At this point we are less than a week away from election day in the U.S. Many of us are weary, in various ways, of this election cycle. However, amongst all of the sound and fury regarding the presidential election, I want to take the time to highlight one very important issue that many of us are not discussing: local and state elections. If you care about historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), especially public HBCUs, you need to vote—for everything. During this election cycle, a great deal of the HBCU conversation has focused on the proposed educational policies and how they will affect HBCUs. Yet, we need to be having an equally, if not more passionate conversation about the role of senators, representatives, state legislatures, and governors and how they will affect the life and sustainability of our beloved HBCUS.
Here are some reasons why voting is critical for public HBCUs:
State Funding and HBCUs
Slightly more than half of all HBCUs are public institutions. This means that a majority of these institutions’ funding comes from the state government. Therefore, who plays a role in constructing, amending, and approving the state budget and budget line allocations is important. The values that these persons hold regarding public higher education, HBCUs, and underrepresented groups of students and the communities from which they hail matter. These values play a role in how they allocate funds and how they vote. These values influence what caveats are made and what items are seen as negotiables or non-negotiables in the political process of passing a state budget.
In the past couple of years, there have been multiple instances which HBCUs have found themselves on the chopping block, located front and center, on the state budget committee floor. Examples of these battles have included Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, South Carolina State University in South Carolina, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, Florida Memorial University in Florida, and Kentucky State University in Kentucky. While the focus may be on which presidential candidate will focus on increasing federal funding to HBCUs, and justifiably so, political agents who question the value of HBCUs are finding their way into and obtaining seats in our state legislatures, budget committees, and gubernatorial administrations. There is only one way to ensure that those of us connected to and who advocate for HBCUS do not find ourselves having to rally when one of our institutions lands in a proposal for budget cuts once again. That way is to make educated decisions at the polls. If we care about the funding of public HBCUS we must vote.
Elected Officials and HBCU Boards of Trustees
Another area even less discussed than state funding is the relationship between elected officials and the board of trustees at public HBCUs. Whereas private colleges and universities have board member selection processes that give the individual institution sovereignty over who will or will not sit on their boards, public institutions must yield this power either to governors, state legislatures, or public elections. In 2015, The Association of Governing Boards (AGB) found that 90% of public boards were selected by the governor, 5.5% by the state legislature, and 4.5% by the general election. Then there is also the consideration of coordinating and public governing boards who also include gubernatorial appointees, with and without a legislative appointment, and those who are elected to the position. Why does this matter? Here are a few reasons.
Some of the institutional boards of trustees’ responsibilities include the following:
- Selection and support of the president
- Setting the institution’s mission and purposes
- Strategic planning
- Nurturing and caring for the institution’s tangible and intangible assets
High presidential turnover, tenuous board-president relations, fiscal mismanagement, among other issues have dominated HBCU news story headlines. To be fair, these issues occur at a number of institutional types in higher education. However, HBCUs, public HBCUs specifically, draw an increased scrutiny in this area. All of the aforementioned issues find themselves tied to the duties of the board of trustees and thereby tied to the composition of the board. Therefore, who sits on these boards matters. And, if who sits on these boards matter, then who selects who sits on these boards matters all the more. For those who reside in states who have public HBCUs and are also conducting gubernatorial elections, such as Delaware and North Carolina, placing your vote with the candidate who has not only expressed and shown HBCU support but also aligns themselves with persons in politics and industry who do the same is imperative. In this instance, the company one keeps matters as well.
Send a Message to Local and State Legislators
We cannot afford to be reactive when it comes to offering educational opportunities to students. We absolutely cannot sit by and gamble with the future of HBCUs and with the future of the next generation of African-American minds. Yes, voting at the national level is important. However, it does no good to elect a president that will aid HBCUs only for that president to have to fight legislators who will block that aid. It is even more important to send a message to governors and state legislators that we won’t be taken for granted and that we won’t let our HBCUs be taken from us. Many proud HBCU alumni filled football stands over these last months to celebrate the homecoming season. Let’s make sure to show up to the polls with the same fervor so that there is still somewhere to come home to.