We Have an HBCU Athletic Revolution, Is an Academic Revolution Brewing?

The tide is beginning to shift as it relates to athletics.

Since the integration of public higher education in the decades following Brown v Board, HBCUs have had a gradual decline in their enrollment share of college-bound African-Americans and the prosperity

Since the integration of public higher education in the decades following Brown v Board, HBCUs have had a gradual decline in their enrollment share of college-bound African-Americans and the prosperity of their athletic programs. However, the tide is beginning to shift as it relates to athletics. In the summer of 2019, Stephen Curry announced that he would fund Howard University’s golf program for the next six years. During the subsequent summer, NBA veteran Mo Williams was named head coach of Alabama State University. Also, that summer featured Makur Maker who shook the college basketball world by becoming the first five-star basketball prospect to commit to an HBCU(Howard) since Earl Jones in 1980(Side Note: Jones had an interesting story). While the Makur experiment may not have been as successful as we hoped it, the HBCU athletic revolution seems to be just beginning.

The biggest splash thus far has come in the realm of HBCU football, National Football League(NFL) Hall of Famer Deion Sanders deserves a lot of credit for making the leap to Jackson State University and trying to revitalize their football program and in the process HBCU football as a whole. HBCU football programs have gotten a plethora of NFL players to come back as coaches but none have had the stature of Sanders. While you can say Sanders is an unproven coach, he could have easily gone to a much better established D1 football program to start his collegiate coaching career on his NFL resume alone. Needless to say, since Sanders hiring was announced in September 2020, Jackson State has already obtained FCS’s #1 recruiting class behind his son Shadeur Sanders, the number #1 ranked FCS QB recruit.

As it relates to HBCU football in its totality, Sanders helped the Southwestern Athletic Conference(SWAC), the historically black college conference Jackson State plays in, ink a major sponsorship deal with Pepsi. Sanders also helped to get an HBCU Combine established at the NFL’s annual Senior Bowl(it should be noted, he now wants HBCU players invited to the real NFL Combine) and has undoubtedly been an asset in helping get HBCU football games on prime time television(ESPN/ESPN2). In another high-profile HBCU football hiring, Sanders helped convince Heisman Trophy winner and NFL standout Eddie George to agree on coaching Tennessee State.

While momentum continues to swing for HBCU athletics, it is important to recognize that athletics are not a profitable venture for most HBCUs and the ones that do barely do so.

2018–2019 HBCU D1 NCAA Finances

2018–2019 HBCU D1 NCAA Finances sourced from USA Today Sports

However, HBCU athletics and its’ viability is not the discussion of this piece, merely the backdrop. The noted successes of the present-day HBCU athletic revolution mixed with the commentary by Cornel West on Howard’s removal of their classics department led me to dream of how a similar revolution could occur within the academic space of HBCUs. At their best athletics are profitable, a great form of entertainment, and can undoubtedly recruit students to institutions but most HBCUs will not see their athletic programs achieve all these goals. Additionally, the subset of a school’s population attending due to athletics is certainly small relative to those students attending for academic reasons, and not to mention athletes are student-athletes. I strongly believe that the central goal of HBCUs and truthfully all higher education institutions revolve around providing the best quality education possible to their students. Therefore spurring an HBCU academic revolution that would improve HBCUs' academic performance should be of utmost importance.

As I have written about extensively, HBCUs have been handicapped since their inception by our government at all three levels. This permanent imbalance has forced our institutions to have to do more with less and slowly siphoned talented students and faculty from our institutions. No check Mackenzie ScottMichael BloombergPatty QuillenReed Hastings, or any other philanthropist, corporation, etc. cuts will be enough to displace these effects alone. It will take a systemic solution and elbow grease, at the very least, to truly reverse these inequities. Whatever solution to these inequities must include our government remedying the effects of the concoctions it has served HBCUs, private philanthropy, and people from all backgrounds taking leaps of faith to further reshape our institutions.

My mind has tethered back and forth on if it is better to try and recruit talented students and bet the domino effect is that faculty follow or would the domino effect work better if the recruitment of faculty came first? Should it be a mixed approach that tries to recruit talented faculty and students simultaneously? How are students and faculty intertwined to make an institution a place of academic excellence? I was not sure of the optimal answers to questions and truthfully I still am not. Nonetheless, it is unquestionable that HBCUs currently are as popular as they have been in modern times, Forbes even deemed 2020 to be the year of the HBCU. Our institutions have momentum, the conditions are perfect for such a revolution, thus we must not squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to better our institutions.

Google Trend results for HBCUs since 2004

That being said for this thought exercise I chose to focus my efforts on brainstorming how could our institutions recruit more talented faculty members to break rank and join our institutions. This is not to suggest that HBCUs do not have talented faculty members but simply to suggest that most HBCUs could improve their departments. In a similar fashion to how many decorated, professional athletes are choosing to spurn PWI D1 coaching offers to coach at D1 HBCUs, I envision an environment where the talented faculty members spurn highly endowed PWI professorship positions in favor of HBCU professorship positions.

When I think about recruitment on the undergraduate level, I doubt many students are being persuaded to attend a particular institution based on the strength of a singular faculty member but more so on the strength of a program in its’ totality or the availability of a certain major. On the graduate level, a singular faculty member with subject matter expertise in the desired research area can play a much greater role in recruiting students to these programs. Factors such as facilities, location, campus feel, etc. also play important roles but I would argue that at the undergraduate level the aforementioned factors have a tad more weight. Therefore, I believe the recruitment of talented faculty members will lead to stronger departments and therefore better recruitment of talented students at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

The actual recruitment of faculty to an institution is a much more complex task than the recruitment of students and thus institutions will have to be creative. Creativity is nothing new for these institutions since they have had to do more with less since their inception. Factors for the recruitment and retention of faculty members include quality of facilities, institution location, the strength of colleagues, quality of students, and administration to name a few. The importance of each factor obviously varies based on the individual but it is also undeniable that some factors will weigh more heavily based upon a faculty members’ discipline. For example, the quality of a department’s equipment will hold more weight for a prospective astrophysics faculty member than a prospective history faculty member. A prospective computer science faculty member may want to be near technology hubs such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, New York City, or Boston. These are just two examples of conundrums that our institutions’ administrators face in the recruitment of faculty.

