In Praise of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

In Chamber Blog, DE&I by admin

When I was 17 years old, I told my high school English teacher that I was going to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, an all-female historically Black college. 

“But you’ve got the grades for Dartmouth!” he said.

I knew he meant well, but I also knew Spelman was right for me.

It helped that my parents are both alums of Fisk University, and I’d seen the lifelong bonds they have with their school and classmates. Going to a historically Black college or university (HBCU) turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made—pivotal even.

For the first time in my life, I was part of the majority; most of my girlfriends, boyfriends, and professors were Black. The city of Atlanta had a large percentage of Black residents and was run by a Black mayor. My entire ecosystem was a complete opposite of where I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Now, after 27 years in corporate America, much of it in human resources, I look back on my college experience as the last time I was in the majority. As we enter Black History Month, I’d like to share some thoughts for anyone thinking about recruiting from HBCUs.

There are currently over 100 HBCUs, with the earliest founded in 1837. Many of these schools were established by ministers, church missionaries, and philanthropists, both Black and White, with the goal of providing Black Americans with an education denied to them in White institutions.

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of HBCUs. While they produce 20 percent of all Black graduates, their graduates represent 80 percent of all Black judges, 50 percent of all Black medical doctors, and 50 percent of all Black lawyers. Twenty-five percent of all Black science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates are alums of HBCUs.

MITRE is a corporate member of Advancing Minorities’ Interest in Engineering, which represents a coalition of industry, government agencies, and the 15 HBCU Schools of Engineering accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. These schools represent less than 3 percent of all the U.S. engineering schools, yet they produce more than 30 percent of our nation’s Black engineers.

So, I always find it frustrating to hear a hiring manager or recruiter say that they don’t hire from HBCUs because, “I never heard of that school; it is not a top-tier school...” or “I would, but they just don’t have the experience and skills required for this job.” All too often, that outcome leads to a once-a-year interview with one or two HBCU students.

That’s a problem. Because whether it’s accurate or not, that kind of recruitment effort gives the impression of a company paying lip service to diversity and inclusion.

Worse, if it represents the way new hires are treated once they are employees—as a “check-the-box” exercise rather than as valued team members—that bad reputation can spread well beyond individual campuses. And that can have a real impact on corporate competitiveness. After all, according to McKinsey & Company, “The business case for diversity, equity, and inclusion is stronger than ever.”

Building genuine, authentic relationships and not transactional acts is the organic way of being a true strategic partner for sustainable impact. If hiring managers or recruiters are unfamiliar with the historical relevance of HBCUs, they must do some homework to better understand the history of the schools and their purpose today. Campus tours to see the students’ lived experience, get to know the deans, and learn more about the schools’ programs and needs are a must. This may lead to collaborating on research with faculty, shaping their learning curriculum by being an executive on loan as an adjunct professor, offering meaningful projects for students and needed equipment, as well as hiring interns, and more. These relationships should be intentional with purpose, where both parties see the value.

In other words, such relationships are a more effective and authentic way of being a strategic partner.

So, if your company is genuinely committed to recruiting more Black students and others of color, then I suggest applying the same long-term, holistic relationship-building practices to HBCUs that you have with other valued schools. Admittedly, it is a long-term endeavor, but it is likely to produce ample benefits in an impactful way.

Here are a few additional recommendations that can demonstrate a meaningful commitment to recruiting students from HBCUs:

  • Ask your Black employees, and specifically your HBCU alums, to be part of the recruitment and onboarding process. Yes, this may seem obvious, but I cannot tell you how often it does not happen. Ideally, each alum becomes a liaison to the students and faculty at the HBCU to reinforce your organization’s commitment to diversity, ensure that the students’ lived experiences are understood and respected, and to consult on the best ways to be a strategic partner. It’s human nature: Students want to see that your company already hires people who look like them at various levels.
  • Introduce candidates to your employee resource groups. At MITRE, we have 10 employee resource groups that span the dimensions of diversity. If your company already has groups like these, they can truly be a resource in providing more cultural insights for interested candidates and new hires. If you don’t have such groups, create an informal buddy program for onboarding, where existing employees can act as cultural translators to new hires in their new work environment. That way, new hires who might not feel comfortable asking their manager for support can get a better sense if they’ll likely feel at home or not in a new company and community.
  • Commit to diverse internship programs. If your company doesn’t already have a robust diversity recruitment plan, you can start small. Identify one or two hiring managers who are open-minded or have visibly diverse teams and are likely to cultivate an inclusive work environment for interns of color. Internships are a great way for the organization and students to test things out and become more comfortable with one another. And when the students are ready to graduate, both the students and the organization are in a more informed place to make the decision on full-time employment.

As I’m writing this blog, I find myself looking through the “Knowledge Cards” I keep on my home desk, which highlight Black historical figures who are still far from household names.

For instance, Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman and the first Native American to hold a pilot’s license, as well as the first Black person to earn an international pilot’s license. After every American flying school refused to admit her because she was Black and a woman, she learned French in Chicago and then traveled to France, where they accepted women students.

Garrett Morgan invented the “safety hood” that was used by the Allied Forces in World War I and served as the prototype of the modern gasmask used by fire departments and emergency squads today. After witnessing a carriage accident, he also created a new kind of traffic signal—the precursor to what’s on every corner today—one with a warning light to alert drivers that they will need to stop.

Fanny Jackson Coppin was born into slavery but eventually became the first Black woman to head an institution of higher learning, as principal of the Female Department of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, a Quaker institution. Now, HBCU Coppin State University in Maryland bears her name.

The stories on these cards are part of our country’s history, and the proud legacy continues today with what so many Blacks have contributed to society and achieved in the years since. I keep them as a reminder of the resilient, smart, talented people who are so often overlooked due to just one element of what makes them human—the color of their skin.

This Black History Month, I encourage all of us to take the time to develop authentic working relationships with HBCUs, where you’ll find so many of the exceptional young Black talent of today.

This blog post provided by member Stephanie E. Turner, vice president, inclusion, diversity, and social innovation at MITRE. She has served more than 25 years championing inclusion and diversity with previous leadership roles in managing diversity and inclusion, talent acquisition, and employee engagement at Liberty Mutual Insurance, Lockheed Martin, Kaiser Permanente, ESPN, and Motorola. The Washington Business Journal named Turner to its list of Business of Pride honorees for 2021. She represents MITRE on the AMIE (Advancing Minorities’ Interest in Engineering) board of directors and sits on the advisory board for Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership. Turner earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Spelman College and a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.