Combating Institutional Anti-Blackness in Higher Education: Lessons from HBCU Presidents

To counter the invisibility and deficit-laden narratives surrounding HBCUs in the media and public policy, this article highlights powerful lessons from seven HBCU presidents.

Reviewed by Becky Mer


Despite the wide ranging accomplishments earned by historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), narratives regarding HBCUs often use deficit-oriented framing that erase their achievements. This context of pervasive institutional anti-blackness is rooted in the historical marginalization of HBCUs that continues to reinforce itself through less favorable depictions of HBCUs in the media and ultimately in public policy. For example, recent headlines such as “Struggling HBCUs Look for Help From the Trump Administration” (Camera, 2017) and ‘‘6-year Graduation Rates at Many HBCUs Lower Than 20 Percent’’ (AJC, 2018) suggest institutional fragility and deficiency at HBCUs that can influence public perceptions. 

Considering both the segregated origins of HBCUs, and how common discourse concerning HBCUs reflects larger institutional anti-blackness sentiments, researchers focused on the underreported strengths of HBCUs, as told by their presidents. By studying counter-narratives shared by chief executives closely tied to these institutions, researchers employed methodology from critical race theory to create greater public awareness of the benefits of HBCUs and their contributions to American society. Three primary themes emerged from their findings: HBCUs play important roles in (1) cultivating Black students’ leadership and development, (2) serving students with financial barriers, and (3) tapping the potential of students who were marginalized in prior academic settings.  

Each of this study’s authors conduct scholarly work on the experiences of historically marginalized students, as well as on the organizations that serve them, and of the policies that impact them. In addition, as each of the authors identifies as Black and/or African American, they acknowledge their unique interests and experiences in this study’s topical area, their collective efforts to mitigate potential bias, and how their shared identities serve as a source of pride and deeper understanding that prevents the loss of key data that may be overlooked by researchers with different identities.

Methods and Findings

Focusing solely on small and private HBCUs, the researchers consulted with practitioners, administrators, and scholars familiar with HBCUs to identify potential study participants known for their professional background and leadership. The seven HBCU presidents in the sample, referred to by pseudonyms throughout the study, differ by geographic location, gender, years of service, and prior HBCU attendance as students. Between July 2016 and May 2017, the principal investigator conducted one-on-one, semi-structured interviews with each of these seven HBCU presidents. Cognizant of presidents’ limited availability, interviews were conducted via phone or in person, audio-recorded, and transcribed verbatim. Presidents were primed for the interview with a list of common HBCU challenges depicted in media and literature, including alumni engagement, enrollment and matriculation, limited financial resources, accreditation challenges, and questions pertaining to the value of HBCUs. During the interviews, HBCU presidents were invited to reflect on those challenges and any strategic approaches taken by their institution to address them. 

From the counter-narratives shared by HBCU presidents, three major findings emerged:

  1. Transforming students into leaders: Given their history of fostering leadership development for students of color, HBCUs have had a significant impact on both the Black community and American society. One president highlighted that a quarter of African Americans with STEM degrees are HBCU graduates, and others emphasized HBCUs’ important role in educating diverse students given demographic trends and minority-majority projections.
  1. Serving low-income students: Evidence suggests that a high percentage of HBCU students are from low-income families. Presidents navigate tensions between the federal government and HBCUs, while also facing various economic challenges including high student debt levels, and racial wealth disparities that affect students’ educational experiences. Yet, HBCU presidents have found creative ways to secure additional funding and shift orientations toward opportunities and away from perceived obstacles. 
  1. Supporting students who faced prior academic structural barriers: HBCUs serve as uplifting institutions for many first-generation college students and other students traditionally underserved by American public schools. Presidents describe setting high expectations for students, pairing those expectations with support systems, rooting team-based collaboration in practices across the school, and hiring and reorganizing staff to be more responsive to students’ needs. 


This study underscores HBCUs’ significant contributions in Black leadership development, supporting students with financial challenges, and maximizing the potential of students marginalized in prior academic settings. Given current projections that low-income student enrollment will continue to increase, and that people of color will ultimately represent the majority of the U.S. population, the researchers advise state and federal policymakers to invest in schools with historic and ongoing service to low-income students, students of color, and students requiring additional academic support.

The authors also recommend enhanced communication between policymakers and HBCUs, including through the assistance of organizations and foundations with existing partnerships with both parties. Stronger communication would ensure educational institutions are represented in educational policy decision-making, that policymakers remain updated on HBCU accomplishments, and that both parties are combating less favorable media depictions and social perceptions of HBCUs. 

Educational institutions can also play a key role in countering deficit framing and invisibility as tools of institutional anti-blackness. As some continue to depict America as post-racial, according to the researchers, HBCUs continue to face questions regarding their value and relevance. The researchers recommend that HBCUs reclaim their own story through a systematic approach that centers the voices of stakeholders within these institutions. Whether through developing new communications strategies, hiring communications specialists, utilizing existing research and human resources offices, or participating in cross-institutional initiatives, proactive steps by HBCUs can leverage limited resources, shift the narrative about HBCUs, and have meaningful policy implications for institutions and their students.


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