Florida A&M University and the Relevancy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Allow me to start by mentioning my bias for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). I graduated from the number one HBCU in the country, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), and I am currently pursuing my doctoral degree at Howard University. I have had numerous aunts, cousins, and friends graduate from FAMU, and all six of my siblings attended FAMU including my two youngest sisters who are currently students.

In my senior year at FAMU, I wrote an essay on the relevancy of HBCUs in the Twenty-First Century. That first essay was written during a time of transition at FAMU, a new president was being appointed and the school was facing a financial and accreditation crisis. FAMU persevered through that crisis, but today there is a new crisis taking place at FAMU. In the wake of the hazing incident that claimed the life of Robert Champion and the recent resignation of President James Ammons I thought a critical piece was necessary to observe the relevancy of today’s HBCUs.

HBCUs were critical to newly freed slaves and throughout the years following slavery more HBCUs were established, and more African Americans began receiving their education from HBCUs. During the 1960s Civil Rights Movement HBCUs, coincidently, began experiencing difficulties because of increased competition. Supreme Court cases against segregation at higher learning institutions along with the implementation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act started a brain drain from HBCUs to predominantly white institutions (PWIs). “While PWIs experienced a 40 percent growth in Black enrollment through the 1970s and 1980s, HBCUs reported an enrollment growth of less than half that amount.5 This growth was due for the most part to a 3 percent increase in the enrollment of White students in HBCUs since 1976 (Brian harper)”.

HBCUs over the last couple of decades have faced more than just recruitment problems. HBCUs have faced issues with duplication of their programs from PWIs, financial instability and administrative incompetence. Some HBCUs have faced the prospect of permanently shutting down as is the case with Morris Brown College. Morris Brown lost its accreditation and federal funding in 2002, due to financial mismanagement and even lost water services for a while because of its inability to pay its utility bill. Morris Brown is not the only HBCU to face mismanagement problems; FAMU has been in the news recently because of its own mismanagement.

In 1997, FAMU was named College of the Year by Time Magazine, “At the time, FAMU was the No. 1 School producing blacks with baccalaureate degrees and the leader in recruiting National Achievement Scholars, winners of a National Merit Scholarship Corp. competition established in 1964 to provide recognition for outstanding black American high school students. [Frederick] Humphries, university president from 1985 to 2001, personally recruited top black scholars and created stability during his tenure (Ebonie Ledbetter).”

“After Humphries resigned, the university underwent a period of administrative instability: financial problems, unfilled dean positions, and the removal of President Fred Gainous in fall 2004, overspending and the termination and resignation of top administrators (Ebonie Ledbetter).” After a series of temporary presidents FAMU hired President James Ammons who entered the job at a difficult period. FAMU was no longer the college of the year; National Achievement Scholars went from a high of 73 in 1997 to 4 ten years later in addition to the threat of losing its accreditation. Ammons had his work cut out for him, but because of his leadership the school was able to overcome the accreditation problem and produced a clean audit for the first time in years. FAMU looked to be on the rise, until the hazing death of Robert Champion exposed the deep structural problems at the university.

FAMU’s Marching 100 is world renowned, and one of the major attractions of the university. At the 2011 Orlando Classic, band member Robert Champion was killed during a hazing incident. Champion’s death revealed a lack of institutional control in the band and university which led to the resignation of long time Band Director Julian White, and recently President Ammons. On top of the hazing incident investigations are ongoing concerning financial mismanagement at FAMU.

The Orlando Sentinel recently reported:

“Thousands of students enter FAMU despite being ill-equipped for the rigors of university course work. Only 12 percent of those who start as freshmen finish in four years. Only 39 percent graduate within six. And those who eventually earn bachelor’s degrees leave with the highest debt load, about $29,000, of any state university.”

FAMU has been failing its students, but it can be great again! During the early days of the Civil Rights Movement it was students at HBCUs like FAMU, which rose to the occasion and challenge of defeating segregation. That civic participation is evident on the campus of HBCUs today evident in the Trayvon Martin case. The professors at HBCUs are amongst the best and bring a privy of educational and life experiences to the job. The student body at HBCUs are diverse with nationalities from all over the world represented on campuses. Despite their challenges, HBCUs are critical in providing African Americans a chance at achieving the “American Dream”. HBCUs are just as relevant today as they were 100 years ago because they continue to serve as a beacon of hope for millions of African Americans.

HBCUs reflect the African American community as a whole, we are a very proud and secretive community that isn’t big on criticism, but we must face our vulnerabilities if we are to achieve and thrive in the twenty-First Century. HBCUs have to start hiring outside of the family. It is nice to hire former students and administrators, individuals that understand the inner workings of the university, but that often leads to cronyism and comfort in the administration. Administrators hiring their friends instead of the most qualified candidates lead to systematic problems in the university.

HBCUs also owe it to their students to hire the best, active professors on the market and to tighten admission guidelines. I understand the mission of HBCUs and its desire to give everyone a chance, but you are hurting your brand and students by admitting students that are not qualified. Those students leave the university with loads of debt and no degree to show for their time, and the university and student body is affected negatively by their presence on campus. In order to be great again, HBCUs must attract the best and brightest students and that begins by hiring the best and brightest administrators.

The Bible tells us that those without a vision will perish, and I believe that is what eventually brought down James Ammons and other HBCUs such as Morris Brown College. In order for HBCUs to thrive and survive in the Twenty-First Century they must put forward a plan for the future, a plan for growth, and a plan for excellence. HBCUs are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago, but if they wish to remain relevant the cronyism has to end and investments must be made into human capital, students and administrators alike.

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