We had already rethink our financial model because we had to. And so, when Corona hit it really just said, ‘OK, everything we had already been focusing on now has to be amplified.’ But in some ways, we may have been a little bit better positioned weirdly because these things were already top of mind,” she added.

Report: HBCU Enrollments Decline With Second Lowest Numbers In 17 Years

Moving Business Forward

One of the interesting areas of discussion was on the business models of HBCUs. There is an idea that some schools operate off of a church model and others on a business model. In response to that, Dr. Lucas shared that HBCU business models are nuanced.

“Well you know how it is with anything that is faith-based or faith-centric in the African American community to run the business like a church on one side, denotes this notion of family and interaction and work and warmth and the necessity of presence and closeness. But on the other side, it often conflicts with the business parts of an organization that usually go with the theme of employment. How performance is preferred over relationships; how people get jobs how they’re placed; and how relationships sometimes supersede productivity. And so oftentimes in our spaces when we talk about the HBCU world, because the church is often, particularly for private HBCUs, is so ingrained into the culture. And not only does the chapel take the central part of our landscape and architecture, but sometimes it also overflows into our business decisions,” said Dr. Lucas.

Dr. Williams then posed the question, How are you addressing the juxtaposition between faith, mission business, and the coronavirus?

Dr. Lucas responded saying, “The point is simple, that we all are using faith as a lens to grow ourselves towards a deeper level of servitude. And it is that growth of a service-minded individual a servant leader that then allows us to take our personal values, our personal ideals, our personal missions and standards, and to infuse them into the institutions that we serve, through our missions our visions, our core values and ultimately our strategic approach to the work.”

He also shared that ‘pastor corona’ as he likes to call the virus came with a prophetic message. “The message that she’s bringing to us is that you better learn how to do your business in the midst of unexpected trials and tribulations.”

Collaboration Is Key for HBCU Presidents

Dr. Walsh added, “You can’t survive COVID-19 with a great story. You have to do the real work.”

Popularity or the appearance of doing well will not help colleges and universities thrive after the pandemic. Working together will, the HBCU presidents agreed.

“Those who are most successful, who are actually successful are institutions that don’t go it alone. If you think that you can be successful just as an individual institution in your individual context, you’re not going to make it,” said Dr. Walsh.

Forming partnerships and collaboration is key.

“For whatever reason, COVID-19 is more real than all of the other moments that have been threatening to close institutions. It’s because of the volume and everybody experiencing that same anxiety and the same issues all at once—[versus] an institution struggling last year and one five years ago. That’s different. But when everybody’s in it together I think it reveals a number of opportunities,” Walsh added.

HBCUs have a strong future. To read more about the impact COVID-19 is having on the black community, click here.