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Photo source: HBCUs

The following is a statement by an independent committee, which has sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the US federal government’s Department of Education to disclose records of the financial monitoring of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This is one step toward a public dialogue and taking back our HBCUs. The viewpoint expressed about self-reliance, commons for all, and Black pride and empowerment overcoming betrayal; and elitism at our educational institutions may be of significance to the African world.

HBCUs are public institutions that belong to us all. They are the commons of the Black community going back to Reconstruction (1865-1877) times. We don’t want HBCUs to be defunded. On the contrary, we want the commons to be expanded in the wider society where questions regarding ecology, education, healthcare, housing, and pensions can be discussed and resolved.

Commons are not just necessities of life they are the public square where we gather to govern. HBCUs are not the fiefdoms of the Black college presidents and board of trustees but the result of the collective struggle of the Black community, and therefore can become the basis for us to directly govern ourselves. We want to deepen the democracy within them so that they can be more effective.

When these colleges have football games or sporting events where everyone tailgates, and gather most especially at homecoming events, it appears that HBCUs are the common property of the community. But when these colleges are led and administered nobody invites the ordinary Black people to take part in governance in the academic and economic aspects of the life of the institutions. Those who claim to be our leaders send us all home and say: “don’t worry about it; we will take care of it.” 

On this basis exploitation has emerged. In response, we call for the taking back of our HBCUs as a basis of reconstructing our communities in the new millennium. It is time to discard the Black misleaders who have been enriching themselves as they discipline the community into authoritarianism and austerity in the name of community development.

Most HBCUs were created at a time when we were prohibited by law from attending white colleges and universities across the country. But they were born out of our desire and yearning to become educated: to learn to read and write and think critically, to comprehend numbers, science, and theology, to know our history, to understand creatively the human condition, to appreciate who we are and to make a secure place for the generations who would come after. These institutions, at their best, inspired us and provided the bedrock foundational support for educating our people, and have continued to provide essential pathways for our people’s self-reliance.

You may not have gone to Lincoln University, Prairie View, Tennessee State, Bennett College, Delaware State, Xavier or Southern. You may never have walked across the campus of Dillard, Cheyney State, or Meharry Medical School. You may have seen Tuskegee, Jackson State, Texas Southern, and Fisk only in books, television or films. But you are the sons and daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren of those Black women and men, who envisioned education as our way forward.

While some collaborated with Jim Crow racism to organise these institutions, some fought against it from the beginning. Whoever was affiliated with HBCUs and actually organised civil rights, women’s, and labour movements know the truth. Most often our college administrators did not support our insurgent commitment, but scolded, suspended, and expelled us. That, too, was an education.

Through observing this creative conflict, not just studying to be successfully employed and rising with an abstract dignity, we found our place in the world. As such, these HBCUs represent our commons, our public square, places where we gather to discuss ideas affecting our community. We don’t just discuss and then a small few make decisions. The power and ideas of ordinary Black people must shape and reshape these institutions that are most precious to us or they will decline.

Unfortunately, many of our HBCUs are in trouble today. Some have lost their way in terms of their mission. Some collaborate with the forces of white supremacy and empire so that they no longer serve the interests of the Black community. Others are on the brink of financial disaster. Still others are embroiled in public controversies pitting the democratic demands of students against college presidents and boards of trustees. Such tsunamis are threatening to pull many HBCUs under and by so doing eliminate many of our most fundamental public spaces and common resources.

The land, buildings, books and learning materials that make up our HBCUs are not the personal capital of the college presidents and administrators. They are the inheritance of ordinary Black people. While some HBCU leaders openly speak of urban development and gentrification placing our property and learning resources at the centre of nefarious entrepreneurial schemes that advance only themselves, we say the heritage of ordinary Black people and our Commons is not yours to get rich or die trying. We repudiate this retrograde conception of “black power.” HBCU administrators will no longer manage austerity for the average student and teacher while destroying our commonwealth and advancing their personal wealth.

Many of us were proud of the direct action by the students of Bethune-Cookman who defiantly turned their backs on Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, who was invited to the campus by an authoritarian Black administration for commencement against their wishes. And then this same Bethune-Cookman administration attempted to intimidate these students at their own commencement.

Some of us wonder how much compensation was involved in the arrangement for the HBCU Talladega College’s band to play at Donald Trump’s inauguration.

HBCU Digest’s J.L. Carter tried to blame Howard University protesters for the heightened monitoring of that administration’s financial corruption. We were not pleased or amused.

