LAWRENCE — The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on schools at all levels. Yet for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the pandemic was one more challenge that strained budgets and even put some schools at risk of closing. A University of Kansas researcher has written a book that examines the financial, accreditation, and political struggles of recent years at HBCUs and how their leaders can rise to the challenge.
“Journalism in Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Governance and Accreditation,” by Jerry Crawford II, associate professor of journalism and mass communications at KU, traces current barriers for institutions, as well as those for institutions serving minorities , tribal colleges and universities, and institutions serving Hispanics. HBCUs — often referred to as 1890s schools when they were founded as a way for newly liberated African Americans to gain access to the higher education often denied to them at other institutions — face a number of challenges, especially existential ones.
“I wanted to put that in the context of where we are in 2021 and 2022, and look at how the presidents, provosts and leaders of these institutions are leading through these challenges,” Crawford said. “The book is not political, but it does address the big question that is so often asked: ‘Why are these schools still there?’ I want to show why they are precious and essential.
Some HBCUs that were in operation when Crawford began his research in the area are no longer open. Budget cuts, loss of accreditation, political decisions, and declining enrollment are among the factors that have led to the closure of several HBCUs. While white-majority institutions have also seen declining enrollment, they more often than not have large endowments to lean on to weather financial storms.
In the book, Crawford discusses how HBCU leaders can lead their schools into the future based on best practices. This often takes the form of accreditation. While bodies such as the Accreditation Council for Journalism and Mass Communications Education can declare whether a program has met its accreditation criteria, not earning the designation need not be a death knell. Crawford said while accreditation is beneficial, some HBCUs present unique challenges in achieving it. For example, one of the accreditation criteria in journalism is faculty scholarship and research. However, faculty at institutions often teach three or four separate courses per semester, leaving very little time for research. Schools with majority minority enrollment were often not seen as equal to majority white schools, but were still successful in educating their students.
“It always seems like the smaller HBCUs are the ones that are closed. I wanted to see in the book how we could solve this problem,” Crawford said. “Maybe they can’t get accreditation, but they can still use best practices to educate their students. Not being accredited does not necessarily mean they are inferior, especially when it comes to American schooling following Plessy v. Ferguson.
The book examines accreditation standards, particularly for journalism programs, how they have evolved over the past few years, and examples of how HBCU administrators have met them or improved their programs where they have not. not been able to do so. Such challenges speak to how important it is for leaders to have buy-in from their institutions’ faculty, Crawford said. This shared governance is essential for HBCUs to achieve their goals and overcome challenges, and Crawford devotes a chapter to how institutions can and have successfully partnered leadership in working relationships with faculty to remain viable.
While student recruitment and retention are primary concerns for many schools, HBCUs face the threat on a more fundamental level. Where a white-majority institution may seek to reverse declining enrollment trends, people, including political leaders, don’t often wonder why they still exist. But it’s a challenge for HBCUs, Crawford said, because people often ask why they exist when African-American students have been allowed to enroll in any school for decades. He shares the example of St. Paul’s College in Virginia which was closed due to declining enrollment and similar degree programs offered at larger public schools.
“I encourage people to look at these institutions as economic engines for their regions as well,” Crawford said. “Closing HBCUs would be like us closing Pittsburg State or Emporia State here in Kansas, just because the majors offered at those schools are offered at larger state institutions. It would be devastating for those communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a threat to HBCUs, as it was to the entire field of education. One of the book’s chapters focuses on how HBCUs have coped with the pandemic and the unique challenges it has posed. While many schools have moved quickly to remote learning, others have not had it as easy, as some did not have an institutional Zoom account to enable online classes, or others did not. did not have technical security staff capable of overseeing e-learning. Throughout the chapter, HBCU leaders shared how they handled the pandemic and how work/family conflict, role overload, and job demands all weighed on their management of education during a pandemic, as well as their confidence in the ability of their establishment to reopen. .
The book concludes with chapters on the role of academic libraries in HBCUs and how they can help faculty obtain accreditation, as well as an overview of the specific accreditation challenges of other institutions serving HBCUs. minorities, tribal colleges and universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions.
These institutions, along with HBCUs, “represent the hopes and dreams of many students from underrepresented communities,” Crawford wrote. He also points out that over 80% of people of color working in media have been impacted by HBCUs in some way. Losing them would only further reduce the diversity of voices working in this area and the many others for which institutions prepare young people, he wrote.
Crawford concludes by urging leaders to work closely with their faculty to ensure they remain viable and achieve their goals together in achieving accreditation, balancing budgets, attracting and retaining students, and keeping their open doors.
“The book is largely about journalism programs, but I also look at the totality of how presidents, regents, and leaders can provide good leadership to keep these institutions open and viable,” Crawford said. “I want to champion HBCUs and minority-serving institutions as vital places of learning and help them use good leadership and governance to meet their challenges.”
Picture: Howard University Founders Library. Credit: