Should HBCU Alumni return to work at HBCUs?

Cornel West at Princeton University

As I approach the close of my first year as a doctoral student, I am yet another step closer to achieving several goals.  After graduating from two historically black colleges, Hampton and North Carolina Central, I definitively knew that one day soon I would return to an HBCU to begin my career as a tenured track professor.  However, since I have started my long, arduous, yet extremely fulfilling journey towards landing that perfect job at an HBCU, I can not seem to get rid of that little voice in my ear that keeps asking, “Is it worth it to teach at a hbcu?” The answer is more complicated than I thought.

I know there is a paucity of black male teachers at any academic level, secondary or collegiate. I know that many qualified African Americans are jumping at “new” opportunities to teach, work in administration, or work in large firms or private institutions in increasingly large numbers. In regards of being a professor, I know where to supposedly go in order to get paid more, to receive a lighter teaching load, to receive administrative and financial support, to gain academic freedom to conduct and develop my own research, BUT, is that what being a professor is all about?

“They” say well, “You can work at a PWI first and then go to an hbcu after your established.”  I wonder if Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson, Skip Gates, and so many others said the same thing… They say, “you can use your resources at a PWI to help out other hbcus in your region,” yet, I wonder when hbcus have ever had to rely on PWI’s for resources.  They say, “you’ll be able to reach a more “college ready” black population at PWI’s,” but who will nurture and serve as a model to those numerous students seeking guidance at hbcus?

These are questions that I, along with so many other graduates of hbcus and African Americans in general have had to struggle with for years.  Luckily, I am not the only one to have been forced to consider, do I become a hero for HBCUs, or “sell out” and go to a PWI.  A article written in the fall highlights several academics who chose to teach at HBCUs and their reasons for doing so.  It starts off with this vignette:

Why would an academic choose to work at a historically black college or university when he or she might gain higher status and more money at a more prestigious, better endowed, predominantly white institution? Are there values and goals that trump status and money? Four academics respond.

M. Christopher Brown II, executive vice president and provost at Fisk University:

Until that moment, I had never understood why attorneys and corporate executives would leave their lucrative careers to join the ranks of nonprofit organizations or pursue second careers as social advocates and community workers. I realized that sometimes the popularity, lucrative compensation, and high status of those atop the institutional hierarchy in American higher education fail to satisfy an inner call to promote the betterment of society through touching individual lives.

So two years ago I accepted my current appointment at Fisk University. After nearly two decades of employment at large, predominantly white, research universities, I chose to return to my native South, where I was born and earned both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, to serve on the staff of one of the nation’s leading historically black colleges and universities. Fisk, a small yet distinguished liberal-arts college, is affectionately called the “black Harvard” by its alumni, foundations, and local citizens.

Each day that I arrive on the campus to work on Fisk’s historic and hallowed grounds, I know that I am making a difference, whether in the career goals of a student or the aspirations of a family or community. I am proud to say that at last year’s commencement, I knew the names, stories, and even the postgraduation plans of nearly all of the graduates whose hands I was privileged to shake. Like Robert Frost’s poetic close, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Paula E. Faulkner, assistant professor of agriscience education at North Carolina A&T State University:

My decision to teach at a historically black college and university was effortless.

I am the product of a historically black college and university myself—as it happens, the university where I now teach. My professors provided me with a wealth of information and experiences that gave me the knowledge I needed for my future, but most important of all, they supported me. They helped me develop into the person I am today.

But I always knew in my heart I wanted to work at my alma mater. Here I am able to share my personal experiences as a former student, as well as my professional experiences as a faculty member. Here I can receive additional support from some of my former professors and from administrative staff members who know me. And I’m perfectly positioned to connect my students with graduate educational opportunities, internships, and jobs.

Most parents want to provide their children with a better life than their own, and I believe the same is true of faculty members at historically black colleges and universities. I want to educate my students to be well prepared in all aspects of their college experience, both academically and in extracurricular activities. Our administrators, professors, instructors, and administrative staff members work tirelessly to prepare students to be globally ready for the future.

Many of us would not be who we are today if former professors hadn’t made the same decision we made—to teach at a historically black college or university. I am so proud and honored to be here.

I find the following quote from Ambrose Caliver inspiring. He was the first African-American research specialist hired by the U.S. Office of Education, in the newly created position of “senior specialist in the education of Negroes.” Seventy-five years ago, he wrote: “In the hands of the Negro teachers rests the destiny of the race.” Those words are still relevant today, and they are why I have made the personal and professional choice to be exactly where I am.

Doreen Bowen Hilton, professor of psychology and assistant dean of the Graduate School at Fayetteville State University:

It is clear to me now that many of the most important lessons I learned at Johnson C. Smith occurred as I observed faculty and staff members carry out their duties. In addition to Dr. Gatheright, many of my mentors were also African-American and had life experiences similar to mine. Although most did not earn lucrative salaries, they wore multiple hats and enjoyed their work. Many of them worked long hours, even on weekends, because of their commitment to the students and the university. Because of them, when I moved on to graduate school, I felt prepared and confident.

I believe in the mission of historically black institutions. I am energized and fulfilled by seeing students—many of whom society has predicted will fail—not only come to college but also flourish and attain their goals. To play a role in such success stories is what I choose to commit my career to. The experiences I’ve had at historically black institutions have contributed to my success, and I feel a sense of responsibility and pride in helping to make those experiences available to students.

**This blog entry is just food for thought, it is not a critique of black faculty and administrators at PWI’s.

*For the record, the picture is not an attack on Cornel West, he didn’t even graduate from a hbcu, just thought it was a suitable picture.

excerpts were taken from a article written for The Chronicle entitled, “Why I Work at a Historically Black College.”  the full article can be found here:


3 thoughts on “Should HBCU Alumni return to work at HBCUs?

  1. Great post. There are many ways for HBCU graduates to give back. Seeing familiar faces doing positive, productive work is inspiring. While I hope that my path leads me back to a predominantly African American institution of higher education, I support any positive way that HBCU grads decide to enrich their communities. We have an obligation to build stronger communities and a stronger nation. The process begins with giving back to the places that supported us. For those who choose not to teach at HBCUs, I encourage them to consider donating either their money, time, or both whenever possible. The more we see each other caring, the more inspired we all become to act in the spirit of love and unity.

  2. Not fully converted, lol. But I do see it as a root to a stemming problem. I just think since becoming a teacher it will make me an even better professor.

  3. Great post. I notice that for many of the stories of the professors working at hbcu’s that are cited made their decision based on personal experiences that made the decision all that more compelling. However, for me I see my contribution to black students being more suited at PWI’s. I envision being able to help graduate students who may potentially face some of the same challenges I faced at the graduate level at PWI’s. I hope to make the transition to graduate school easier for black students. It was an immense challenge for me, and I often wished I had someone who looked like me to be a guide through this process and all too often that was not the case. I want to be better than those I encountered along my travels. I think giving back at all levels (e.g. grammar school, undergraduate, and graduate) is essential to educating and uplifting our communities, and as long as you are doing your part to pull others up along your journey at whatever level and at whatever institution you aim to do it, just make sure you do it! Understand that we are a communal people and it is collectively incumbent upon us to do our part to aid in uplifting our race.

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