The Courage to Speak of Diversity, Inclusive Excellence, and the Currency of Academic Freedom on the HBCU Campus

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2019

University of Miami
Miami, Florida

Some might argue that the concept of diversity found entry or gained momentum in national discourse via the U.S. Supreme Court decision University of California v. Bakke (1978), at which time Justice Lewis Powell asserted that while race should not be a factor in determining quotas, it could, however, be considered for achieving a “diverse student body.”

Throughout the ensuing decades, society grappled with understanding and concretizing what exactly was meant in referencing the term “diversity.” For some, it seemed solely synonymous with  affirmative action as a means of redress for systemic institutionalized practices of exclusion. It entailed creating spaces for those historically who had been omitted from having equitable access or opportunities. Diversity came to be viewed as forced political correctness, as something less-than organic in how an organization might construct its workforce or develop its policies or how universities selected their students.

However, stemming from that 1978 reference, others viewed diversity differently. The meaning and intent could be interpreted as contributing to a more accurate embodiment of society’s composition; as enhancing the thinking, strategies, and decision-making of groups based upon the variance in experiences, backgrounds, and world views that could—that should—be represented.

Despite the myriad efforts towards achieving diversity in higher education, the American Association of Colleges and Universities ([AACU], 2005), recognizing shortcomings introduced the concept of “inclusive excellence” to assist post-secondary institutions in synthesizing diversity, equity, and inclusion, that, combined, would improve the overall quality of the campus.  In its published statement, “Making excellence inclusive” the organization asserted that achieving inclusive excellence was “an active process through which colleges and universities achieve excellence in learning, teaching, student development, institutional functioning, and engagement in local and global communities.” Both mission and institutional operations would be informed by such.

Inclusive excellence consists of how well each individual’s experiences, skill sets, training, and interests are substantively engaged in all areas of the institution to affect ongoing transformation of the university to best operate in an increasingly pluralistic society. It positions the university to address the evolving needs of its campus members and larger society, and to establish equitable opportunities for everyone to participate in governance, policy formation and implementation in ways that continuously align with the stated mission of the institution.

Within the landscape of higher education, how are the concepts of diversity and inclusive excellence interpreted and embodied on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs)? Campuses must have the courage to ponder and discuss these questions and others as they relate to not only students’ experiences but those of faculty, especially members of the African-American professoriate.

HBCUs in America Higher Ed

Originally established to provide educational opportunities to people of African descent who had perpetually been excluded from enrollment in predominantly white institutions, HBCUs have assumed a critical place in the landscape of higher education. Their mission was to educate African Americans and others of African descent to become professionals who then would be expected to contribute to the education of subsequent generations. As educators, they were not only valued for their ability to teach, but also for their embodiment, visualization, and physical manifestation of black society’s potential. Though whites also served as teachers and administrators, it was not lost on the African American community nor students, the meaning of black faculty and the cultural awareness and competency their existence contributed to campus climates.

Considering racial and ethnic backgrounds, recent studies have shown that students performed better with teachers with whom they identified, who resembled them in terms of race and ethnic background. They were also found to have performed better when school administrators of similar backgrounds were in key positions to affect institutional policies that contributed to campus climate and cultural competency of faculty and staff. In 2018 and 2019 alone, one need only conduct an online search using the general term: “benefits of minority students having minority teachers” to learn how students who identify with their instructors positively impact academic success and prospects. To readily see the imprint that minority serving institutions have had on society, one needs to look no further than to the rates of African Americans who complete graduate degrees in STEM-disciplines having first completed their undergraduate degrees at HBCUs. According to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF, 2020), “HBCUs are the institution of origin among almost 30 percent of black graduates of science and engineering doctorate programs.”

Inarguably, minority-serving institutions such as HBCUs have had a significant impact on the retention and graduation rates of African American students. However, while their missions have not veered from their founding concerns, their student and faculty demographics have experienced gradual changes.