With these challenges in mind, I believe that to spur an academic movement administrators will have to be strategic in what departments they want to build first. For instance, the University of Pittsburgh is a decent state school but within it lies an elite philosophy department, ranking third in the world. In the 60s, instead of investing a chunk of money it received equitably across departments, it decided to focus on a select few disciplines. One of the disciplines selected was philosophy and they ended up poaching one of the top professors in philosophy from Yale(Wilfrid Sellars). With this move, some of Sellars’ colleagues followed in his footsteps and thus the University of Pittsburgh’s philosophy department rose from obscurity as the decade progressed. With a strong foundation, the department has built upon itself and the department has developed its reputation as a world-class department even though the university as a whole does not have the same reputation. Similarly, I believe that HBCUs can use this example mixed with the surge in philanthropy as inspiration for building a foundation revolving around their academic strengths and institutional advantages. I envision a landscape where administrators are urging corporate and private partners to pay for endowed professorships, equipment, and other necessities for select departments that align with their institution's strengths. It is on our institutions to take the onus to map out these strengths and weaknesses and create a strategic plan to execute.

Expounding further to breathe life into such a movement, there is no reason why if our land grant institutions begin to receive their proper funding they cannot use the monies for agricultural program development, which could include the construction of state-of-the-art facilities and equipment. This could, in turn, allow for these institutions to further develop a niche in agriculture and attempt to poach high-esteemed faculty members to further bolster these programs, thus strengthening the institution as a whole. All of our land grant HBCUs should rank as top agricultural programs in the country yet in the present-day none crack the list.

Presently, niche areas of a discipline are usually reserved for elite institutions that have the endowment to provide the necessary resources to get these programs off the ground. However, as philanthropy and partnerships with HBCUs increase, I see opportunities for HBCUs that have established departments in disciplines that are historically underrepresented to partner with corporations to develop niches within a discipline, paving the way for these institutions to build a departmental advantage. For instance, a partnership between an HBCU and a tech company could be struck to develop an institution’s machine learning program within its’ Computer Science department. The tech company could offer the necessary funding to attract talented faculty via endowed professorship positions, obtain state-of-the-art equipment, and create programmatic development while the HBCU could offer highly educated, underrepresented students and research in the subject matter area, thus creating a mutually beneficial relationship.

All in all, when it comes to an HBCU academic revolution I believe the possibilities are endless and the conditions have never been better for one to occur. However, if we expect star-studded faculty to jump ship for our institutions, we must do our part in creating an environment suitable for them to take career-altering risks. As seen within the present-day HBCU athletic revolution, the environment had been cultivated in the years before Sanders’ monumental hiring. Thus, when exposure came after Sanders’ hiring, our institutions were ready for the moment and have since been reaping the benefits. And while the leap into HBCU academics will not likely be undertaken by well-regarded academics like Cornel West, who has plenty of commentary on HBCUs but no skin in the game. I do believe that in a world where highly-accoladed academic faculty can be denied tenure for egregious reasons, I sincerely believe that someone will have the courage to make the leap into HBCU academia and spur an academic revolution. We just have to do our part and make sure the soil is tilled. Like Sam Cooke said A change is gonna come.

Bonus: Brief Commentary on the Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates Move

Source: HBCU Buzz

I definitely did not expect this move to happen but I certainly did not expect it to happen a day before I published this piece. Nonetheless, my first thought was that if it was going to be any school that pulls off a move of this magnitude it would be Howard. Howard is the most well-known and endowed HBCU and thus the logical choice for a power move like this to happen. At the end of the day, it is a game of resources, no matter how you slice the cake. It also means if this experiment goes south that the momentum for an academic revolution would likely be hamstrung because the narrative would be if Howard cannot do it, then how will any other HBCU do it?

As I began to actually unpack the story I grew excited because this was exactly what I wanted to see when I wrote this piece. I saw some parallels to the University of Pittsburgh philosophy department tale, an unhappy, highly-accomplished faculty member was poached by an HBCU(extra points because she is of color) and brought another decorated academic to join her. If you read any of the articles on this story, it is important to note that these newly created endowed professorship positions are being funded by private philanthropy, which is important because it underscores the point that even the most well-funded HBCU is still very much underfunded.

Additionally, this move will definitely cause other faculty members to mull their options and I sincerely believe that Hannah-Jones and Coates will not be the last faculty to break rank for HBCUs. The million-dollar question is; Will these faculty members break rank and concentrate into the most endowed HBCUs or disperse amongst the HBCUs that may be a better discipline fit but less endowed? I think a revolution could start regardless, but it is important to recognize that HBCU wealth is very much concentrated at the top and there are definitely negative byproducts of this trend(Howard’s endowment alone represented 35% of HBCUs total endowment, yet they represent just 3% of the total HBCU student population).

In closing, this is excellent news for HBCUs and this move could truly be a catalyst. Kudos to Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates for the move. For this to be sustaining, however, there are going to have to be faculty members who break rank even if their current institution has not wronged them. Who knows what is next, but Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted that there was more to come so we will see how this unfolds and if Howard maximizes this monumental opportunity.

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