Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Unparalleled Challenges: From Keeping Pace with Technology to Helping Students Finance Their Educations, Four Presidents Discuss Meeting Head-On the Multitude of Challenges That HBCUs Face in the 21st Century

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Unparalleled Challenges: From Keeping Pace with Technology to Helping Students Finance Their Educations, Four Presidents Discuss Meeting Head-On the Multitude of Challenges That HBCUs Face in the 21st Century

Article excerpt

AS Diverse reflects on the past 25 years, four presidents of historically Black institutions, two public and two private, discussed the challenges they face today and how those challenges have changed over the years. The presidents interviewed were Dr. James Ammons, of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee; Beverly Wade Hogan, of Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss.; Dr. Marvalene Hughes, of Dillard University in New Orleans, La.; and Dr. Melvin Johnson, of Tennessee State University.

When they began their careers in academic leadership, these presidents did not envision many of the challenges of the 21st century, not the least of which is a global recession. And, although fiscal viability looms as an overarching threat, it is just one of many.

The public institutions are grappling with reductions in state and federal funding that have necessitated drastic adjustments in their budgets. The private institutions are experiencing significant declines in corporate and private giving. All are faced with intense competition from majority institutions for the top students, staff and faculty. Regardless of economic constraints, they say a focus on low-income students will continue.

They remain positive and determined. "Now is the time for creativity ... visioning and planning," Ammons says. "There are great signs that the economy will turn around. President Obama and his team are doing a great job, and we have every reason to be hopeful."

Dr. James Ammons, Florida A&M University

Since being named FAMU president in 2007, Ammons has guided the institution out of some of its cloudiest days only to face the current gloomy economic conditions. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed FAMU on probation in June 2007, stating that the university failed to comply with 10 standards related to financial and academic integrity. A year later, under Ammons' leadership, the probation was lifted. However, since that time, the school has faced increased grumbling from students because of perennial registration and financial aid problems and proposed tuition hikes necessitated by cutbacks in state funding. During the past academic year, system upgrades caused delays, long lines and confusion, creating an outcry from students forced to wait hours, even days, for assistance.

Ammons says that, with all the advantages and opportunities afforded by technological advances, there is a financial downside. "Technology is evolving so quickly, it requires a huge investment to make sure we have updates, because the old versions are not supported by the vendors who sell these products. Being able to leverage technology across the university is so important now in order to attract young people, and it's important to have environments where they feel comfort and at home."

Overall, Ammons says, FAMU and other HBCUs have funding challenges unequaled in past years. "First (we need) to be able to attract high-quality faculty who embrace the mission of an institution and have resources to recruit high-achieving students because competition with majority institutions now is just so tough (as competing) schools have focused in on the best and brightest African-American students. And, next, we need to have a critical mass of staff to provide support services, so that our students have an overall good experience on our campus. We're not at a point yet where we can have staff doing only one thing; our staff members have responsibility across the spectrum, which may sometimes impact a student's overall experience on the campus."

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As for the persistent argument that HBCUs have lost their relevance, Ammons says "these institutions make up only 3 percent of total colleges and universities, but produce an overwhelming percentage of African Americans who go on to earn their bachelor's and terminal degrees. When you look at the professions that are critical to the nation's survival HBCUs are producing those graduates--the doctors, lawyers, scientists and educators. …

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