Elizabeth City State’s Downfall Should Be a Test Case for HBCU Resilience

Last year, an unnamed administrator at Elizabeth City State University instructed financial aid officials to get students enrolled by any means necessary. One year, a chancellor resignation and dozens of legislative back room meetings later, an audit now reveals what many HBCU supporters feared most, and what opponents had hoped for all along: an HBCU with failed leadership, broken finances, and a lack of community support that can only be saved by the state’s political whims, or closed outright to save the state money.

The News & Observer reports that of the 232 freshmen who enrolled at ECSU last year, 35 of them did not meet basic qualifications for admissions. Three students whose applications disclosed criminal history were not given background checks.

To put that into context — a school facing intense scrutiny for low-performance and enrollment issues, made it a point to bolster enrollment with students who legally could not be admitted into the university. And the seminal moment which launched the beginning of the end for ECSU — a 2013 report which revealed that the school failed to investigate more than 120 incident of reported crime — led to the admission of three convicted criminals without any effort to check the nature of their crimes.

At every HBCU, there is a case to be made for the pervasive impact of underfunding, historic anti-HBCU higher education policies, and systemic racism which governs it all. But sometimes, there is a moment which reveals the saddest possible commentary about HBCUs; the moment when a chancellor or top-ranking administrator justifies lawbreaking as a logical response to a morally crooked system.

Never mind that this same system will always guarantee more scrutiny, more standards and more pitfalls for black people running predominantly black institutions; never mind that our actions today, positive or negative, will dictate for decades the community’s reaction to, and reception of our schools. Some leaders come in unaware of the history at stake and the lives dependent upon their ability to emphasize professional ethics and political savvy on a daily basis.

And then we are left in spaces like this one to defend the indefensible; to explain that Elizabeth City State and schools like should still enroll our students and operate with our tax dollars, because they can be better then what they currently are, and with the right support, a reflection of what they used to be when black folks didn’t have so many college choices, and had way more racial pride and common sense.

We are supposed to convince ourselves and everybody else that the middle-aged white guys running the UNC System, and in the state house, will magically quell their generational lust for the tuition payers, land, facilities and academic programs stationed beneath historically black banners.

We realized too late that before mission and tradition, there is business; and that to many, we had no business hanging on to an HBCU like Elizabeth City State for so long, since we did not have the forethought as alumni and communities to wrestle our leadership away from the influence of money, politics and ego.

So now people are calling for the mission of the school to be changed, which will inevitably set the table for the name, the leadership, and the ECSU as we know it to better reflect what those middle-aged white guys think is best for black students and black communities in the region. From a News & Observer editorial:

UNC officials would do well at this point to look not at closing, but at changes in direction to keep this institution, in an isolated part of northeastern North Carolina, open and serving the public. That could mean refocusing its mission from one of general education to something more specialized such as training in health care, or computers or other technical specialties. ECSU, after all, is an important employer in the area and its facilities are of value.
There is, surely, a way for ECSU to serve the public as it is intended to do. Thinking outside the box a little, beyond the traditional university mission, would be of no harm and might provide a path to a productive future.

The conspiracist in all of us should believe that this editorial was written weeks before the state audit was released to the public, and with the aid of talking points sketched out on UNC System letterhead. But the realist in all of us should also ask, “now that ECSU has all but slipped away, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again anywhere?”

The answer is to grab your presidents and chancellors and never let them go. Make time to visit them as often as you can, to ask about the legislative agenda, to ask questions about enrollment and academic development strategy. Ask for crime logs, Clery reports, and data on enrollment and yield.

Ask to see the academic profile of incoming freshmen for the institution and the system. Ask about fundraising strategies and philanthropic targets in corporate and individual donor circles.

But whatever you do, don’t fall prey to the attitude that tradition and blackness will save HBCUs. Aways operate under the assumption that whatever and whomever the state says is good for your school is, or could be, potentially dangerous without your consistent influence and presence.

Politicians in the state are putting the final touches on the outside-of-the-box plan to close or redesign Elizabeth City State without placing themselves in the crosshairs of the Black Lives Matter movement. But in the interim, we should use ECSU as a test case on how to prevent further HBCU invasion in North Carolina, and beyond.

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