As the pandemic rattles financially-strapped HBCUs, some Black colleges set a standard for battling back

As COVID-19 cases started popping up in states last spring with outbreaks on campuses, many higher education institutions scrambled to readjust their academic plans. While state lockdowns and stay-at-home orders soon took effect, many schools made the decision to relocate students back home to continue classes virtually, with the new normal costing schools like HBCUs millions of dollars. But some HBCUs showed their resilience as they powered through the pandemic.

Video Transcript

MICHAEL LOMAX: When the prospects of the pandemic were in front of us and we didn't really know what was going to happen, there was a lot of fear and anxiety that this was going to have a very substantial impact and that folks who were at the lower end of the economic scale would be the most adversely impacted. And they were.

We were proactive. And we took steps to ensure that our students' needs were addressed and that we were there for them and helping them stay on the course to become from college graduates.

WILLIAM HARVEY: A lot of people, black and white, think that all HBCUs are the same. And we are not. We are not a monolith. Some of us are very good. Some of us are very poor. Most of us in the middle. A school like Hampton is very, very good.

Pandemic became known. One of the things that I did was to appoint three committees immediately. It was in February. I appointed a Infectious Disease and Prevention Committee. I appointed a Financial Stabilization Committee. I appointed a Transformational Revitalization Committee. They met every single day.

And as a result, that collected confidence. We had probably about 10 members of each committee, and we had great leadership. We were one of the first, if not the first in Virginia, to indicate that we would not want to continue to have in-person instruction.

If you look now at some of the institutions in Virginia, if look at some of the HBCUs that have major outbreaks, we have not had that, thank goodness. But that's because of the collective competence of the leadership and the members of that team. And it's difficult times for our students who are not here.

What we do-- and this is a mandate for all of our people-- we continue to interact with them. When I became president some 43 years ago, I started meeting once a month with the student leaders. We still do that. I had a meeting a couple of weeks ago as an [? example ?] [? on. ?]

But it's not just me. We have a health department, a health center. We got a Career Center. We've got a counseling center. They still have meetings by Zoom and other methods to interact with our students, because we still are very much interested in them getting internships and getting jobs and things like that. And that's the Career Center.

Then, we also know that these are stressful times. People are anxious. And they have issues because this is new for them as well. So our counseling department continues to interact with them as well. And I mentioned the health department. We do the same thing there with other aspects of the student affairs. And, of course, we've got the faculty interacting.

But what we've tried to do is to keep the students engaged to keep them active to interact with them. And we're going to continue to do that.


MICHAEL LOMAX: And so in the CARES Act, the first CARES Act that was passed in the spring of 2020, in addition to the nearly $20 billion that was set aside for higher education, another $1 billion because of our swift action was set aside to serve the institutions that serve the students with the greatest challenge-- black college students, Hispanic college students, students going to tribal colleges, low-income first generation students. And there are about 5 million of them pursuing higher education.

We were able to get that $1 billion set aside there. And about a half of that $500 million went to historically black colleges. So we set a standard for the stimulus act.

WILLIAM HARVEY: And one of the reasons that I am called into the Oval Office [? that we ?] have been with every single president since Jimmy Carter is because I don't spend things when I go there. And the thing that I have not been able to do, thus far, and I have proposals for three previous administrations, is to get through Congress and the administration to designate 5%-- have a 5% aspirational goal for HBCUs for all of the federal contracts that are given.

If they could do that, that would give us-- Hampton, Talladega, Tuskegee, Howard, and so forth, the 105 HBCUs an opportunity to try and get some of that support. We have a total of about $150 million that we've been able to bring in in the last 11 or 12 months.

I think that some of that is that guilt tripping. But the other part of it is that we have a robust fundraising operation. I am the longest tenured president in any HBCU program in the country. And I hope that just as the Obama administration worked with me that the Biden administration would work with me on behalf of HBCUs.

And remember, we have a UNCF. We got good leadership there. We've got NAFEO. We've got great leadership there. And I believe in partnerships. I believe in collaboration. I believe in working together, although I hope and pray that we'll be able to get our students back in the summer, certainly no later than the fall.

We are going to require everybody to have the vaccine, except those for religious purposes or for have some underlying medical issues. They are anxious, and they want to get back. But I don't want them to give up. Don't ever give up.

Perseverence is something that we teach here at [INAUDIBLE] as well. That's part of those values that we talk about character development, because everybody alive will face adversity at one time or another. And you can't give up.