Public controversies around tensions between college presidents and board of trustees at Arkansas Baptist College, Florida A&M, and Morehouse tell us something is gravely wrong. More stories about financial mismanagement of South Carolina State, Alabama State, Wilberforce, and Wiley make us alert that there is a widespread problem.

These recent incidents remind us of the growing gap between HBCU student consciousness of corruption and protest and the on-going collaboration between Black elites, HBCU administrators, accrediting bodies, and the federal government which result in the perennial victimisation of us all.

We have addressed this concern by sending a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Education’s Minority Serving and Under-Resourced Schools Division (MSURSD) office. The MSURSD has been led for the last decade under President Obama and President Trump by Marcia Boyd, a woman of colour. It has been financially monitoring HBCUs.

We are tired of the opportunist and selective comparison between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions. We understand we live under white supremacy, patriarchy, and the empire of capital and that these systems have degraded, through the sponsoring of flawed and bankrupt institutions, our human potential and creativity. We understand that flawed and bankrupt institutions can be led by predominantly white or black people.

Taking pride in independent Black institutions as a component of an evolved network designed to empower only makes sense if these are tools of community advancement. This can only be possible through independent values. White people do not have a monopoly of intelligence, beauty, and power. We have nothing to fear and are confident in our self-governing capacities.

Democratic accountability at our institutions, and the pursuit of social equality in the wider society, are not myths put in Black people’s heads to divide the Black community by whites or outsiders. They are the basis of our heritage and the search for meaningful Black autonomy. Intelligent Black people understand that all who speak for our community, and ascend to coveted positions, do not have our best interests at heart. In fact, some make careers out of enabling the exploitation of our people.

We have formed a committee for “reconciliation and truth” at HBCUs. This may appear to sound like something similar to Nelson Mandela’s South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We have a critique of that commission that informs our committee and work. This is a valuable reflection because as South Africa claims to be an independent African country, our HBCUs claim to be independent Black institutions, despite the real adversity Black people face on a local, national, and world scale.

We will not reconcile with the forces of malfeasance in our community or schools. Those who wish to do this have begun to attack our most conscious protesting students at HBCUs blaming them for the financial mismanagement and government surveillance of these schools. We will not allow such treachery against our young people. And those who persist in attacking this new and unfolding student movement, with its mass democratic demands of accountability at their schools, we will confront and expose their dastardly duplicity.

Black power means nothing to us unless it means power to the common people even after Black elites have ascended to coveted positions at HBCUs and above society. We will not reconcile with those who exploit our people under the fraud of maintaining independent Black institutions. Where there are no independent values and only collaboration with hierarchy and domination, there is no qualitative Black education going on in the best traditions of our foremothers and forefathers.

We want a renaissance at our HBCUs. But we will not say our HBCUs are “rising” or spread phony concepts like “Black girl magic” or that our Black college presidents were “born to rebel” when we know that is not so. There is nothing magical or inherently rebellious or conscious about colleges that do not educate to emancipate. Emancipation in the new millennium must begin not with the acknowledgement that we are inherently beautiful – we are not insecure and we know that we are an exceedingly handsome people. But something is wrong and it needs to be fixed.

Our committee rejects the patriarchy spread within these HBCUs, in the paternal, sexual, and strict gender role sense. Whether in the name of faith or reason, we condemn attempts to manage the sexuality or identities of our women of colour administrators, teachers, campus workers, and students and of our LGBTQ family members.

We also condemn those women who collaborate with patriarchal men apologising for, and enabling, their continuing corruption. Male domination is not synonymous with a disciplined and unified Black community. This undermines creative popular self-emancipation so we can come together to resist.

We need to take some cues from Black women who often “counter-plan from the kitchen table” and against all odds choose to organise their lives to care, and think about others besides themselves. Women of colour often prioritise life in all its potential fullness over profit and self-advancement. Significantly, this is the spirit that brings many working-class students to our HBCUs, animated by faith, in search for a deeper understanding of the world. Toiling and caring women understand the tradition of the commons we wish to revitalise distinguished by popular self-management and defence of the necessities of life without austerity and authoritarianism.

We are aware that some competent women of colour administrators (and some men of colour) at HBCUs, who have chosen to speak out against financial mismanagement, have been maligned, discredited, and ultimately demoralised. They have left often with little support from HBCU campus communities. But such administrators have not put the interests of public education and community organising above ultimate reconciliation with corruption. They have behaved too “professionally” and caved to confidentiality agreements that are not supposed to be legal justifications for corruption and mistreatment.

