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Historically black colleges contemplate a more diverse future

Published: Thursday, October 11, 2012

Updated: Thursday, October 11, 2012 11:10

WASHINGTON -- When David Wilson was first contacted in 2009 about becoming president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, he wasn't interested. Wilson had envisioned working until his retirement at the University of Wisconsin, where he served as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin Extension. He didn't know much about Morgan State, a historically black public university.

But after being talked into a campus visit, Wilson was struck by the students he met there.

"I saw my own story with them," says Wilson, a graduate of Alabama's Tuskegee University, a historically black university in Alabama. "They really saw being there as their last opportunity to transform their lives and their families."

Wilson was sold, and he became president of Morgan State in July, 2010. But the task he inherited wasn't easy.

This past summer, two private Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, Morris Brown College in Atlanta and Saint Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va., faced possible extinction. Morris Brown filed for bankruptcy in August, while Saint Paul's was given a temporary reprieve at the end of August when it won an injunction to remain accredited.

HBCUs, established after the Civil War to educate newly freed slaves who were denied entrance to most other colleges and universities, are at a crossroads. As majority-white institutions become increasingly diverse, the percentage of the nation's black college students who attend HBCUs has plummeted over the last several decades.

Meanwhile, HBCUs are becoming less black: Black students are now a minority at seven of the 105 institutions the federal government designates as HBCUs. That designation gives the colleges preferred access to some federal grants and loans, but many HBCUs are aiming to become more diverse in order to survive, and are focusing particularly on recruiting Hispanic students. Some HBCU leaders even have suggested that their schools should move away from defining themselves by their racial character.

For public HBCUs, which educate far more students than private ones, these changes come at a time of transformation for all public colleges and universities. Like other public schools, they have been shaken by budget cuts. But unlike majority-white schools, many argue they are still hampered by decades of discriminatory funding.

"There's no such thing as an HBCU flagship, not even close," says John Wilson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. "In the state systems, HBCUs have been treated like step-children."

Historically, HBCUs in all sectors have struggled to build endowments comparable to their majority-white peers. The university David Wilson took over in 2010 has a $1.5 million endowment, second-lowest among all public colleges granting bachelor's degrees in Maryland. Nationally, the average endowment at public 4-year colleges, $122 million, was eight times higher than at HBCU public four-year colleges, which averaged $14.1 million, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

That means that many public HBCUs have had a harder time adjusting to recession-driven state budget cuts than other public colleges and universities, says Ronald Mason, president of the Southern University System, in Louisiana.

"When these cuts hit, they hit us first and hardest because we don't have a cushion," Mason says.

Southern University's three campuses, the only HBCU system in the country, have used furloughs in recent years to deal with a roughly 40 percent cut in funding from the state, Mason says. At the same time, the system is looking for ways to centralize some services and offices systemwide to create greater efficiency.

At Morgan State, Wilson has made targeting federal money a top priority. During his tenure, the university has won a $28.5 million contract from NASA and is part of a team of universities led by Penn State that won $129 million in federal dollars to develop improvements in energy efficiency.

There could also be more state money on the way.

This month, the U.S. District Court in Maryland will hear final oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by alumni of Morgan State and Maryland's three other HBCUs against the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The HBCU group charges that the state hasn't adequately supported HBCUs and has duplicated HBCU programs at nearby majority-white colleges, in violation of a 2000 agreement the state reached with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights to settle years of segregation in the state's higher education system.

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