What Is An HBCU? Part 1:  Clarifying the “Principal Mission”

by August 29, 2022

For leaders with vision now is quite the time to be at an HBCU. With intense focus on structural and systemic racism in the areas of education, healthcare, economics, politics and more, students, faculty and administrators are challenged now more than ever to clarify and reflect on the following questions: What is an HBCU and what is the principal mission of such an institution?

 According to the amended Higher Education Act of 1965, an HBCU is defined as “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964.” By that definition, no new HBCUs can be created. The numbers can only decrease. The same act also states that for these institutions the “principal mission was, and is, the education of [B]lack Americans.”

 Let us take a moment to consider why these institutions were created and continue to exist. Due to the legal and social treatment of Blackness in American society—defamed and dehumanized, from enslavement to segregation, Black Americans were beaten and whipped; brutalized and lynched; segregated and imprisoned, often based on nothing more than rumors. For these and many other reasons, Black Americans became a “protected class” that needed time and space to do the work of restoring their personal and social health.

 Clarifying the “principal mission”

Providing an environment for this “protected class” of Black Americans, allowing them time to explore self and a healthy space avoiding further harm and exploitation, is part of the “principal mission” of HBCUs. In light of ongoing anti-black sentiment in America embodied in the atrocities by Dylan Roof, the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor (and many others), and the high levels of homicide and violence within many urban Black neighborhoods, this federally-mandated “principle mission” must not be downplayed. Addressing the destructive practices of systems that have disproportionately made Black families and neighborhoods unstable is not enough. Even sustainable practices are not enough; we need regenerative practices that heal, mend, and repair—not just stop the bleeding briefly.

HBCUs must be free to address their “principal mission”, the education of Black Americans toward good personal, family and community health.  However, there are those who would attempt (and do attempt) to emphasize other missions while removing the “principal mission” from consideration. This shift requires a belief in Black inferiority and is itself a form of anti-black sentiment. That is, such thinking suggests that Black concerns are too small or narrow and merely speaking about them is somehow an insult to other groups.

HBCUs are not immune to this belief and need to address this faulty thinking directly. The simplest way to do so is to put the reality of HBCUs on the table and in the proper context. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were nearly 4300 colleges and universities in the United States in 2018 with 101 (no more than 107) being HBCUs. That is a little over 2 percent of the total. 

The idea that Black Americans, 13 percent of the population, do not even merit 2 percent of the institutions dedicated to resolving their many problems is a sad notion. Add to this the fact that, by 2018 NCES reporting, the top five predominantly White institutions (PWIs) enrolled significantly more students (313,250) than all HBCUs combined (291,767) and it seems quite absurd that this tiny number of institutions and even tinier student enrollment, should be redirected to imitate what thousands of other institutions and many more thousands of students are already doing. 

With some clarity about the principal mission, Part II examines how to select HBCU leadership.

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