National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week

Johnson C. Smith University: An HBCU for the 21st Century

By Elfred Anthony Pinkard, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer

Johnson C. Smith is a member of a community of institutions of higher learning that were founded for a unique and noble purpose which emerged from this nation’s troubled past and conflicted notion about the rights of its citizens of African descent. Emerging from the tragedy of forced servitude and the promise of the American dream, newly freed enslaved people of African descent looked to education as the vehicle for personal and communal uplift. Despite the revealing social restrictions on the rights of these newly freed Americans and the rigid social codes which separated the races, a unique and special interracial cooperation formed which established institutions for African Americans. The history and purpose of these institutions are intricately bound to the history of this nation and the history of American higher education, as well. The definition of HBCUs was codified in the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, as ...”any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principle mission was, and is, the education of black Americans...”

Today, according to the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, 104 HBCUs exist. They are public, private, four-year, two-year, single-gendered, religious, rural, urban and liberal arts colleges. Among them are medical schools, law schools, dental schools, theological seminaries and divinity schools, and major research institutions. They have directly or indirectly touched the lives of every African American living today and they have added to the rich mosaic and the unique diversity of America’s colleges and universities. And while they occupy a special place in the collective hearts of African Americans, HBCUs have contributed mightily to the building and enrichment of this nation. They have provided this nation with an educated class of African American leaders, entrepreneurs, physicians, lawyers, educators, architectures, engineers, fine artists and the decent, respectable hardworking men and women who make up the solid African American middle class.

For most of their existence until the late 20th century, HBCUs were the only option of higher education open to African Americans interested in pursuing a college education. As such, these institutions have educated generations of talented African American students. A steady and reliable stream of potential students was never an issue for most HBCUs, most notably those with outstanding academic reputations. The hard fought battles to confront and eradicate de jure and de facto segregation resulted in an unintended consequence for many institutions in the African American community and HCBUs were not immune. As opportunities to attend any college or university opened up, especially for academically gifted and financially able AfricanAmerican students, many HBCUs began to see a diminution in the numbers of students seeking admission to their campuses. Additionally, as access to higher education evolved, in the cultural imagination, from a privilege to a right, many HBCUs, because of their historic missions, felt absolutely compelled to accept everystudent who applied. As a result, many institutions began to report lower graduation rates and increased fiscal instability because of students’ inability to meet their academic and financial obligations to the institution. Further, in the minds of many, African American student access to any colleges and universities rendered the HBCU obsolete given the elimination of segregation and the espoused value of integration as a desirable, hard won social practice. The confluence of these circumstances has had a damaging impact on the collective community of HBCUs and a direct impact on a few. Within the last two decades, at least three private HBCUs have lost their accreditation and seen their reputations severely damaged among the public, perspective students and their parents. Many more have faced sanctions by their accrediting body and confront fiscal and fundraising challenges. To complicate matters further, many predominantly white colleges and universities have declared an interest and intent to actively pursue African American students and offer admission with substantial financial assistance to their institutions.

The response from HBCUs has been varied and uneven; however, those that have forcefully claimed their place as institutions with a future have been strategic about visioning an expansive mission and agenda for the 21st century. The transformation at JCSU is one example of a modern HBCU honoring its historic mission while expanding that mission to address contemporary realities. This has meant creating innovative academic programs, a diverse student and workplace environment, developing community partnerships and alliances and claiming our place as Charlotte’s “premier, independent, urban institution.” In the wake of this response to the current educational landscape and the challenges facing HBCUs, JCSU is and will remain forever an HBCU and a member of a proud community of institutions that, since the 19th century, have faced and triumphed against incredible odds. It is a noteworthy tradition for which we are all proud and intend, without apology, to honor and affirm.