Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Notes on the HBCU Week Conference 2012

This note is the follow-up to my previous "End of an Era." In that note I voiced my concerns that the HBCU community was leaving an old era and entering a new one that threaten the continued existence of each and all unless they made profoundly transformative changes. I mentioned my decision to  attend my first HBCU Week Conference in many years with the intention of listening to the comments of other attendees in order to get some sense of how much my concerns were or were not shared by other members of our community. The conference started yesterday and ended today. The resuts? Good news and bad news.

A. Great Speakers
The good news is that I was captivated by the luncheon and dinner speakers on the first day of the conference, Congressman William H. Gray, III, and Dr. Freeman A Hrabowski, III, respectively. I hope the White House Initiative on HBCUs (WHI-HBCUs), the sponsor of the conference, captured videos or audios of their remarks that will be posted on the WHI-HBCUs Website because these distinguished guests said many things that I wish everyone could in our community could hear, things that I myself would like to replay five or six more times to be sure that I had digested the full import of their insights.

I didn't take notes while they  spoke, so my memory of what they said will probably filter and focus on the things that were most meaningful to me. In an effort to minimize these unintended distortions I will merely highlight two themes I heard in both of their wide ranging commentaries:
  • HBCUs must innovate
  • Innovations must be based on data
The Congressman recalled that donations had been declining when he took the helm at UNCF. When  he asked why, nobody really knew; so he gathered data by taking a survey of UNCF's donors. The survey found that the donors were aging ... and dying ... so their donations were decreasing. Worse still, the younger generation of potential donors had concluded that the Civil Rights Revoloution had made the continued existence of HBCUs unnecessary because black students could now attend non-HBCUs. Armed with these findings, the Congressman redirected UNCF's fundraising campaigns to inform potential donors that HBCUs were still there, were still needed, and still required their support. UNCF soon shattered all of its previous fundraising records.

Dr. Hrabowski is famous for his innovative programs at UMBC that have achieved remarkable success in enabling black students to succeed in STEM programs. But his remarks made it clear that his innovations succeeded because of his dogged pursuit of data about what really worked for his students and what didn't. Again and again he repeated the importance of knowing our students, really knowing them, not just as butts in our class seats, but as total human beings whose outside lives may pose severe impediments to their performance in our classrooms.

B. Titanic
That's the good news. The bad news about the conference is that I mostly felt like a time travaler from 2012 who had just plopped down onto the deck of the HMS Titanic one hundred years ago in 1912 ...  OMG, OMG, OMG!!!
  • "Captain, that thing out in the distance is a gigantic iceberg that will sink our ship if we don't change course right now!!!" 
  • "No, it's not what you think. But even if it is, we'll have plenty of time to change course when we get closer."
  •  Yes, it is; and no, we won't!!!"
OK, so what makes me so smart that I'm "from the future" by comparison to most of the other attendees at the conference? ... Well, something else that Dr. Hrabowski said last night explains my advantage in this situation. He paused in his remarks to note that anyone who has achieved any success has also been very lucky at some point in their life. When he said this, he nodded and smiled, and I nodded and smiled, and as I looked around the dining room I saw a lot of other attendees nodding and smiling. Busted. Despite all of our well-documented claims to hard work and perseverance, we had also been very lucky.

In my case, my big break came a few days after I dropped out of the PhD program in pure math at NYU's Courant Institute back in 1963. My stipend ceased at the end of the June, so I had to find a job real fast to pay my rent for July. In desperation I answered a blind ad in the New York Times that merely noted that the job paid well and required a college degree in science or engineering. I applied and was hired a few days later as a systems programmer on IBM's 7090 mainframe computer, a few months before my 21st birthday. All of the books say that pioneers work hard and suffer hardships. That's why it took me more than 30 years to realize that I was probably one of the first 50 black computer programmers in the U.S., if not the world. I was a pioneer, but all I had done was get lucky by answering a blind ad in order to pay my rent ... :-)

Needless to say,  the advantage I gained was early immersion in the soon-to-be dominant cyber culture before my brain had completely formed. I have lived and breathed computers for most of my long life. And being a cyber native, I have rarely been surprised by any so-called IT revolution in any field. As a colleague once put it, it's all been part of the "progressive digitization of everything" ... and "everything" means just that: everything. The only wonder is that it's taken so long for computers to profoundly disrupt their birthplace in academia.

So that's why I'm in a panic. The pieces are now in place for the long delayed IT revolution in higher education.  MOOCs put the last logs in place for the initial bonfires; the other conceptual logs were already there -- competency-based programs and flipped classrooms. MOOCs can provide inputs to competency-based programs (with exams in proctored facilities all over the planet to minimize cheating); and MOOCs can provide online components of flipped classrooms. So stand way back, people, because this baby's gonna blaze!!! ... and it's just a bonfire. As the economies of our institutions of higher learning become ever more parched by the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession, the real firestorms are yet to come.

C. Titanics
No doubt some will take comfort in the thought that HBCUs are not alone. Indeed we are just 105 tiny Titanics in a giant flotilla of 4,000 accredited U.S.S. Titanics, most of whom are far larger than we are  ... but we are all locked into the same collision course with disaster ... unless ... unless we change course ... unless we innovate  ... starting right now.

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