Those attending the 140th Founders’ Convocation Thursday morning at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff were told that historically black colleges and universities must do as much to recruit students of all races as predominantly white institutions are doing to recruit black students.
Charlie Nelms, vice president of student development and diversity at Indiana University, and a 1969 alumnus of Arkansas A. M. & N. (now UAPB), told the crowd assembled in the H. O. Clemmons Arena of the Kenneth L. Johnson HPER Complex that in order to remain relevant in the global educational landscape, HBCUs must focus less on their heritage and more on creating the most academically rigorous programs possible.
“The future is not determined by our historical legacy,” Nelms said. “We have a legacy that must be remembered and appreciated but in order to succeed as an academic institution today HBCUs must have contemporary relevance and be responsive to their student body.”
Nelms said the personal touch that for so long characterized an HBCU education has largely been lost.
“We served people with a kind of love and quality that they never forgot,” Nelms said. “We have gotten away from that. This is not about money but about attitude. Any faculty members who do not have the right attitude might want to think about changing it.
“The social landscape has changed since UAPB was founded,” Nelms said. “Today a black student can go where they want to go if they have the grades to get in. For the outstanding black student today race is now often an advantage instead of the hindrance it was 20 years ago.”
Nelms said HBCUs are faced with several issues as they move forward.
“There is a growing competition for black students,” Nelms said. “There is a perception among some black parents and students that predominantly white institutions are better than HBCUs. We are also competing with the growth of community colleges as well as what is at times mediocre teaching at some HBCUs.”
Nelms said budget cuts on the state and national level are creating particular challenges for HBCUs.
“How can a poorly funded school compete with a school that has all the bells and whistles?” Nelms asked rhetorically. “Now, we are meeting here in the gym today and it’s nice but there are schools with designated convocation centers. We are going to have a nice lunch today over in the L.A. Davis Sr. Student Union building. Now, it is a nice building but it was built in 1952. I’m not saying these things to be mean but I’m just trying to prove a point. This school is competing for students with all of those other schools.”
Nelms said HBCUs need both fiscal and physical support.
“We must raise the expectations that we have for ourselves,” Nelms said. “If we set them high people rise to meet them and if we set them low then they rise to beat them so let’s go ahead and set them high. We need to have students who learn and don’t just show up to class. Students, please do not dishonor the legacy of those who went before you by not graduating.”
Nelms said students must graduate with a credential that allows them to compete globally.
“It’s not UAPB competing with Texas Southern or Grambling anymore,” Nelms said. “You are competing with students in China and Indonesia. Towards that end UAPB must offer high-quality, competitive programs.”
Nelms said UAPB alumni needed to maintain an active role in the future of the institution.
“All of you UAPB alums need to write UAPB into your budget,” Nelms said. “We have to start giving money instead of lip service. You can’t talk a scholarship into existence. Talk is cheap; that’s why so many people do it.”
Nelms closed by stating that governmental bodies and the business community must allow HBCUs the same access to human and financial resources that is afforded to other institutions of higher learning.
Nelms served as chancellor of North Carolina Central University in Durham from 2007 to 2012. During his tenure he raised the standards for undergraduate admissions and progression and guided the establishment of the first and only Ph.D. program to be offered at NCCU in 50 years.
In 2012 Nelms was awarded the MLK Drum Major for Service Award by President Barack Obama for helping to address the most pressing community and national needs.
Nelms is launching a national initiative related to transforming HBCUs.