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Transcript: Into the Future of HBCUs

The full episode transcript for Into the Future of HBCUs.


Into America

Into the Future of HBCUs

Trymaine Lee: (MUSIC) Fall on campus at a historically Black college or university is a big deal. There are football games, the marching bands, and of course homecoming, the massive school-wide celebration that doubles as an alumni reunion party. But not this year.

The coronavirus pandemic is shattering college plans across the country. And with coronavirus hitting Black Americans especially hard, HBCUs must think even more critically about reopening campus for fall. On top of the complications from the virus, enrollment at HBCUs has been declining for decades. Many students also take out big loans and, on average, graduate with 30% more debt than people at other four-year schools.

Some schools have lost accreditation in recent years, and six schools have closed over the past two decades. But last week, some good news. MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, announced she was donating $1.7 billion to various colleges, with tens of millions of dollars going to six prominent HBCUs.

Dr. Wayne Frederick: The reality is you have to invest in the entire community, and that is an investment in Howard University that significant.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, how historically Black colleges and universities across the country are coping with the uncertainty of this moment and what this donation means for their future. Howard University, a private HBCU in Washington, D.C., is one of the schools on the list.

It received $40 million from Scott, the biggest gift from a single donor in the school's 153-year history. I spoke with Howard's president, Dr. Wayne Frederick. Now, were you expecting this? Did you have a little birdie or a little bison (LAUGHTER) on your shoulder sayin', "Hey, man, this thing is comin'"? Or, like, how did this even happen?

Frederick: Absolutely not. Started with a cold call email on a Wednesday at 10:00 a.m.

Lee: I'm sure you were like, "Yes." (LAUGH)

Frederick: No, no. The details weren't in the email. It one of those, you know, "I'm representing someone. I need to talk to you." And I responded immediately and said, "Sure, I'd be happy to talk." And in that very first conversation, maybe just four or five hours later, I was informed of the gift. It was pretty surprising. And no less than 10 days later, we had the money as well.

Lee: Do you have a plan laid out in terms of, like, how you plan on using the money?

Frederick: Yes, we do. We're gonna invest in our students' success. A few years ago under my leadership, we started what's called a GRACE Grant, and that really tries to fill the gap that students with an expected family contribution of zero who are receiving a maximum Pell Grant, we've tried to fill their gap so that they won't have to take loans out, et cetera.

And what we discovered in looking back already is that that group, their four-year graduation rate is almost 30% higher than when they don't get that money. We also are interested in mental health and well-being. So we will invest resources in our counseling services as well.

Faculty compensation and retention. We employ more African American faculty than any other higher ed. institution in this country. And so I feel that we have a responsibility to make their salaries competitive. But also, again looking down the road, we have infrastructure needs.

And then we have to continue to do innovative things. I'm very focused on having a social innovation hub. And what I have challenged our faculty to do is to look at putting social entrepreneurship at the core of this hub and wrapping it with the humanities and social sciences.

Lee: And I understand that you are in fact a triple Howard University graduate. Why'd you choose Howard?

Frederick: Yeah, that's exactly right. You know, growing up, I had sickle cell anemia. Howard University had a sickle cell center. My mom was a nurse for 57 years in the public system in Trinidad, and so she was very concerned about my ability to have care during my matriculation. That was one factor.

The second factor was that the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Sir Eric Williams, was actually a political science professor on Howard's campus, and this was his last stop on his way to basically taking Trinidad out of colonialism, becoming an independent nation and subsequent a republic.

Lee: Now, you know, I didn't get a chance to go to an HBCU. I wanted to Grambling. Me and my best friend every single day, we'd go in to college and career counselor's office and look at the brochures. My path didn't take me to an HBCU, but I married in. My wife went to Southern University, and most of my friends (LAUGH) are from HBCUs. But since you've experienced this on both sides, as a student and an administrator, what is it about an HBCU that is so special?

Frederick: You know, I think there are several things. These institutions were born out of a need to ensure that freed slaves were being educated and educated on the same level that they could be competitive in the society in general. And so that birth in and of itself even, with Howard University as an example, this is the only federally chartered HBCU.

