Why PWI Grads of Color Should Consider Supporting MSIs


Briana O’Neal

It’s giving season again, which means my voicemail and inbox are full of requests for donations to one organization or another. Among the requests I usually receive this time of year is one from my alma mater. As an undergraduate, I attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I loved every minute of it. I credit UNC for giving me some of my most memorable experiences and facilitating much of my personal and professional growth; my heart will always bleed Carolina blue. That being said, over time I have come to recognize my privilege in that space. I was part of the roughly 10% of the student population that identified as Black at a predominately white institution (PWI) where over two-thirds of the student body was in the top 10% of their high school class and the average admitted student has an SAT composite score of over 1300. I was privileged enough to have the support and resources I needed growing up to fit that profile, but it is important to recognize that a lot of students who look like me don’t. That is why this giving season not only did I make an alumni donation to UNC, but I also supported the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions’ Annual Giving Campaign.

To be a member of a marginalized group in this country is to be constantly taxed mentally and emotionally. With all the increased media coverage of incidents of police brutality, the perpetuation of rape culture, the presidential election, etc., this year has been particularly rough for me. Marginalized groups are constantly at war with systems of oppression, but we remain unmoved in our resolve to fight back. I see examples of this every day, from student protests on campus to the resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and I am inspired to keep pushing back against gross abuses of power and privilege.

This year, I had to ask myself how I can be inspired by protests across the country, support the Black Lives Matter movement and condemn the systemic oppression that targets Black and brown bodies, all the while planning to give to my PWI without considering how that same system of oppression plays out in the classroom? We know that public K12 education doesn’t always give students of color a fair shake—we are tracked, disproportionately disciplined, and denied resources. All of these practices conspire to deny us equal preparation and place highly selective institutions safely out of our reach.

If I am going to give, I want to make sure I am supporting those who need it the most and as a first-generation college student who believes in equity and access, I can’t ignore the facts: MSIs are doing it better. They are bastions of college access, enrolling a disproportionate number of low income and first generation college students of color. Over 60% of all Hispanic students in higher education attend Hispanic Serving Institutions. Three-quarters of all low-income Asian American or Pacific Islander students in higher education study at an AANAPISI. Not only do Tribal Colleges educate over 30,000 students in rural areas, they also are highly concerned with preserving and supporting tribal culture. Over 75% of all students who attend HBCUs are Pell Grant eligible. Even though they account for only 3% of all institutions in the US, HBCUs serve 11% of all Black students in higher education and are responsible for providing one fifth of bachelor’s degrees earned by Black students.

Take a moment to let those numbers sink in and realize just how important these institutions are when it comes to caring for our communities. While PWIs are busy making five- and ten-year plans to create inclusive environments and increase their diversity by a few percentage points, MSIs have been opening doors, cultivating excellence and producing leaders. If you are a PWI grad of color like me, there is no shame in giving back to an institution that gave to you, but let’s also put our money where our mouths are and fight back against education inequalities this season.

This past year, I had the pleasure and privilege of working as a graduate research assistant at the Penn Center for MSIs (CMSI). During my time there, I had the chance to meet MSI presidents, faculty and students from across the country and get involved in research that has really helped me understand the importance and value of these institutions. I can attest first-hand to all the wonderful work that CMSI does to support these institutions—from providing professional development to MSI faculty members to encouraging MSI students to pursue graduate degrees to creating partnerships that provide funding to send MSI students abroad. Even though I am not there this year to give my time to supporting these wonderful programs, I did make sure to donate.

My giving to my alma mater this year was an act of love and gratitude. My giving to CMSI was a political act. It was a move in direct opposition to the narrative that MSIs are inferior institutions- that anything designed by or for people of color is somehow second-class. The media is rife with stories about how some MSIs are failing institutions, struggling with graduation rates and poor money management. They question their relevancy, suggest that there is minimal return on investment in these institutions, and want to merge them with PWIs.

What they don’t tell us is that many MSIs have been doing more with less. They are building up communities of color, accepting and educating students with a range of abilities and preparedness, meeting them where they are and providing them with a college level education—all with fewer resources. For example, in some states, like North Carolina, flagship institutions have received twice as much in state funding per student as HBCUs. Many state funding formulas were designed to give more money to “institutions where the majority of students who attend are overrepresented in public higher education.”

I could spend hours explaining all the reasons why this is a real shame, but instead I will challenge you to learn more about the value of MSIs and their impact on communities of color. Maybe you have a sibling or parent who attended one. Or maybe, like me, you are the first in your family to even go to college and you know very little about different institutional types. The CMSI website is full of great resources and keeps a running list of MSIs. Learn a little bit more about an MSI near you, or an organization like CMSI that advocates for them, and consider giving this season.