With the 1964 Civil Rights Act, shifts in campus demographics commenced. As more African American students opted to attend predominantly white institutions, HBCUs found themselves at the crossroads of history, mission, and sustainability. In the report titled, “The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities” (Gasman, 2013) it was noted that with “integration of historically white institutions during the Civil Rights Movement, enrollment dropped at HBCUs, and their role of educating the near entirety of the Black middle class shifted.” Furthermore, the composition of HBCU faculty is now more diverse than those at predominantly white institutions. In an article published in Diverse Issues in Higher Ed, data presented in 2011 from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) revealed that in a study of “99 HBCUs, 56 percent of full-time instructional staff were Black, 25 percent were White, 2 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian. By point of comparison, on the national level, 79 percent of full-time instructional faculty were White, 4 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent Asian or Pacific Islander.”

With these shifts occurring on their campuses, one of the more challenging questions for HBCUs in the 21stcentury will consider preservation of history, culture, and mission while determining the meaning of diversity and how best to embody the praxis of inclusive excellence.

For HBCUs the courage to acknowledge and address shifting demographics, mission, who studies, who teaches, and who serves in administration at these institutions becomes critical.

African-American Female Faculty and Inclusive Excellence

A 2019 “Fast Fact” sheet from NCES revealed that African-American women are the most educated demographic in the United States (“Fast Facts, Degrees conferred by race and sex”). Despite this, their representation in leadership positions in neither corporate America nor in the academy is reflected.  The oxymoron is that African-American women who reach the rank of Professor with tenure in the academy exist as the most underrepresented demographic across ethnicity and gender.  Further, they earn less than seventy cents for every dollar that Caucasian men earn.  Not only are African-American women nearly invisible in the academy and in high levels in most industries, they are also economically deprived (American Association of University Women, 2018).

Certain expectations of being in the minority on any campus, for anyone who has ever been in the minority, is an expected unease.  Being the only one, by the default of one’s humanity, lends to loneliness and exclusion from the majority.  However, there is an unspoken expectation that on the HBCU campus, that by default, African Americans become the majority.  What happens when this is true only for the students and not the faculty?  Are the students able to see themselves?  Are African American faculty in an inclusive environment?

Are the precepts so deeply ingrained in HBCUs instilled in their students by non-African- American faculty and administrators?  Is the campus climate such where authentic conversations may be had with Caucasians and non-African-American colleagues to address diversity and inclusive excellence in such a way that everyone is uncomfortable to the point where the campus community moves beyond the conversation and towards invoking real change?

African-American faculty on HBCU campuses are gradually becoming the minority and African-American women tend to have a harder time attaining tenure and promotion to the rank of professor.  This is especially true in STEM subjects.  African-American girls are often told early in life that they should focus on careers in homemaking and caregiving.  While there is nobility in these areas, they do not bring the economic empowerment that can be attained in STEM careers.  Given the increase in the enrollment of African-American females in STEM careers, there is a need for more equitable representation of African-American female faculty in the academy (Stephens and Wilson-Kennedy, 2019).

Inclusive excellence is essential if HBCUs honor the mission of their work by producing leaders to make a more humane and just society.  Improvement and inclusion begin with “I,” so therefore, HBCUs must establish policies that reflect this core tenet that should be reflected in the formation of search committees, the hiring process, the retention, promotion, and tenure committees, and administratively, which includes competitive salaries.

