I recently had the honor of speaking to this year's graduates of Hampton University at the school's 134th commencement exercises. As a 1970 Hampton alumnus and president for the past 10 years of a predominantly White university, I have gained valuable perspective on what leaders of universities like mine can learn from historically Black colleges and universities.
While more than 80 percent of African American college students are now enrolled in predominantly White institutions, HBCUs continue to account for more than a quarter of the nation's African American college graduates. Even more important, these institutions have demonstrated long-term success in educating the majority of America's Black leaders, and they have many lessons to teach--lessons that pertain chiefly to the value of having a rich history of educating African Americans, of being sensitive to their needs and diverse backgrounds, and of developing a sense of loyalty among students, faculty, staff and alumni. The future of African American higher education will depend upon the strong commitment of all types of institutions to these students.
Returning to Hampton, I was struck by the fact that the nation still does not fully understand, or appreciate, how instrumental HBCUs have been in transforming the lives of millions of Americans for more than a century. Throughout the 20th century, we have seen thousands upon thousands of African Americans graduating from HBCUs as the first member of their families to attend college, with many becoming leaders in their professions and communities, and inspiring others to go to college. Those of us in higher education sometimes forget how important the occasion of commencement is to students, their families and the campus community. For some, it is an opportunity to celebrate the first person in their family attending and completing college. For others, it is about building on the legacy of those who have gone there before. In all cases, commencement symbolizes our hope for the next generation.
It was a particularly special honor for me to speak at Hampton because one of my heroes, another Hampton alumnus and college president, Booker T. Washington, had spoken there at two prior commencements--as a graduate in 1875, when he debated with a fellow graduate on the annexation of Cuba (a hot international topic 127 years ago), and in 1879 (two years before going to Tuskegee), when his address to graduates was entitled "The Force That Wins." As I speak to students and educators around the country, I often talk about the power of the individual and the human spirit, and of an individual's power to motivate and inspire others to set and achieve high goals.
As I talked with members of the graduating class, with other Hamptonians, and with the university's president Dr. …