Historically Black Colleges and Universities take Center Stage as the Nation responds to COVID-19 and Systemic Racism

By Molly Galvin
Courtesy of National Academy of Sciences

Most U.S. colleges and universities are struggling to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Historically Black Colleges and Universities—known as HBCUs—are facing their own unique challenges. HBCUs primarily serve communities that are being hit especially hard by the pandemic, as Black Americans are far more likely to be infected and to die from COVID-19, and are also more likely to suffer unemployment or economic consequences from shutdowns and mass layoffs. And in the midst of this crisis, the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police have added greater challenges for HBCU students, faculty, and staff to navigate.

“As we . . . chart our way through dual pandemics of COVID-19 and historic racism, there is much that the nation can learn from HBCUs, based on their history, experiences, and contributions,” said Gilda Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering and moderator of a recent virtual town hall on COVID-19, systemic racism, and the response of HBCUs, hosted by the National Academies and Issues in Science and Technology.

There are more than 100 HBCUs in the U.S., which together enroll hundreds of thousands of students each year. During the webinar, presidents of three HBCUs—Makola M. Abdullah, president of Virginia State University; Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College; and C. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana discussed how the pandemic is affecting their institutions and how HBCUs are positioned to lead America through a time of awakening around the country’s racial history and divisions.

Educating During a Pandemic
Whether, when, and how to reopen is foremost on the minds of most higher education leaders, and especially for those at HBCUs. “We know that almost half of our workforce has an underlying serious [health] condition,” said Spelman’s Campbell. “And we know based on [data from] the visits to our health services over the course of the year—that a high percentage of our students have underlying conditions. We understand very clearly that we have a responsibility to a population that’s particularly vulnerable.”

“Our thinking was [to make] sure that what we we’re offering [on campus]—even though we cannot promise absolute safety in a pandemic—would be significantly safer than [life in our] surrounding states and communities,” said Xavier’s Verret. “We have to approach this without any illusions and ground it on sound science.”

The three leaders also noted the financial challenges that the pandemic is bringing — both to their institutions and to students and their families. “We had to relook at our budgets and . . . raise the amount of financial aid that we could allocate to students to make sure that no young woman or man who was at Xavier . . . could not return because of finances,” said Verret. “We had to help meet that need, which is a real struggle for us because we’re not wealthy institutions, and the nation has never invested in us in the level that . . . it should.”

The pandemic is forcing HBCUs to reallocate funds in other ways as well. “We’ve got to invest more in our technology, because our technology needs are so much higher than they were before COVID hit us,” said VSU’s Abdullah, who noted that his institution also had to invest in COVID-prevention infrastructure changes.

But switching to virtual learning and teleworking has also brought about positive changes, they said. “When there is disruption, very often that’s the very moment when you can innovate, when you can start thinking more creatively and more boldly about what is effective in teaching and learning in the digital mode,” said Campbell. “In fact, because of the pandemic, Spelman College is accelerating plans to add more robust online teaching opportunities.”

In addition, many HBCUs are contributing to research to help fight the pandemic. The public health programs at our schools have been looking at the causes of the disparities [around the pandemic]—not just genetic but also socio-political aspects,” said Verret.

Advancing an American Awakening
On top of the pandemic and the harsh light it is shining on inequities in U.S. health care, economic, and education systems, the death of George Floyd, and the protests it sparked, have also exposed long-standing issues around police brutality and the criminal justice system.

“I think the social unrest has put HBCUs on center stage, given us a microphone, and turned the lights on,” said Campbell.