Taking the emotion out of the HBCU relevance discussion
By Eddie Francis
Over a year ago, I engaged in a five-month crisis management situation when I successfully helped manage the public relations side of a national debate about the proposed merging of an HBCU (historically black college/university) with a neighboring majority institution. The HBCU “won” the battle due to a level of strategy that involved a rather clever use of data that sometimes wasn’t so flattering to the HBCU, in question. The way my former employer pulled through the situation was through a core of individuals who successfully kept emotion out of the discussion.
It is no secret that HBCUs have been under siege with constant questions about their relevance. HBCU grads are, by and large, wonderfully attached to their respective alma maters. That’s a good thing. What tends to cripple the defense of these loyalists is a collective expression of how they feel about their institutions. As a P.R. man, I notoriously remind HBCU grads that no one really cares how they “feel” about their alma maters.
A big part of public relations is having the ability to position a public discussion about issues in the client’s favor. What many clients don’t understand is that positioning the discussion can sometimes involve uncomfortable or inconvenient truths. In the case of my former employer, we were attacked because of a low graduation rate as defined by what I, and many other higher ed professionals, believe to be a seriously flawed formula. In fact, the institution that was part of the merger proposal was attacked for their graduation rate, as well. The inconvenient truth was that two institutions with low graduation rates didn’t guarantee that a bigger, better institution would be born. With that in mind, I tried to help coach everso faithful alums to challenge whether merging the two would even be fiscally responsible for the state. The problem was too many of the alums with whom I had dealings were simply too emotional to get past the fact that their alma mater was being attacked, in the first place.
The issue of the relevance of HBCUs is all about effectiveness. Data crunchers pay attention to graduation rates, retention data, and how institutions track graduates’ migration into the workforce. The issues of fiscal management, alumni giving, professional development, faculty engagement, and business operations also come into play in addition to institutions’ standing with accreditation. What I would love for HBCU grads to realize is that emotional responses to these issues render their arguments ineffective in too many cases. Simply yelling, “I earned my degree!” doesn’t cut it. The data crunchers’ collective response tends to be, “But look at where you ‘earned’ it.”