The 17th president, President Johnson (who was a known racist), actually signed a charter for Howard on March 2nd, 1867, the same day he vetoed the Reconstruction Acts. Very early on, you had Black faculty. So in the medical school in the 1870s you have two Black men who are part of the faculty.

You had women being taught, which was also unusual. And then you come through an era where they were run by predominantly white men, and you start getting Black men at the helm such as Mordecai Wyatt Johnson here at Howard in the 1920s. And that's when you really begin to see the Black intellect taking care of his and her own people as it were and really infusing what historically Black colleges and universities would become.

And primarily in my opinion, what we do is we unleash confidence in young students who otherwise come up in public school systems where they don't get that type of nurturing and confidence building. So we give them the truth in terms of their knowledge base. But we also, I think, provide them with confidence that they then go out and compete.

Lee: And I understand you all have some pretty famous alum. Could you speak to, you know, who has come through the campus?

Frederick: Yeah. Howard has had a unique ability to attract the best and the brightest. And you go back to, you know, Civil Rights Movement, you've got people like Stokely Carmichael. Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice, was a Howard alum. You have Toni Morrison. And you have the influence on all spheres until you get to today, where you have Senator Harris, who could be on the precipice of really not just shattering a glass ceiling but probably shattering two at the same time.

Lee: So, Dr. Frederick, HBCUs have seen declines in their enrollment in the last few decades. Why is that?

Frederick: Well, you know, opportunity has been expanded. And institutions that African American students would not have been welcomed at or even been recruited to have certainly opened their doors to bring those students in. In spite of that, however, the success barrier is still there.

There are some troubling data still. In 1978, there were more African American males who attended medical school than in 2015. So even with all that access and opportunity, it has not resulted in us improving the pipeline for African American men in medicine.

You know, people have made this point before, that if HBCUs didn't exist today, they would have to be created in order to solve the problems. My argument is they exist today but they are underfunded and what we have to do is to figure out a way to really increase their funding and their support in order for us to really correct some of the ills. So, yes, there's more opportunity to go elsewhere, but it doesn't work in such a way.

Lee: You mention that Howard is the only federally chartered HBCU. Talk to us about how the university is actually funded.

Frederick: Yeah, it's a very good question. So as a result of the connection to the federal government, Howard is one of two non-military institutions that appears in the federal appropriations bill every year and as a result receives a line item from the government. And it makes up 20-30% of our revenue that comes in.

As a result, our tuition is about half that of most universities with whom we compete and our Pell Grant population is more on the order of four to five times that compared to those other institutions. So a very unique circumstance, very unique funding, but does create, you know, I would say some difficulty in terms of trying to juggle those finances without the same type of tuition base revenue as most other institutions that have the plethora of offerings we have would usually be dependent on.

Lee: When it comes to alumni giving, everyone that I know that attended Howard University is very proud to be a Howard alum, right? But I wonder: What makes it so difficult to raise money? When you have an alumni base that is so proud and you have this long history and culture, what is it that complicates the giving?

Frederick: I would say there are a few things. One is most of the alum of Howard give back in terms of service in their community. And they see that service as ultimately giving back to Howard's mission. And so if you look at my grads, a majority of them are in inner city neighborhoods, predominantly African American, where they are on any given week really giving of their time and treasure, you know, to those local issues.

The second one is the disparity of wealth over time in the African community persists, right? So somebody who gets an MD from Howard is more likely to go into a neighborhood where they can serve that community, but they're less likely to get paid as much as their white counterparts.

So the ability to create generational wealth because of all the systemic racism and the infrastructure in the country impacts everyone, including African Americans with college degrees. And so you don't necessarily have that base to give back.

And then I would say the third thing is in our community we tend to give back to churches and those other causes and we have not always made the strong case that giving back to our educational institutions is just as critical. And I think that there's a time now for us to make that argument.

Lee: Now, even before this big $40 million gift, the CEO of Netflix and his wife made a really similarly big donation to HBCUs back in June. And I wonder why we don't typically see that kind of giving to HBCUs. Is it a matter of people aren't educated about the mission, they're unaware, or the big name predominantly white institutions are suckin' up some of the energy? What do you think it is?

