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Bipartisan energy for HBCUs


Congresswoman Alma Adams (D-NC) ain't nothing but the truth. From the time she was elected to Congress in 2014, she was committed to making a difference. One of her early acts was the founding of the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, which she Co-Chairs with Alabama Republican Bradley Byrne. She has grown the Caucus to a bipartisan, bicameral group of 74 members, including an array of Democratic Congressional Black Caucus members like Karen Bass (D-CA), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), GK Butterfield (D-MO), HBCU champion Jim Clyburn (D-SC), former Delta Sigma Theta Sorority President Marcia Fudge (D-OH), and many others.

Many of the HBCU members aren't African American or Democrat but understand the value of HBCUs, like Adams' fellow North Carolinian Mark Walker (R), Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO), Trent Kelly (R-MS), Jared Polis (D-CO), and others. Adams has also attracted 13 Senators, of both parties, to the HBCU Caucus, including Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Burr (R-NC) Tim Scott (R-SC), Kamala Harris (D-CA), David Perdue (R-GA) and others. Alma Adams has done an outstanding job in making the case for HBCUs with her colleagues.

I'm not surprised. Adams is a double dipping HBCU graduate, having earned an undergraduate degree and a master's degree from North Carolina A&T State University. (She earned her doctorate in Art Education and Multicultural Education from the Ohio State University). She spent nearly 40 years as a Professor at Bennett College (she was a faculty member when I was President of Bennett), while simultaneously serving on the Greensboro City School Board, the Greensboro City Council, the North Carolina State House (and Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus). After she retired from Bennett College, she ran for Congress and prevailed through gerrymandering to be elected to a second term in 2016. Through it all, she has been a champion for HBCUs, using her platform through the North Carolina Legislature to provide scholarship opportunities for students, and infrastructure provisions for campuses. Steele Hall, Bennett's art gallery, would not be there was it not for Congresswoman Adams’ advocacy and her acumen for collaboration.

Now, as a member of Congress, she has assembled a coterie of HBCU advocates to lobby for HBCUs, even as higher education authorization is being considered. Between a breakfast sponsored by Lyft, a lunch sponsored by Intel, and a reception at Google headquarters, three hundred or so people, including members of Congress, HBCU Presidents (I saw FAMU President Larry Robinson and the first woman to lead Bowie State University, Dr. Andrea Hawkins Breaux at lunch), and other stakeholders challenged themselves to think about ways HBCUs can both attract more resources, and prepare themselves for the evolving world economy.


The authors indicate that HBCUs must have a social justice and equality focus and that they must “actively and purposefully combat the insidious effects of racism in society.” They’ve thrown a gauntlet out for HBCUs because too many are so busy replicating the PWI model of higher education that they’ve forgotten part of our original purpose.

HBCUs were founded to educate African American people, but they were also founded to liberate us from the shackles of enslavement and economic disparity. This can be done both by educating professionals – lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, and the like, but also by preparing freedom fighters. In recent years, the focus has been more on the former than the latter.

Harvey and Nelms suggest that a “woke” HBCU has a curriculum that focuses on Afrocentric education, global education, and community education. While much of the conversation at the luncheon I attended focused on engineering and STEAM (with Oregon Democrat Suzanne Bonamici, STEAM Caucus Co-Chair focusing on the balance that comes when STEM is paired with the arts), one of the more poignant moments was Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell's plea for financial support for HBCUs as she lamented the projected closing of Selma's Concordia University at the end of this academic year.

Her plea made me wonder why there aren’t more members of the Congressional HBCU Caucus. Every Southern Republican Senator ought to be HBCU advocates. Why? HBCUs are economic drivers for their states. They provide education, generate jobs, and are engines of local economic development. While most African Americans are Democrats, few are indifferent to Republican support of HBCUs that is transformative. Instead, at about the same time that Congresswoman Adams’ luncheon was taking place, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) was forced to take Miseducation Secretary Betsey DeVoid (of good sense) to school for her apparent indifference to the racism that young Black and brown students experience in school.

Regardless of political affiliation, everyone who spoke at the Adams/Intel luncheon was clear about the value that HBCUs bring to our nation, even as some made the case that HBCUs must step up with innovation, certificate programs, community college partnerships and more. As Harvey and Nelms point out, there are many ways we can improve HBCUs, but we can't afford to lose them. Christian Josi, former Executive Director of the American Conservative Union and (gasp!) former Board Member of the Jesse Helms Center is alarmed at the frailty of our HBCUs. Lamenting the closing of Concordia University, he said, “Historically, culturally, morally, we have an obligation to ensure that our HBCUs thrive. If Concordia fails, it is on all of us.” Yet tragically, despite the energy of legislators like Congresswoman Alma Adams, there are too many southern senators who are prepared to turn their backs on HBCUs.

Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. For more info visit: