HBCU’s plan to strengthen relationships with surrounding communities

Presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities from around the South gathered at Tuskegee University on Wednesday, April 14 to discuss the new role of a 21st-century HBCU president.

Part of retiring President Dr. Benjamin F. Payton’s two-week commemoration, the president’s symposium in the Kellogg Center auditorium offered the experienced words of four current and former HBCU presidents.

Dr. Thomas Cole Jr., president emeritus of Clark Atlanta University, moderated the event, and Dr. Fred Humphries, president emeritus of Florida A&M University; Dr. Ernest McNealy, president of Stillman College; and Dr. William Harris, president of Alabama State University contributed speeches on the duties of black college presidents and the achievements of Payton.

While the themes of their speeches varied, each president weighed in on the topic of HBCUs building lasting relationships with their surrounding communities.

Humphries and Harris agreed a mutualistic relationship is essential.

“We must help solve the problems of the community,” Humphries said. “There’s too much talent inside an institute to be in a community and not relate that to the community over the broad areas of economics, education and the like.”

Harris said Alabama State University is taking this idea seriously and putting together a statewide tour to connect with communities.

“We believe that it is absolutely essential that there is community,” he said.

McNealy, though, didn’t echo his presidential peers. He added communities that surround HBCUs should make efforts to connect with the institutions, not just the other way around.

“Community is a two-way street,” he said. “It tends to be the case in most college and universities’ relationships, but often times it’s not the case when the resident university is an HBCU.”

Following the panelists’ words, Payton took the podium to reflect on some of his heftier decisions as TU president, including his decision to close John A. Andrew Hospital and to change the school’s name from Tuskegee Institute to Tuskegee University. In doing so, Payton also offered his opinions on the discussion of host communities.

“We made many changes, and they have been difficult, many of them. Changes that hurt me emotionally,” Payton said. “…Such as the closing of the hospital. There you had a small university with no medical school, running a hospital and itself on financial rocks, with a community that talked about how important the hospital was, but wouldn’t do what it took to help support it.”

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