(The Root) — Like many Howard University alumni, I'm pretty committed to — and really sentimental about — my alma mater's annual homecoming weekend. I haven't missed one since I graduated.
Just as I was giddily putting the last touches on this year's plans, I received the following email, sent to The Root by a fellow alum who urged our staff to "let readers know" about the abomination about to take place surrounding the Bison's Saturday football game:
Every year Howard puts on a massive production known as Homecoming … it is hard to ignore that Howard, once hailed as a premier educational institution is slowly sinking … Yet without fail, Howard puts on an event of Gatsby proportions despite the fact that they are entrenched in millions of dollars of debt.
It went on.
This brings up a bigger issue of African Americans sacrificing their priorities to portray a facade of luxury and glamour. We will throw caution to the wind (caution being finances set aside for mortgage, car notes, and other important monetary commitments), to portray the image that we have it all.
I originally dismissed the message. But on second thought, I realized that this line of criticism is important to address.
That's because it represents a narrative I've heard plenty of times before ("You all love your schools so much and you go to homecoming, but I don't see you give back, and that's why they're falling apart").
It's an all-too-common line of thinking in a conversation about the issues facing HBCUs in 2013. That conversation can get really intellectually lazy, really fast. (Skim news article or, better yet, read a tweet. Add fuzzy facts. Combine with a pinch of panic and a healthy dose of the worst stereotypes about black people. Voilà! You've created some unproductive shame about celebrations that do no harm and that could actually be harnessed to do even more good.)
So I've decided to spend the Friday of this year's homecoming clearing up a few things:
Howard's real challenges are not the result of character flaws of alumni or administrators. If you follow Howard in the news, you'll remember the scathing letter from a trustee who threatened that Howard wouldn't be around in three years if the university didn't make some "crucial decisions" about its finances. The resignation of President Sidney A. Ribeau drew additional scrutiny. Moody dropped the school's ranking in a report that speculated about the difficulties associated with leadership transitions.
These are the headline-grabbing stories, the ones that conjure images of scandal and bad backroom choices. But the facts behind what are actually the core issues facing the school have little to do with those things.
The fact that HBCUs are "based on a social serving mission for a population that just does not have major pockets of revenue" makes a tough economy tougher on them. The sequester's effect on their federal appropriation didn't help. And that was on top of the recent tightening of credit standards for obtaining Parent Plus loans, on which many HBCU students and their families rely. These are serious problems, but they're tied mostly to the very nature of the institutions, the way they've been funded since their creation and the needs of the student bodies they serve.
There's plenty of good news about Howard. A university representative assured me that demand for Howard is at a historic high, that the class of 2017 has the highest SAT average in university history, that enrollment has rebounded and that an extensive renovation of facilities is under way. There's a new interim president. Howard reports a positive operating balance for each of the past four years, including $12 million in the most recent fiscal year. The university's $510 million endowment is 159th out of 833 colleges and universities ranked in the country. The federal Department of Education recently reviewed the financial strength of the nation's private universities and awarded the school a score of 2.8 out of a possible 3.
"Slowly sinking"? Not exactly.
Homecoming does not represent a financial drain on Howard. According to Howard, homecoming is self-sustaining, with costs mostly covered through ticket revenues, corporate sponsorship and underwriting. So the idea that the school is wasting money on an event is simply wrong.
In fact, it's a great opportunity to raise money. This year Howard's homecoming includes at least one event that requires a donation of at least $25 to Howard's Bridging the Gap campaign, which allows the school to provide scholarships for current students who are in good academic standing and need additional support.
And that could just be the start. When it comes to raising money, Howard homecomings represent potential that's still largely untapped when it comes to alumni giving. Rates of giving for black HBCU students generally fall just slightly behind those of black students at other schools (7-9 percent and 9-10 percent, respectively), says Marybeth Gasman, co-author of A Guide to Fundraising at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. It's a gap that she says is explained in part by the fact that students from many of the HBCUs that serve mostly lower-income populations simply don't have as much money.
But, Gasman told me, the school could do a much better job of asking for donations. And homecoming celebrations, where alumni come in droves, aren't distractions from that effort. Rather, with the right strategy, they could become the perfect place to get serious about drumming up support and close the gap.
Finally, when it comes to HBCUs or any other topic, making everything about black pathology is a really bad idea. A lot of fretting about homecoming as a waste or distraction falls into an all-too-common trap in which many people — African Americans included — default to a cultural-pathology-based explanation, assuming the worst priorities on the part of black people, in criticism that isn't applied to other groups.
So could Howard alums forgo a weekend trip to homecoming and donate the saved money to the school instead? Sure. But so could every American pass on travel to see family and friends, and write checks to their favorite causes instead — and we typically don't admonish one another for failing to do so.
Lamenting the "bigger issue of African Americans sacrificing their priorities" in this case misses this weekend's actual big issue: that HBCUs like Howard urgently need to diversify their revenue streams in a changing economic and educational climate, and we have an opportunity to make homecoming celebrations a more significant part of that effort.