Briana O’Neal holds an M.S.Ed in Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania and currently works at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her interests include underrepresented students in higher education, minority serving institutions, and transfer pathways for community college students. She is a former research assistant at the Penn Center for MSIs.

Examining Characteristics of Effective Leadership at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Leadership is essential for the survival of any organization. Some have argued that for many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), leadership, particularly effective leadership, is one salient aspect that not only warrants greater attention, but that is also one fundamental element missing from individuals charged with leading these institutions. For example, HBCU researchers often cite that low enrollment, fiscal mismanagement, and poor leadership are some of the critical factors that weaken the sustainability of HBCUs and precipitate their closures. Research shows that some of the contributing factors to the poor leadership of HBCU leaders are recycling ineffective presidents, presidents being micromanaged by the governing boards, presidents with a lack of fundraising experience, and presidents with a dearth of experience running large, complex higher education institutions.

Given the critical link between effective leadership and the success of HBCUs, some in the higher education community have focused on increasing the capacity of institutional leaders at HBCUs to be more effective in their roles. For example, the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania has produced a report that contextualizes the critical skills that effective leaders of HBCUs need in the 21st Century to be forward-thinking institutional stewards. Moreover, Lincoln University of Missouri has started a Master’s program that is designed to prepare students seeking careers in student affairs and leadership positions at HBCUs. Along the same lines, Howard University has announced a PhD program in Higher Education Leadership and Policy Studies to prepare leaders and policy analysts to work at Minority Serving Institutions generally and HBCUs specifically.

In the spirit of helping HBCU leaders increase their leadership efficacy, we conducted a study with 21 HBCU stakeholders. Many of the individuals we interviewed were HBCU presidents that modeled effective leadership practices. Other participants included experts on HBCU leadership and exemplary executive leaders at HBCUs (i.e., provosts). While several themes emerged from this study, in this current article, we will discuss a few of the emerging themes and delineate areas where more research is needed.

One of the themes that emerged from the interviews was the need for HBCU leaders to be servant leaders. There was a consensus among the participants that some individuals seek to become HBCU presidents because they are more attracted to the glitz and glam, as opposed to being vested in working to understand the needs and concerns of HBCU students, faculty, staff and other external stakeholders. Participants shared that being a servant leader facilitates the development of a strong morale among HBCU students, faculty, and staff, which contributes significantly to the growth and sustainability of HBCUs. Participants underscored that servant leaders focus less on their own ambitions and make decisions with the heart of the institution in mind.

Another theme that we heard was that there are underperforming HBCU governing boards. Although various reasons were shared for this issue, there was a general consensus that there is a need for enhancing board training that prepares members for the specific challenges facing HBCUs. Participants emphasized that board members should bring technical expertise such as business acumen to the table. However, participants shared that it was important that board members set macro-level institutional policy and allow their institutions’ presidents to implement and manage the day-to-day issues. Board members must bring a love for the institution and its mission. Moreover, they must seek to preserve the greatest aspects of the institution while championing strategic changes that position their institution for the future.

One of the most surprising themes that we found was how important the role of the provost was to HBCUs. Many of our interviewers shared that it is one of the most underappreciated leadership positions within the academy. If functioning correctly, the person occupying that position takes on the day-to-day managing functions of the institution, which enables the president to fundraise and engage in the external relation activities that advance the institution. Additional research regarding this role is very much needed.

Interestingly, a lot of current research related to HBCU leadership has focused on the role and preparation of those serving as institutional presidents and on governing boards. However, we learned that there are other key stakeholders that wield a lot of influence and provide on the ground leadership at HBCUs. For instance, we know very little about the role of student governments in influencing institutional change, even though in recent years they have played an incredible role in speaking out in areas such as board governance. Ultimately, we learned that HBCU leadership is an under-researched, yet important topic that needs to continue to be investigated by individuals that have the best interest of these institutions at heart. We believe that higher education preparation programs like the new PhD program in Higher Education Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard University can serve as the epicenter of that work.

Dr. Sydney Freeman, Jr. is associate professor of higher education and qualitative research at the University of Idaho. His research investigates the challenges facing higher education administration specifically, higher education as a field of study, the university presidency, and the leadership of Historically Black Colleges Universities. He is a proud product of a Historically Black Boarding Academy (high school), Pine Forge Academy, an HBCU, Oakwood University, and previously served as an administrator at Tuskegee University.

Dr. Robert T. Palmer is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and Interim Department Chair at Howard University. His research examines issues of access, equity, retention, persistence, and the college experience of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly Black men as well as other student groups at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).