#RethinkSchool: Waking the Sleeping Giant: Regional and State Leadership to Improve HBCU Competitiveness

The 2018 National HBCU Week Conference, titled “HBCU Competitiveness: Aligning Institutional Missions with America’s Priorities,” focused efforts on how HBCUs help improve regional, state and U.S. competitiveness.

The White House Initiative on HBCUs (Initiative) is intentional about the use of the term “competitiveness.” Words matter. Competitiveness embodies our nation’s best education and economic opportunities. Unfortunately, far too many of the students, people and communities HBCUs principally serve are missing out on top opportunities. As part of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s “Rethink School” tour, reflecting our commitment to the conference theme, I visited three HBCUs with the goal to help elevate the institutions in their regions and states, aiding their perception as providers of unique competitive advantages around which innovative new public-private partnerships and other collaborative efforts should form. In other words, we want to wake the sleeping giant of public and private, regional and state engagement with HBCUs.

Regional and state economies are the building blocks of U.S. competitiveness. During my visits to Kentucky State University, West Virginia State University and Harris-Stow State University, I saw first-hand that these HBCUs are educational and economic anchors for their areas:. I had the distinct pleasure to meet students, presidents and administrators; leaders from business and industry; state and local economic, workforce and education leaders; and other key elected and appointed officials. I learned and shared insights on their education and economic priorities and about areas in which meaningful investments are being made. These are the areas to which HBCUs must align.

Johnathan Holifield speaks at Kentucky State University.

During these highly interactive sessions, we explored and learned about the capacity of HBCUs to contribute to regional and state priorities and how these institutions can lead the way to help more students, people and communities become more competitive in a rapidly and dramatically changing world. We thoughtfully discussed how non-federal action can strengthen the competitiveness of HBCUs, making inquiries such as:

  • Why is now the time for regions and states to creatively engage with HBCUs?
  • How can HBCUs be educationally and economically leveraged as local anchor institutions?
  • What are key insights and lessons learned about the kind of public (executive or legislative) and private sector leadership needed in this area?
  • Why is it so important to embed HBCUs in regional and state competitiveness strategy?
  • The necessity of public-private partnerships and how can we activate them around HBCUs to strengthen institutions, regions and states?
  • How can we nationalize the HBCU competitiveness imperative, linking it to U.S. competitiveness and making it important to the 30 states that do not have an HBCU?

The promise of these convenings was to win binding commitment from HBCUs and regional and state, public and private partners – the sleeping giant – to undertake development of and execution against HBCU competitiveness strategies. Such new strategies can provide enduring North Star guidance to align HBCU contributions with regional and state education and economic competitiveness priorities. In turn, this positioning helps HBCUs earn and otherwise attract new investment that customarily accompanies compelling public strategy. Frankly, I don’t know of a path in precedent, not a single example, where assets earn sustained investment and provide sustained returns without a robust strategy to accomplish both ends.

Diverse and inclusive U.S. competitiveness is a growing national concern. It’s where the game is. Our hot pursuit of HBCU competitiveness sends an important message to all stakeholders that it’s not business as usual. We are excited to join with our institutions, as well as regional and state partners, to ensure our actions are aligned with the best opportunities our nation has to offer.

 

Johnathan M. Holifield, pictured above, is Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Continue the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

Note: This is a post in our #RethinkSchool series. The series features innovative schools and stories from students, parents and educators highlighting efforts across the United States to rethink school. The #RethinkSchool series presents examples of approaches schools, educators, families and others are using to rethink school in their individual and unique circumstances. Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. The Department of Education does not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.