Frederick: I think it's probably a combination of things. One is: Do we get in front of the right people to make the case? We have to get there to be able to tell that story. And I think this moment in time in our history has begun to open up the opportunity where people are more likely to listen. It's not that we haven't been trying to tell the story. People just probably haven't been as empathetic to the story as I think this moment has identified.

Lee: I wonder how much of a barrier between the institution and givers with a lot of money, how much of a barrier has racism actually been?

Frederick: You know, it's a couple of things. One is it's racism. But, two, let's be honest. We tend to associate with people who look like us, have our experiences, et cetera. So if MacKenzie Scott goes to Princeton, you would expect Princeton to get that type of gift when she becomes wealthy.

What she has done and what's unique about her is that she's had experiences that suggest that she wants to look more broadly at society. Now, we must remember as well that she was a pupil of Toni Morrison and she was a research associate for Toni Morrison, which means that she would have had a unique exposure.

Lee: Which I don't think many people know that. I didn't know that, and I don't think a lot of people (LAUGH) knew that connection.

Frederick: Yeah. And that I'm sure would have impacted her along the way. Because if you've ever been around Toni Morrison, as I have been, you can't help but understand her passion for people of color. You know, and so as she rests in peace, she probably also planted a seed towards that gift. So, again, it brings a point that: Where are the spaces that we can get people in that can tell the story, that can make that impression, et cetera? And the earlier they do it in some of these people's lives, the better.

Lee: Obviously Howard is among the top-tier HBCUs, right? The crème de la crème. And I wonder if some might think to themselves, "Wow. What about the Cheyneys and Lincolns of the world? Maybe some smaller, less well-footed institutions could benefit more from gifts like this." How would you respond?

Frederick: You know, I see the HBCU ecosystem as a very heterogeneous system. We're not a monolithic group. And you're right. There are different types of problems, different type of resource needs, et cetera. What I have tried to do in my role as president of Howard, given Howard's stature in higher ed., is to make sure that I am consistently reaching out to my HBCU brothers and sisters.

So Howard, for instance, has started some unique programs in the Summer. We have a premed program, again, to try to help that pipeline. That has resulted in us going from having only five HBCUs represented in our med school to having an incoming class last year that had some 13 HBCUs and students from eight Ivies. And I think that that has to be the attitude going forward. We have to stand arm in arm with each other and be supportive to the best of our ability. (MUSIC)

Lee: We'll be right back.

Lee: (MUSIC) Dr. Frederick, it sounds like you are really committed to growing Howard and making sure Howard stays not just relevant but also pushing the ball forward. But in that mission, you've also been criticized for your willingness to work with the Trump administration.

And I wonder how you weather, you know, your desire to fulfill the school's mission and keep pushing forward with also concerns that, especially when it comes to this administration that some say has been racist and anti-Black, and anti-immigrant, how do you balance those things?

Frederick: Yeah, it's a difficult situation. As I said, we're one of two educational institutions, non-military, that are in the federal budget that receive an appropriation. So my first responsibility is to Howard to make sure that I can provide what students need to get.

I can't allow my politics, whatever that might be, to influence or to get in the way of me doing it that ultimately harms Howard. And as I say to my alum all the time, you know, if we get $240 million from the federal government and you're willing to replace that with giving every year, then fine.

But I think we have to be careful. We don't have to compromise our principles because ultimately if the institution is funded well we create the pipeline. We remove all the barriers for students to protest, for students to exercise and voice their concerns about the state of the country and the direction of the country. And that's how it should work.

Now, when there are gross misconducts and there are things that absolutely need to be spoken about, I'm gonna do that just as well. And the other thing I would say is I think sometimes we look at these things in a blanket fashion. You know, one of the senior White House advisors, Ja'Ron Smith, is a Howard alum, right? So he's had the Howard experience.

And while his politics may differ from mine and from many others on this campus, he still has the same love for Howard University that I think we all have. And therefore there is some place where we can come together and agree. And also, there are lots of places where we can still disagree and do so, you know, in an agreeable fashion. And I think that that's part of the process in a democracy that must occur.

Lee: Has Donald Trump in fact been good to HBCUs, or at least on par with former presidents?

