Quite often, critics question the relevancy and value of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to contemporary society. More troubling is that many of these criticisms are not supported by data, or even worse, data that is used is often misconstrued. These criticisms exist even though it is well documented that HBCUs play a major role in fostering the academic success of students of color in obtaining bachelor’s and graduate degrees in STEM disciplines; not to mention that HBCUs have a strong history of making significant contributions to the racial diversity of professional occupations such as law, politics, business and medicine.
What is often overlooked and seldom discussed by critics is the significant role HBCUs have played in developing individuals who are civically engaged and the role HBCUs have played in encouraging student participation on issues related to social justice. One of the advantages HBCUs have in fostering civic engagement among their students is their strong history of serving as incubators of civil rights activity. Activists forms of civic engagement have always been a part of the cultural fabric of HBCUs and serves as a reminder that these institutions have and will continue to produce the next generation of leaders who will engage in change movements that make a significant impact on society.
Yet, as we face new and emerging issues of social injustice related to access and equity that cut across race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation; now more than ever, HBCUs are well positioned to play a pivotal role in helping to level the playing field for these various groups of individuals. However, as has been historically the case, many of today’s social justice efforts are often seen by the public and popular media as efforts to antagonize and provoke violence and social unrest. The gross misrepresentation of social justice movements such as #BlackLivesMatter is perhaps the most vivid example of a civic engagement activity that has not received its share of fair media coverage. One plausible explanation for the sketchy coverage of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is that it is not seen as a viable or credible civic engagement activity. However, history shows us that social justice activities are foundational to civic engagement and are often undervalued while at the height of their influence.
Despite the fact that many HBCUs are addressing issues of social justice within their local communities; there are additional opportunities that could be explored. The recommendations that follow are just a sample of activities that HBCUs could engage in to help expand their impact in addressing issues of social justice. More importantly, giving consideration to these recommendations will enable HBCUs to expand their institutional profile, which could lead to increased student enrollments.
1. Development of Social Media Campaigns
HBCUs would benefit from developing social media campaigns that address regional and national issues related to social justice. Engaging in a regional or national dialogue fueled by social media campaigns that promote an expanded dialogue on issues of social justice could lead to fewer incidents such as racial profiling or sexual assault and violence. For example, HBCUs could develop social media campaigns that not only increase awareness of these civil rights issues but also elevate them to the point where more progress can be realized through changes in state and federal legislation or campus policies.
2. Establish Social Justice Centers
HBCUs should create centers that focus on social justice. Doing so will enable faculty, staff and students to work collectively on social justice issues and help further enhance the profile of HBCUs and the work they do on issues that shape the lives of people of color, women and other disenfranchised groups.
3. Develop New Academic Majors
HBCUs would benefit from the development of new academic majors related to social justice that would allow students to enhance their level of community engagement and encourage their role as community and political leaders. Additionally, many of the students attending HBCUs have an affinity for issues of social justice so the creation of new courses and curricula focused on this subject matter could potentially lead to increased student enrollments.
4. Host National Meetings
HBCUs could consider hosting more national meetings and conferences that focus on social justice topics. The exposure from the hosting these types of events would further contribute to the visibility of HBCUs and their contribution to issues of national importance related to access and equity.
5. Collaborate with Predominately White Institutions
HBCUs could consider partnering with Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) to address social justice issues. These partnerships could be in the form of a program that would allow faculty, staff and students from HBCUs to work collaboratively with PWIs on social justice issues within a local community or region.
6. Speak out Publicly with Opinion Essays
HBCU presidents and other leaders might consider writing opinion essays pertaining to social justice issues and/or their students responses to these issues. Some presidents are already doing so – such as Walter Kimbrough (Dillard University), David Wilson (Morgan State University), and Michael Sorrell (Paul Quinn College) – but hearing from others would solidly place HBCUs out in front as social justice leaders given the silence of college presidents overall on social justice issues.
Without question, HBCUs have a rich history related to social justice movements. However, new issues related to access and equity are emerging nationally and within our local communities that will require HBCUs to be even more visible and further develop the human capacity of the next generation of civic-minded individuals who will challenge the status quo of injustice. As the U.S. continues to become more racially and ethnically diverse, it is likely that issues of access and equity will become more prevalent. What better time than now for HBCUs to be at the forefront of helping to lead contemporary social justice movements that will further establish their role and contribution to the development of civically engaged citizens?