Roland Martin And Wilberforce University President Talk Future Of Historically Black Colleges

Roland Martin, host of “NewsOne Now” and Dr. Herman J. Felton Jr., president of Wilberforce University hosted a town hall-style meeting to discuss alumni giving rates and changing the narrative around historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), as part of the 2017 Alumni Association National Conference.

Among 46 HBCUs, the average percentage of alumni who donated during 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 was 11.2 percent, according to an annual survey conducted by U.S. News & World Report.

Among the HBCUs with the highest rates of alumni giving were South Carolina’s Claflin University at 47.7 percent; Georgia’s Spellman College at 39.3 percent; and North Carolina’s Bennett College at 35 percent. The lowest rates— at just two percent—were North Carolina’s Fayetteville State University and Texas Southern University.

At Wilberforce University, the nation’s oldest private historically black university located in Ohio, the alumni giving rate for the 2016-2017 year stood at nine percent, according to J. Felton Jr.

Though the number seems low, it significantly improved from just one percent in the 2015-2016 year, according to the university’s president.

In a piece by J.L. Carter Sr. called “About 50 HBCUs Will Survive the Next Decade. It’s Time to Start Investing in Them,” J. Felton Jr. recited an excerpt that read, “There’s nothing that government or iron clad HBCU advocacy can do to make Paine College, Cheyney University, Stillman College, Bennett College, and other campuses in silent and dire straits profitable. Nothing will make their surrounding communities pour the millions into the campuses to make them more attractive to a wider pool of prospective students or corporate donors.”

The author argued that HBCUs require a change in leadership and must focus on a “new model of higher education,” pouring money into academic and social initiatives that meet the demands of the 21st century economy.

For J. Felton Jr., the 21st president of Wilberforce University, he credits “viability, stability, [and] good solid leadership” to positive changes for the college.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

In Aug. 2015, Cleveland.com reported that the university received a “Show-Cause Order” letter by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, an accrediting agency.

The letter named a lack of leadership, lackluster campus, decrease in enrollment and finances. In response to the letter, the university underwent a series of changes to improve to college, including appointing a new president (J. Felton Jr. is the third president at Wilberforce in three years); engaging in fundraising initiatives; summer programs for 129 students; a “Promise Program” for students who work while in school; a $600,000 software system; and formal reviews of faculty credentials beginning in 2017.

According to Martin, it’s important to change the perception around HBCUs, which are often seen as inferior to traditional universities.

“We as African Americans have got to immediately shut anybody down who even begins to say, hint [or] imply that what is black is less than,” he said. “We must be conscious about what we’re saying because we’re literally planting seeds of the future of black inferiority.”

This kind of perception affects Wilberforce University’s ability to recruit students and staff, according to J. Felton Jr.

“Different does not mean deficient,” he said.

J. Felton Jr. and Martin disagreed on whether alumni were obligated to donate to HBCUs. Martin, who graduated from Texas A&M University, said it was imbedded into his brain to give back since the moment he stepped on campus as a freshman.

He suggested a system of giving while students are still in school. Freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors would donate a small fixed amount by the end of the year, which would hopefully create a habit of giving that would continue after graduation. Martin added that it’s important to tell individuals who donate where the money is going.

The two also discussed the importance of improving branding for HBCUs.

To stay relevant, Martin said schools should highlight exemplary graduates from the last 20 years, as well as target distinguished or popular majors to future candidates. Universities can also film their own videos and post them on YouTube or live-stream on Facebook.

“The narrative has to change,” he said.

HBCU professors also fail to take advantage of opportunities to appear on television and strengthen the university’s brand.

For example, one of Martin’s most viewed videos is his interview with Dr. Hadiyah-Nicole Green, an assistant physics professor at Tuskegee University who won a $1.1 million grant to help develop her technology using laser-activated nanoparticles to treat cancer.

Martin also encouraged HBCU professors to take advantage of the current political climate by offering commentary on television shows that may look for expertise on a variety of political issues.

For more information on Wilberforce University, please visit www.Wilberforce.edu.

Source: University City Review