An Open Letter to Jason Whitlock’s Posit on HBCUs and Their Alumni

Some things in Jason Whitlock’s post rings true; however, it lacks a bit of critical analysis of what actually happened in terms of athletics and academic development at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Whitlock failed to mention how from the 1970s until today, predominantly white institutions (PWIs) recruit black athletes for their programs very hard. While at one time many of them considered black athletes to be inferior. As always selling tickets, i.e. making money, eventually trumps bias when it comes to making profit. (Today many PWIs still have higher percentages of black athletes than they do black students overall.)

PWIs operating on large budgets have convinced most of the best black athletes to attend their schools and participate in their programs. Recruitment has become almost a quantitative mathematical process. PWIs find the talent leaves while leaving room for HBCUs or minority serving institutions (MSIs).

Calling Coach Robinson the “Knute Rockne” and Grambling the “Notre Dame” of black football is frankly an insult. Based on the talent that came out of Grambling, it was the flagship of college football, PERIOD. Likely, until the mid-1970s Grambling and many other HBCUs would have likely “beat the breaks” off any PWI that took the field. (We can find out when someone makes a reliable time machine.) I would love to have been able to see video of any PWI national champion play the black college national champion from 1920-1970.

How much wealth would HBCUs have gained if they were able to keep the past stream of athletic talent in place up until today? HBCUs would have been able to build 60,000 – 100,000 seat stadiums or arenas. Imagined 10s of millions of dollars of decades of tax exempt revenue.

What Whitlock also neglects to mention is the historical underfunding of public HBCUs. This dearth of state funding has directly slowed the development of academic programs. Take the Ayer’s case in Mississippi and Maryland HBCU Equality Lawsuit. (We must not forget the role that enslavement of blacks played in building the endowments of many of the elite Northeastern seaboard institutions.) In both cases the respective state lost lawsuits that pointed out how the history of “Separate but Equal” policy played out in the development of higher education.

Let us take a few moments to imagine the amplification of the impact on the numbers of black civil and thought leaders, if pubic HBCUs would have been funded on par with state PWIs. What types of academic capacity could have been grown? How many large donors could have been attracted to the an engineering, mathematics, agriculture, medicine and education programs.

Therefore, alumni and black community giving is not the sole reason that HBCUs face increased difficulties today. Yet, alumni giving has it’s place in the current issues that HBCUs face.

As for the truth portion of Whitlock’s post, giving to HBCU’s by blacks is lagging behind horribly. The black community and HBCU alumni faithfully attend HBCU sporting and social events. Unfortunately, that enthusiastic HBCU spirit does not translate to high levels of direct giving to HBCUs.

Overall, blacks give a higher percentage of their income to donations to non-profit organizations. Most of these organizations are faith based. Therefore, HBCUs and alumni have to reformulate the approach to soliciting donations. Perhaps, working with places of worship can build scholarship funding bases.

During a recent conversation with Nelson Bowman III, Executive Director of Development at Prairie View A&M University, he proposed a fundraising challenge to me and other HBCU alumni. If 2,000 alumni of any specific HBCU gave $50 per month for a full year it would raise $1.2 million for the school. Increasing the amount the donation or number of alumni would insure that the amount of money raised increases.

Other than money, alumni should also be willing to do pro bono work for HBCUs. Donating our professional skills and time can help cut cost for the schools.

As outline in Whitlock’s piece, HBCUs have produced leaders in a wide range of professions throughout the country. That is an opportunity to bring a diverse range of talent together to help HBCUs think through issues, solve problems and execute innovative solutions.

Yes, problems exist at HBCUs just like PWIs have issues. Alumni can help HBCUs implement their respective missions and raise funds. We have to translate our love for HBCUs into attainment of resources. After all, if you are like me, your professional existence would not likely have happened without walking the hallowed grounds of an HBCU.

About the Author: Caleph B. Wilson, PhD is an affiliate member of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions and biomedical sciences postdoctoral fellow at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a graduate of Alcorn State University Alumni and member of the National Science and Technology News Service.  In addition to his work as a scientist, he participates in outreach programs to promote STEM, through mentoring, science education and professional development advisement.  Follow him on Twitter: @HeyDrWilson