Frederick: Yeah, I mean, if you look at funding, the funding has been significant. And so, yes, I mean, I think the facts are there that some of his support has been more palpable. But I would argue, again, that does not belie some of the things that we could disagree with the president on. But, yes, there certainly have been things that when you compare over time, certain amongst the support and funding have increased.

Lee: You know, Black folks have been disproportionately hard by COVID-19. And I wonder how Howard and other HBCUs across the country are challenged with reopening campus knowing full well how our communities have been hit so hard.

Frederick: Yeah, this is one of probably the biggest challenges I think I would face in my presidency. The backdrop of the COVID pandemic is a disproportionate impact on the lives of African Americans. But you have to put that against the backdrop of what are we trying to do with bringing students to our campuses.

80% of our courses are gonna be online. And so some may argue, "Why take the risk of getting people who are disproportionately likely to die if they get this infection?" Well, you have students who don't have access to Wi-Fi. You have students who have housing insecurity, students with food insecurity.

You have students who are coming from a low-income circumstance where they're still the first person in their family to go to college and therefore making that adjustment for a recent high school graduate who did not have a normal end to their graduation, did not have the normal boost of a graduation exercise, of a sense of achievement. To have them start this semester without that win behind them could be devastating as well. And a group of students could be at risk, I think.

And so we have to balance the health and safety, which is always gonna be the primary concern, against what I think are dangers to our students that are unique. Financially for us, it's going to be more of a financial hit to bring a limited number of students to campus.

We could keep everybody at home. We could probably furlough staff, and furlough everyone at the university and balance the books, and it would be simple from a math point of view. But I would take out the human part of that equation. When I see people write about these issues, I can tell that there is a blind spot when it comes to that low-income African American student at an HBCU like Howard.

Lee: So of all the losses suffered from COVID-19, one is Howard University's homecoming, which is a big deal. And, full disclosure, one of the greatest weekends of my life occurred in 1996. I was a freshman at Shippensburg University, and me and a couple of my homeboys drove all the way to Howard and to D.C., and it really was one of the greatest weekends. Jay-Z, Foxy Brown.

And I can remember there was this one moment where me and my buddies are walking to RFK Stadium for one of the go-go concerts. And this car pulls up, the window winds down, and it's Dr. Cornel West. And he's like, "Hey young brothers. Where's the Outkast concert?" And we were like, (LAUGH) "Dr. Cornel West?" But in all seriousness, you know, how big of a hit is that just socially and for the community and the campus community of not being able to have Howard University's homecoming this year?

Frederick: Yeah. You know, it's a big hit. It's part of the fabric of African American culture in my opinion, Howard's homecoming. We're gonna do several things virtually. It will take on, you know, a different flavor in a virtual setting, but I still think people will be pleased.

Because ultimately it's about coming home, and home is not just a place here, you know, on 6th Street Northwest, but it's also the place in our hearts. It's also the thought processes that we have in our minds and ultimately what uplifts our souls and our spirits. And so I think if we program well, we can still get people to come home to what we collectively are about.

Lee: So, Dr. Frederick, HBCUs have weathered a lot. When you look at the future, are you hopeful? Do you feel good? Is there cause for concern? What do you think, thinking about the future?

Frederick: I feel great. I see the future as being very bright. There are challenges. There's no doubt about it as well. I'm not gonna paint a picture that, you know, there aren't, you know, things that will go bump in the night. Absolutely. But I think as a group of institutions if we continue to work together, support one another, if we continue to rally our alum and the broader African American community in particular around us, and then we also make our case to friends such as MacKenzie Scott, I think we will be on the right trajectory. And I think as time goes on, people will continue to see the significance of our institutions.

Lee: Dr. Frederick, I want to thank you so much for your time. And I know that there are so many prospective students, current students, former students, alum who miss that campus and will miss homecoming. But if you want to bestow me with an honorary degree, (LAUGH) you know, I'm just sayin' it's an invitation. I'll be at homecoming next year.

Frederick: And you've already earned one by making a wise choice and having a spouse from an HBCU. So you're well on your way. (LAUGH)

Lee: Thank you, sir. You have a great day.

Frederick: All right. Thank you. (MUSIC)

Lee: That was Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Wednesday.