Is a name change enough?

Should Fayetteville State University, the state’s oldest public HBCU (historically black college or university), change its name to the University of North Carolina at Fayetteville?

Last week The Fayetteville Observer reported that the name change was being considered in the General Assembly.

The proposed name change drew mixed reactions from the school’s alumni and students. Some, like Raymond Privott, president of FSU’s National Alumni Association, think the change would diminish its heritage.

Others, like Curtis Worthy, president of the Cumberland County alumni chapter, are open to change. According to The Fayetteville Observer, he said, “Things do change. We need to change with it. It’s not the world we grew up in. It’s the world we have to adapt to and live in.”

Of the nation’s 104 HBCUs, 11 are in North Carolina. FSU, Elizabeth City State, North Carolina A&T State, North Carolina Central, and Winston-Salem State are part of the University of North Carolina system. In addition, Barber-Scotia, Bennett, Johnson C. Smith, Livingstone, St. Augustine’s, and Shaw are private institutions.

Other proposals for some of the public HBCUs are floating around the legislature. Financial and leadership challenges face both public and private institutions. Meanwhile all HBCUs are confronted by the question, why do we need to maintain historically black institutions when the doors to other universities are no longer closed to African Americans? Even the most passionate supporters of HBCUs are asking, what is their future and what must be done for them to survive?

Award-winning journalist Ron Stodghill, now teaching at Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte, responds to these questions in his timely book, “Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America’s Black Colleges and Culture.”

Stodghill takes his readers into the world of HBCUs through the experiences of a university trustee, a prospective student, controversial donors like Bill Cosby, and faculty members.

Howard University alumnus Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, a highly successful lawyer and generous donor, was vice chair of the university’s trustee board until she challenged the board’s selection and salary setting process for a new president. Though she was ultimately successful when the president was forced to leave, she lost her board leadership position, many friends, and finally her place on the board for her stand against the good-old-boy network that controlled the university.

An African American high school senior, Savannah Bowen, was an academic star and a talented athlete recruited by Ivy League and other elite white schools. Stodghill shows us how her desire to study African American authors led her to conclude that an HBCU, namely Howard, would be her best choice.

Bill Cosby used his television show to popularize HBCUs, even wearing various college sweatshirts from time to time and promoting the mythical HBCU, Hillman College. He gave $20 million to Spelman College in Atlanta. But, even before the allegations of multiple sexual crimes stained Cosby reputation, his criticism of young blacks and HBCU leadership had compromised the value of his support.

Morehouse College business and finance professor John Williams transformed “a sleepy business and finance program into a kind of academic juggernaut, a prestigious gateway for black males to become big ballers on Wall Street.”

Williams’s success was based on “tough tutelage, which blended rigorous analytical training with strong argumentative and presentational skills.” He told Stodghill, “We’ve been placing brothers on Wall Street since the mid-seventies.”

With these and similar stories Stodghill shows why HBCUs are still treasured and remain an important college-level alternative for some African Americans.

He does not lay out a pathway for HBCU survival.

But his stories persuaded this reader that HBCU survival requires much more than university name changes and can only come through “tough love” adaptation and reform, generous support from a wider group of donors, and renewed federal support for their students.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.
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