HBCUs must highlight their strengths to thrive in the 21st century

Op-ed: HBCUs are uniquely positioned to educate students for the 21st century economy.

In the 20th century, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) made a significant contribution to the U.S. economy by providing talented human capital in various frontiers of knowledge to private, public and nonprofit sectors where African Americans were underrepresented. They now need to make their case assertively to mainstream America that they are still a critical part of the country's knowledge infrastructure by highlighting the quality of their programs and inherent strengths necessary to meet the changing needs of the 21st century.

Two major trends are emerging in the 21st century knowledge society. One is the increasing importance of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East in market globalization. The other is the increasing need in the rapidly transforming U.S. economy for workers with a proven ability to blend technical and soft skills. HBCUs have long focused on these areas.

They have educated students from countries around the world for years — specifically from Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the Caribbean Basin, which are now the focus of U.S. economic and trade engagement. Alumni from these countries are political leaders and captains of industries in their homelands. And many serve as faculty in HBCUs, where their expertise — particularly in their native languages — facilitates global partnership opportunities for the schools and students. This unique strength of HBCUs rarely has been communicated beyond university walls, but in today's global economy, it should be shouted from the rooftops.

HBCUs have accumulated years of experience in educating ethnically diverse groups, giving their graduates a leg up in the globalized market. They have a reservoir of cultural knowledge, linguistic capacity and faculty expertise to effectively and respectfully communicate with leaders of developing countries. HBCUs often resemble mini United Nations, with their globally and culturally diverse faculty and student body providing African American students unique opportunities to experience cross-cultural environments firsthand in class. HBCU students are thus prepared and capable not only to operate around the world, but to lead.

Another underappreciated strength of HBCUs is their skill in educating and training professionals despite extremely limited resources. Delivering maximum outcomes in the face of scarce resources is a valuable management trait to emerging nations; HBCU leaders and graduates can use their experience and skill sets to train the leaders of knowledge entities elsewhere.

The transforming U.S. economy has also led to a change in the type of knowledge and skills in demand. Businesses now more than ever value the ability to blend practical and soft skills. This requires an exposure to technical and liberal arts education; the latter of which provides the "communication and interpersonal skills that are valuable and genuinely rewarding in the labor force," according to New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof.

Here again HBCUs have the potential to meet this need. They have maintained strong liberal arts curricula with cultural anthropology, social work, sociology, humanities and developmental studies. And in many cases they also have nationally accredited engineering, science, business and law schools.

The predecessors of current HBCU leaders were excellent builders of programs and physical infrastructure. Just to name few: Jerome H. Holland (Hampton University), Hugh M. Gloster (Morehouse College), James Cheek (Howard University) and Earl S. Richardson (Morgan State University). Current leaders will have to play dual roles of builders-cum-value enhancers. They need to persuasively communicate their schools' strengths to U.S. policy makers, media, legislators and corporate and philanthropic organizations.

For this they need to do the following:

•Establish centers for global competitiveness at selected HBCUs;

•Maintain national accreditation of professional schools and assist sister institutions in getting the same;

•Create think tanks of faculty capable of impacting national policies through research, publications and advocacy in their fields of expertise;

•Create "University Press" at selected campuses as an outlet for publication of faculty research, and lobby national publishers, whose textbooks are used in their institutions, to collaborate with their faculty to publish work;

•Create HBCU "Leadership Development Centers" to meet the training needs of academic administrators;

•And raise funds for endowed chairs to honor, retain and recruit research-productive faculty whose services can be used to address national issues through seminal studies and to provide a face for the university in print and electronic media.

Those who suggest that the time for HBCUs has passed are missing the bigger picture. These institutions are among the country's best suited to meet the needs of the 21st century. Emphasizing their strengths can ensure a healthy future for both the HBCUs and their students.

Dinker Raval (raval_dinker@yahoo.com) is professor emeritus at Morgan State University.

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