Tennessee State University President Glenda Baskin Glover reversed course this week on her appointment to the board of a private prison company following backlash from two communities she leads - her school and her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
The letter, its tone, and the explanation met the need in making amends to these communities. But the episode wrote the latest chapter in two distinct conversations about HBCUs, their leadership, their partnerships, and our collective hypocrisy as stakeholders in all of them.
HBCU communities continue to reject the reality that every system in this country (e.g., education, healthcare, finances, voting) thrives because of racism. We’d like to think of ourselves as moral gatekeepers in this reality, using our protest spirit to guard against individuals and institutions falling prey to these systems as ‘sellouts’ or agents of white supremacy.
The truth is that we only selectively guard against tokenism of our people or our institutions. If we were real soldiers in the army waging war against racial or cultural appropriation, outrage at an HBCU president accepting an appointment to a board directing a private prison wouldn’t be an exclusive point of discord.
We would also rail against Bank of America’s efforts to buy our silence with funding in the name of racial reconciliation for years of discrimination in hiring and lending practices. We would reject HBCUs contracting food services with companies like Sodexo and Aramark for their spotty records on Black equity and inclusion.
Home Depot has a record of racial and age discrimination, yet annually we provide the company with millions in marketing in exchange for thousands of dollars for low-level campus beautification projects. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s — two long-standing corporate partners of the HBCU community have histories of settlements to dim attention surrounding their racist practices.
Google, one of the highest-profile workforce development partners of HBCUs in recent years, has paid millions to settle racial and discrimination lawsuits. Former employees have gone on record to accuse the company of not righting its wrongs, and yet, five HBCU presidents met recently with leadership of the company to sign off on the corporation as a good actor towards our people and our interests.
If we consider all of the partnerships forged between HBCUs and law enforcement agencies both local and federal, these same stakeholders should be infuriated that Black colleges would work with agencies which have surveilled, infiltrated and killed Black activists over decades.
If that’s true, then HBCUs shouldn’t be working with prison systems nationwide and the U.S. Department of Education to help HBCUs serve as the premier sector for granting incarcerated citizens access to financial aid and college courses in pursuit of a degree.
After all — working with prisons is bad, but working with the feds is good.
Laurel Brooks, a North Carolina A&T State University graduate and commentator on ‘Digest After Dark,’ described the tension best in a discussion in our group chat.
“People criticize HBCUs and leadership for making certain decisions in a system that disproportionately affects them,” she wrote. “This is what capitalism does, forces you to work with the person sh*tting on you to get out of a worse situation.”
“It doesn’t make sense [because] it’s not supposed to.”
Why does the HBCU community go out of its way to try and work through dissonance on working with or within historically racist structures? Why is our solution to decry funding from some problematic areas, but not others, or all for that matter?
If we are all ‘for protecting the culture’ as we claim to be, how do we build fences to protect some strange bedfellows but assail our leaders for going outside of our perception of these boundaries?
This brings up the second tier of the argument, which focuses most on Tennessee State, Glenda Glover and how the campus community really feels about her. Her almost-board partnership is an easy mark for a growing number of detractors who have never wanted her in leadership. They are dismayed that complaints about her dual allegiances to TSU and AKA haven’t gotten her removed and hope that the public furor over this issue finally topple the pile of grievances against her administration.
If there are issues at Tennessee State with operations, culture or productivity, then see the president and the school’s board of trustees on the merits of the issues. Weigh those against the fundraising, the partnerships, the academic development and opportunities the school has generated under her leadership. Then, decide as a community which side holds the most weight and how much responsibility she personally holds for every success and failure.
Consider all of that and then, as a community, make a decision about university leadership. But don’t make her out to be a sellout, or shortsighted on her obligations as a Black woman for doing the same thing that nearly every HBCU president does on a daily basis to suppor their students and institutions.
Black leaders of all stripes have been dancing with the devil for a long time and, for the most part, we’ve cheered their moves down the Soul Train line. We shouldn’t be the ones to change up the music just because they have the strategic forethought to find new dance partners.