We say this to any and all ethical HBCU administrators; Become more transparent not after you leave office but while you are in office. Don’t reconcile in your financial settlements of your contracts, as you depart after being degraded by hostile and corrupt Boards of Trustees, in a manner that legally conceals the nature of your disputes from the public record. Show Black people that it is not pure rhetoric that you wish to uphold community even at the risk of compromising careers.

It is clear that there are individuals and small groups who will not settle or reconcile financially and continue the cover up the betrayal of Black people. We need leaders of our HBCUs who don’t see themselves as a special class above the community but as peers facilitating greater democracy (majority rule). It is on this basis alone that we should support the dissenting Black college president or administrator.

This committee’s emphasis on “reconciliation” is not to make peace with crooks. That is why we request the opening of the accounting books of the federal government’s monitoring of these HBCUs. This is necessary so the public can see what the records have been, and the relationship between HBCU presidents, administrations, accrediting agencies and the federal government.

The relationship of reconciliation to truth for this committee is to encourage students, community and campus members of goodwill, to take the lead in advocating for the disclosure of this information. If an HBCU campus was not represented in the original Freedom of Information Act request letter, we encourage others to request records for other campuses from the government.

We recommend, asking the HBCU administrators at each campus, in a certified but also open public letter to disclose this financial monitoring information, especially audits that inquire about missing monies or questionable business associations. Allow those who claim to be Black leaders to be transparent and accountable. It would not be wise to wait forever. Give them a week to respond – a public deadline. Where there is no response and there is information the campus community is aware of, please disclose this information to the public through the Internet. Non-compliance will point to the corruption and subversion of ethics at these schools from within. This is not betraying the race or “airing dirty laundry.” There is no dirty laundry when it comes to either public money or advancing Black autonomy.

We request that each student movement make a common demand for the disclosure of the Department of Education/MSURSD records for all HBCU campuses. If the Department of Education/MSURSD office is not forthcoming, mobilise to pay their office a visit. We need to recognise and record the politics and economics behind the scenes of our campuses so those who are corrupt and self-aggrandising can be rooted out.

An evaluation can be made of which HBCUs have managed its finances ethically under normative standards (as limited as these may be), and then those schools can be commended, and students can be encouraged to attend these campuses. In this regard, “Black pride” can begin to have a solid foundation.

Those HBCUs who have not managed their finances ethically should be sanctioned by the community for a period of time. No working-class students and Black families should attend or support schools that super-exploit them. Black pride can be mobilised meaningfully against these institutions until they can be reorganised and reformed.

Again, our popular sanction of corruption is not an invitation for the government to defund HBCUs or to take over our commons. We should meet any such effort with maximum resistance. Nevertheless, if we are a self-determining people who govern ourselves, we are not merely the subjects of elite ethnic patronage politics from ever diminishing budgets. We have to take all matters of government at our institutions into our own hands.

Community based plans can then be made to reorganise our Black schools to become stronger, to work with each other in a coordinated fashion, and to become more interdependent and self-reliant in the future. The virtue of becoming more interdependent is that there will be less elitism from one school to the next. In this way, there will be less opportunity for college presidents to have vested interests in personal fiefdoms that they feel the need to protect.

This committee understands that under white supremacy and capitalism, predominantly white and wealthier colleges have endowments and can cover up their ethical lapses or mismanagement of finances without coming under heightened monitoring by the government. The pursuit of Black autonomy cannot allow this to be an excuse for our HBCUs to be further co-opted by those who exploit us.

To be clear, while some HBCUs may have started as private institutions, we know all of them are sustained by public monies now. Though open to everybody, HBCUs are the special historical commons of the Black community and not the private property of a select few.

Let’s show those who bewilder and mystify the meaning of Black empowerment a renewal of Black autonomy that is uncompromising and keeps faith with those who have gone before us. Let’s take back our HBCUs, extend the funding for them, root out corruption, and amplify our self-governing capacities.


* The Committee for Reconciliation and Truth at HBCUs

The members

Modibo Kadalie, PhD, Facilitator

Bruce Dixon, Managing Editor, Black Agenda Report

Cynthia Hamilton, PhD

April Hunter

Alvette Ellorton Jeffers

Joseph Maxwell, PhD

Adofo Minka, Esq.

Rhetta Peoples

Matthew Quest, PhD

Pascal Robert, Esq.

A.Shahid Stover, Editor Brotherwise Dispatch

Martha Turner-Quest

Anthony Ware


Contact the Committee For Reconciliation and Truth at HBCUs at <[email protected]>