Inclusive Excellence and the Currency of Academic Freedom

There is no gainsaying the fact that academic freedom often resides within the intersections of diversity and inclusive excellence. A related query is its cost or, as one might argue, its political economy. Once we understand the demands of diversity and inclusion, we cannot ignore the role such understanding plays in the academy. How often do we choose to censor our dialogues so that all parties are comfortable in a conversation among diverse entities? Probably, we fail to speak up to ensure that faculty peers and students in the academy do not feel uncomfortable about conversations that need to be held and that the cost of such conversations are not too high to bear. Let’s be clear: being inclusive in an environment of diversity requires us to exercise the courage to engage communication on potentially conflictual issues with a sense of diplomacy and mutual respect for the parties involved, be they faculty or student or administrator.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is often quoted as saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.” His vision for the world/USA was that men and women, black and white would live together in harmony with respect and kindness, in the pursuit of justice. Embracing diversity and inclusivity implies the ultimate realization of that goal. However, while there is much communication in the academy, there is also great miscommunication on how justice might be achieved. Hesitancy, within diverse groups, to speak openly and frankly about inequity and injustice, hinders linearity in developing a trajectory for social justice. It is important for the academy to use its voice both to close the miscommunication gap as well as to expand the conversation so that all parties clearly see and can accept the other’s perspective. Despite deficits in the currency of academic freedom, we must exercise the courage to speak for diversity and inclusive excellence and against injustice.

In the academy, we witness “factions” developing, factions that seek exclusivity by comingling only with persons with whom they easily identify. Choosing exclusivity is a search for anonymity. Conversations that require voices of resistance are those that recognize that cliques are not conducive to inclusion of others who are different. Those of us who embrace the idea of inclusivity easily perceive the need to speak out against cliques and their potential for fostering injustice and inequity, often leading to inhumane behaviors toward the “other” who may not interpret “life” through the same rose-colored glasses as proponents of the clique might. Responding with traditional platitudes and avoidance of challenging conversations for fear of stepping on others’ toes may not allow us to ignore the elephants in the room during platitudinal exchanges. If achieving inclusive excellence is the target of the academy, then despite fears of compromising tenure or promotion, we each must take courage and be resilient in unveiling any trace of inequity and injustice in the diverse academy.

It is no less difficult when students and faculty have to have unique exchanges on social issues in the classroom. At an HBCU where the institutional mission is to prepare students for leadership in a just and humane world and where faculty and students are of diverse race, ethnic, class and disciplinary backgrounds, when questions of race, economics, crime, social justice, ethics arise in the classroom, how could the instructor or the student broach a conversation that does not offend or appear to critique the other negatively? Does the student have the courage to bravely but respectfully share his/her perspective with the instructor or does s/he stay silent for fear of disquieting the instructor? After all, the student may believe that the grade is at stake and may choose to leave well enough alone rather than offend. The instructor, too, may have similar qualms, fearing student perceptions of bias even when none is intended. Usually, as students guard against low grades, the faculty member guards against harsh evaluations or even a visit by the student to the Dean’s office to complain about inhumane treatment…and censorship, on academic freedom, results.

Learning to employ reason and to use lower voice registers to communicate can minimize tension between faculty and students, build resilience against bias, transform personal doubts and misgivings about victimization and lead parties to engage their intellectual capacity in positive ways that produce innovative problem-solving, decision-making and mutual understanding within a diverse but free academic environment. How can we, as change-makers in the academy, authenticate the currency of academic freedom and restore faith in the logic of reason through shared, open deliberation? That is the conversation we need to engage in on our individual campuses!


American Association of Colleges and Universities, “Making excellence inclusive.” Retrieved from

American Association of University Women, “Black women and the pay gap.” Retrieved from
accessed on January 21, 2020.

Gasman, M. (2013). The Changing face of historically Black colleges and universities. Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, Retrieved from

Morris, Catherine. “White faculty deal with the challenges of teaching at HBCUs.” Retrieved from
accessed on April 2, 2015.

National Center for Education Statistics. “Fast facts. Degrees conferred by race and sex.” Retrieved from

Stephens, M. and Wilson-Kennedy, Z. S. “A call for transformative leadership: Addressing the lack of female full professors in STEM at HBCUs.” (2019). peerReview. At the soul of leadership: Authentic perspectives on STEM reform from HBCUs. American Association of Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from

United Negro College Fund. “The Impact of HBCUs on diversity in STEM fields.”

University of California v. Bakke, (United States Supreme Court, No. 7811), 1978.

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Spring 2020: Critical Conversations and the Academy