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HBCU Survive and Thrive

State of HBCU Address calls for more federal funding, accreditation oversight

UNCF Congressional Honor Roll salutes legislators who advocate for schools and students

In its first State of the HBCU Address, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) is calling for more congressional action to bolster historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) financially and bring transparency to accreditation groups that have taken “unpredictable, desperate and harsh” action against African-American institutions of higher learning.

On Tuesday, the UNCF, to commemorate its 75th anniversary, issued its first Congressional Honor Roll of legislators who have helped HBCUs in their communities and states over the years. It outlined a multipronged effort to strengthen these schools.

Specifically, UNCF president Michael Lomax called for federal policymakers to invest in infrastructure and innovation by creating a $1 billion capital improvement plan for the institutions; reforming student aid, especially Pell Grants, to ensure that the most underserved students graduate with less debt; committing to totally fund Title III programs for HBCUs under the Higher Education Act of 1965; a strong White House Initiative on HBCUs supporting investment/resource development; and the repeal and reform of burdensome higher education regulations.

“HBCUs are impactful institutions that are always punching above their weight. Further, our institutions have consistently had to prove their mettle through resiliency and resourcefulness,” said Lomax. “We want our institutions to be vibrant, vital and strong. We want our partners, federal and otherwise, to invest at a level that is not simply about surviving but thriving.”

These specific legislative initiatives will be advocated by HBCU presidents and others who will begin lobbying Thursday on Capitol Hill. However, it was in Lomax’s concluding remarks where he emphasized the urgency to act concerning the recent loss of accreditation of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

“Today, I call upon the Congress to review the procedures and decisions of higher education’s regional accreditors and the harsh, seemingly desperate, too often existential, punishing sanctions handed out at historically black colleges,” said Lomax.

In December 2018, Bennett College lost its SACSCOC accreditation because of its precarious financial position and was given two months to raise $5 million. It did so, raising about $9.5 million through the #StandWithBennett campaign. Yet, after an appeal, the college was notified on Feb. 18 that it would still be denied accreditation.

Bennett filed a lawsuit against the commission and asked for a motion to obtain a temporary restraining order to forbid the organization from revoking the college’s accreditation. It remains accredited while the order is in place.

“Bennett is going through a lawsuit against our accrediting bodies, SACSCOC, and all we are asking for is justice, to be treated like other institutions that have faced similar challenges and when they found new money they were remanded back,” said Bennett president Phyllis Worthy Dawkins.

SACSCOC has nearly 50 HBCUs under its review and membership list.

“Scholars have sounded the alarm bells based upon their research findings concluding that, and I quote, ‘Decisions handed down by regional accreditors are inconsistent and unpredictable, and minority-serving institutions, including historically black colleges and universities, tend to receive harsher sanctions than other institutions.’ A recent internal review by the UNCF Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute notes that ‘HBCUs were handed down over 30 percent of all of SACSCOC sanctions,’ ” Lomax said.

U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina, founder of the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, said she is prepared to use her resources to keep what happened to Bennett from happening to another HBCU.

“We are going to hold Congress accountable, and I believe we need to hold SACSCOC accountable as well. I’m going to be at the table trying to get my colleagues involved in this process because clearly no school, not another HBCU, should close,” said Adams.

Although the afternoon’s luncheon for the State of the HBCU Address concluded with a focus on the accreditation issue, the primary purpose of the day was to set the agenda for federal lawmakers in the 116th Congress and to highlight the progress and accomplishments of HBCUs in the last year.

One such highlight was the recognition that the UNCF, which has helped HBCUs, low-income students and students of color since its inception in 1944, had helped deliver more than $100 million in additional federal funding to HBCUs last year despite the current political climate in Washington.

The UNCF announced various ways it hoped to be able to help HBCUs in years to come, with a greater goal of dispelling hardships that institutions face in propelling the notion that “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in,” said Lomax.

Adams might have said it best, emphasizing her desire to keep HBCUs open because of what they mean to the African-American community. “I’m like Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m sick and tired of that old question, ‘Why do we need HBCUs?’ What in the hell would we do without our HBCUs?”

John X. Miller is senior editor for news and commentary for The Undefeated. He's a father, jazz aficionado and diehard UNC basketball fan.

Tiffany Hoyd is a senior media journalism and film communications major from Murrieta, California. She serves as Howard's football manager and color commentator, and enjoys playing spades and listening to R&B.