Students protests for deplorable conditions and customer service at historically black colleges and universities is not new. Taking over the admin building is not a novel concept, particularly at Howard University, where rallying against bad business culture is genetically wired into most of the students who attend.
But unlike previous generations, millennials are well aware of the power of their dollars and their presence. And if they aren’t heard and their needs addressed, Howard and every other HBCU working hard to overcome gaps in age, campus technology and cultural expectations will be immediately and dramatically changed by way of their choice.
There is no difference between the students of today and those of us who endured the lines, misinformation and service redirection at our campuses years ago. They didn’t know how to complete paperwork properly and on time just like we didn’t. Like us, they are disillusioned by the mix of black pride on the yard and classrooms, while contending with the powerful, lingering effects of discrimination shown in financial aid, housing and technology offices.
And they are broke just like we are broke.
The difference between today’s students and those of yesteryear, is that each student today is a walking, full-function news bureau onto himself. In an instant, each student with a legitimate concern or an immature gripe has the ability to publish or broadcast messaging about their issue to thousands around the campus and the world.
Hashtags alone don’t distinguish heartfelt concern from angry gripe, especially when friends and followers pass the message through their own filter of commentary.
This doesn’t mean that today’s students are worse, or more immature than those of us made in HBCUs years ago. It means that society and culture has changed. The world is quickly trying to figure out how to better identify and serve the needs of today’s millennial customers who value speed, efficiency and communication above everything else.
We shouldn’t expect black millennials to think and be any different — in fact, we should celebrate them as a generation who has the greatest capacity to reverse the course of racism, because of their access and expertise with communication, culture and technology.
They aren’t lazy, misguided, spoiled or ungrateful because they want businesses to do what they say they will do.
It’s not the responsibility of students to adjust to bad customer service delivered by older, ill-trained staff who are disgruntled about things not being “the way they used to be.” It is the responsibility of the HBCU to adjust to their customer base, and to figure out how to make their experience valuable enough so that they, the students, recruit more customers.
Any board member, president, or vice-president who can’t accept that notion needs to get the hell out of our HBCUs while we still have them — because if HBCUs must die, it should not be fighting our own students on the notion of rejecting expectations for HBCUs to give them what they are paying for.
Millennials will pay more and incur more debt for education than any other generation which preceded them. But they will also create more jobs and leverage more economic power over social policy than any other generation before them. They have more choices of where to attend school than any other generation before them, and with politicians working to make community college free and transfer into state PWIs easier and cheaper, we ought to be sprinting to figure out how we can give the students who choose HBCUs any and everything they want.
Yes, the same students whom we lift up as the new civil rights generation. The same students who travel abroad as ambassadors for HBCUs. The same students keeping the acronym ‘HBCU’ alive when everyone around them criticizes them for doing so. And the same students who we’ll criticize for not giving back to the school which gave them so many headaches at such a high price tag.
Fortunately for Howard, it is led by a compassionate, astute alumnus in Wayne Frederick. His main challenge in the 24 hours after #TakeBackHU began trending nationwide — to get in front of a many students as he can, to hear their concerns, and to fire and replace as many people as it takes to send the message that Howard is not a place which settles for mediocrity. Obviously, the strategy is not that simple and Dr. Frederick not that cold — but as one Howard alumnus told me on Facebook, “fixing the A Building can be Frederick’s legacy.”
Millennials have choices, and HBCU attendance is no longer a privilege. It’s time for HBCUs, regardless of the economic or racial roots behind their struggles, to better represent what a privilege it is for students to choose our schools.