The Root Interview: Julianne Malveaux on the Importance of HBCUs

Harriette Cole, The Root's contributing editor, spent three days at Bennett College, one of the nation's two HBCUs for women. There she found a college president fired up about educating today's young black woman.

Julianne Malveaux (left)
Julianne Malveaux (left)

Educator Dr. Julianne Malveaux has long been known as a firebrand. Armed with a doctorate in economics from MIT, she’s made a career out of interpreting the American economic landscape as it relates to African-American life. (Her latest book is Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.) Three years ago, the economist refocused her lens to become the 15th president of the 137-year-old Bennett College for Women. Moving from the buttoned-up, politically savvy nation’s capital to the conservative family town of Greensboro, N.C., she hit the ground running.

In a way, she had to. HBCUs have been under fire for years, often not being able to attract the best students or raise the funds required to finance their basic needs. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed criticizing what the editorial writer saw as the deficits of HBCUs, making the case that many should be closed rather than pumped with the additional $850 million that President Obama has earmarked for them over the next 10 years.

Bennett has not been immune to the challenges and sometimes harsh realities facing HBCUs. It was founded in 1873, in the basement of St. Matthews A.M.E. Church by former slaves who had made their way to Greensboro along the Underground Railroad. The school was repurposed to be a college exclusively for women in 1926. While it has consistently been a small campus with the mission of nurturing its students, the college has not always had the funding, nor the organization, it has needed. Former Spelman College president Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole became president of Bennett in 2003 and was considered a savior of sorts, spearheading a campaign to upgrade the financing and academic intentions of the school. She established the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity & Inclusion Institute to expand the college’s global awareness.

Even with Cole’s efforts during her four-year tenure, Bennett was still in need. Malveaux says that she inherited an $8 million debt, which made it tough for school officials to proceed with much-needed construction projects. The graduation rate is still relatively low; about 38 percent of the student body typically graduates within six years. (The average graduation rate among HBCUs is 32.5 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Education study, compared to a national rate of 55.9 percent.)

Malveaux takes umbrage at the criticism, arguing that comparing HBCUs with traditional colleges is unfair. “If you didn’t have historically black colleges, you’d have to invent them,” she says. HBCUs, she argues, serve promising underprivileged students that other universities don’t. She says that the student body is comprised of a diverse array of students, including those students who could easily gain admittance to the nation’s top-tier universities — among those a candidate for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. But she acknowledges that there are students who will likely only be accepted at HBCUs.