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Thinking and dreaming big — the NC10 begin action on journey of partnership

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North Carolina’s 10 historically Black colleges and universities, called the NC10, are starting an unprecedented journey together, building on shared values and missions to create partnerships. 

Last year, the 10 institutions made a presentation to four nonprofits – Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED), the Hunt Institute, myFutureNC, and EdNC – during a listening tour. When that effort culminated in a “Listening to the NC10” convening at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in Durham one year ago, leaders from the NC10 decided to keep going.

On Wednesday, about 100 gathered at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh to celebrate a formal beginning for that work. The first NC10 HBCU Conference, themed “Partners in Progress,” was hosted by CREED.

There’s a unique window of opportunity, CREED Executive Director James E. Ford said, to increase the state’s focus on the NC10’s value – including the importance of their success and contributions to the state’s culture and need for a diverse talent pipeline.

“Individuals committed to collaboration on that day,” Ford said of the convening last year. “They formed an advisory council working group, selected a mission and vision statement, identified goals, and now are hosting their first conference to operationalize those ideas.”

The NC10’s shared goals are to:

  1. Implement development strategies for supporting North Carolina’s HBCUs.
  2. Make the economic case for the impact of those HBCUs.
  3. Adopt practices for on-time graduation.
  4. Devise recruitment and retention strategies for students and faculty.

Attendees heard strategies aligned with these goals – including support for serving students, growing leadership, and impacting policy. They also heard about Mary McLeod Bethune.

Storyteller Crystal A. deGregory delivers the keynote at the NC10 HBCU Conference. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Bethune was an educator, philanthropist, and civil rights activist. On Wednesday, during her keynote address at the NC10 HBCU Conference, storyteller Crystal A. deGregory told attendees about Bethune’s improbable journey from learning in a one-room schoolhouse to graduating from Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College in Concord) to receiving the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Medal and induction to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

But deGregory didn’t evoke Bethune just to celebrate the accomplishments of an extraordinary Black woman. She paid tribute to Bethune’s vision of partnership. 

Bethune partnered with philanthropists and Booker T. Washington to secure a flight program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama – laying the foundation for the Tuskegee Airmen. She partnered with the Cookman Institute for Black boys to merge her school for Black girls and co-found Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Bethune partnered with Frederick Douglass Patterson and William J. Trent to co-found the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

The power of partnership, deGregory said, is the idea she wants the NC10 to pursue.

“What would all of our foremothers and forefathers do?” she asked as she closed her remarks. “I hope that when we look at ourselves, we see a bit of the best of them in us. And so then when we partner, we will partner not only in progress, but we’ll partner in power.”

While the conference focused on providing actionable strategies and support to the NC10, it also offered an opportunity for networking and vision sharing. St. Augustine’s President Christine Johnson McPhail asked that this spirit of community continue to grow.

“I think that whoever decided that we’re going to bring all of these institutions together had a wonderful idea,” she said. “Let’s don’t disappoint them by limiting our progress and what we can do with our imagination. Let’s reimagine, and let’s dream big.”

Here’s a summary of what attendees learned: 

Gia Soublet and Marc Barnes of UNCF speak at the NC10 HBCU Conference. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Philanthropic GPS

UNCF presented on effective philanthropic efforts by institutions. Gia Soublet said these efforts are commonly referred to as institutional advancement, but she cautioned that not everyone knows what that means. Marc Barnes told why they should.

“Everybody at an institution – starting from the president, faculty, staff, students – you are all fundraisers,” Barnes said.

Centering student success

Dhanfu Elston of Complete College America talked about helping students get to the finish line. He encouraged institutions to help students understand their purpose for higher education, and to walk with them through the process of obtaining a degree. It’s an economic issue, he said, because not enough students are completing their degrees, and many are taking longer than four years to do so.

“That’s a lot of money left on the table,” he said.

Dhanfu Elston of Complete College America. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Moderator Alesha Russey speaks at the NC10 HBCU Conference. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Policy and the NC10

How can policy shift to help HBCUs to thrive? That was the question attendees confronted in a session moderated by NCCU Director of External Affairs Michael Page, Stephanie Hall of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, and Verdant Julius, an N.C. A&T State alumnus.

Julius said “thriving” includes transforming the campus environment. He called for investments in buildings, common spaces, labs, and classrooms to create a positive learning environment for all HBCU students.

“HBCUs are creating a pipeline of leaders with the students they graduate each year,” Hall said. She went on to say the future legislators, policy shapers, and philanthropists are on campuses now.

Julius agreed, saying students must have the opportunity to gain access to power and advocacy. 

“Students want to raise their voices,” he said. “We want to work.”

Establishing partnerships 

Attendees heard opportunities to partner with research, business, government, and nonprofit and for-profit solutions entities. The N.C. Chamber Foundation talked about an initiative to connect HBCU and business leaders, All of Us presented on a diverse data set its collected and making available to advance health research for historically marginalized communities, Pearson talked about innovative solutions that could benefit HBCUs, and both the state department of transportation and Hunt Institute summarized opportunities for HBCU students.

Attendees at the NC10 HBCU Conference. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

I love my HBCU, but…

A panel of students shared sentiments on their HBCU regarding what they love, what they would like to change, and tangible ways they feel that they can begin implementing change. They talked about increased transparency among students, student organizations, and administration on pressing matters – particularly ones that impact the student experience and campus culture. There was consensus among attendees, mostly students, that they love the culture and family feel of each campus, access to professors, and their institution’s individuality – breaking the myth that the NC10 are a monolith.

Funding Initiatives and External Contracts

This session focused on the ways that HBCUs can activate corporate and philanthropic partnerships to serve their students. Monica Hawkins of the Professional Pipeline Development Group kicked off the conversation by pointing out the importance of bringing corporate partners “down the road from RTP” to the HBCUs in their areas. Corporate funders and businesses are in the Research Triangle Park (RTP), but the RTP Foundation only recently gained an HBCU representative on its board. Several businesses were represented including CISCO and WinPro. CISCO spoke about its $150 million commitment to HBCUs, including a focus on endowment to support student scholarships and investments directly to the HBCUs to support their tech infrastructure.

A North Carolina Central student asks a question during the NC10 HBCU Conference. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

St. Augustine’s President Christine Johnson McPhail welcomes the NC10 attendees to her university. Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

Talent Acquisition and Retention

HBCUs are a bastion for future talent – and not just in future graduates. There is talent throughout NC10 administration that represents the future leaders of HBCUs. This session focused on recruiting and retaining top talent in the face of challenges such as funding and salary. Attendees talked about promoting inclusion and HBCU culture, and investing in the future leaders of these institutions by investing in the talent pipeline.

EdNC’s Nation Hahn, Derick Lee, and Victoria Griffin contributed to this report.

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.