This week the country marked National HBCU Week to recognize the accomplishments of historically black colleges and universities throughout the United States.
Earlier this month, leaders from the country’s 101 HBCUs convened in Washington, D.C. for the annual National HBCU Conference, where they spoke to Congress of the ongoing importance of HBCUs, and where President Donald Trump announced that religiously affiliated HBCUs would now receive full federal funding.
“Previously, federal law restricted more than 40 faith-based HBCUs and seminaries from fully accessing federal support for capital improvement projects. This meant that your faith-based institutions, which have made such extraordinary contributions to America, were unfairly punished for their religious beliefs,” Trump said in his Sept. 10 address to the conference.
"This week, our Department of Justice has published an opinion declaring such discriminatory restrictions as unconstitutional. It was a big step. And from now on, faith-based HBCUs will enjoy equal access to federal support," Trump added.
Among the leaders present was President Reynold Verret of Xavier University of Louisiana, the only Catholic historically black college or university in the United States.
In his testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, Verret emphasized the “critical role” of HBCUs in education.
Verret told CNA that in his testimony, he emphasized that as the U.S. grows in diversity, “the majority of our talents will be black and brown. And if we fail to cultivate that talent, we will actually do ourselves a great damage,” he said.
Students are not always fortunate enough to attend good schools, he added, and if black talents, such as those of Dr. Ben Carson, are not fostered, they will be lost. Carson was a prominent pediatric neurosurgeon before his run for president in 2016 and his current position as U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary,
Speaking about Xavier in particular, Verret said that the faculty encourages their students to consider the needs of their communities and their country when choosing their majors.
“The education of the student at Xavier or at a school like ourselves, it's not just a benefit to that individual student, but a benefit to the larger community that he is contributing to, and to the nation,” Verret said.
The notion of putting one’s talents at the service of another is a critical part of Xavier University’s Catholic foundation, Verret added.
“It's very much in our legacy at Xavier, that that expectation of contributing to more than just me...and we speak of that to our students,” he said. “That the majors that they engage in, whether it's preparing for medicine, preparing for law, or becoming a major artist, will only have meaning when they put it in service of people. It's not so much about my BMW, or my salary.”
The seeds of Xavier University were planted by then-Mother Katherine Drexel in 1915, when she and her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament founded schools to serve Native American and African American populations throughout the United States, including a Catholic secondary school for African-Americans in Louisiana.
By 1917, she also established a preparatory school for teachers, one of the few career tracks available to Black Americans at the time. A few years later, that school was able to offer other degrees as well, and became a full-fledged university in 1925.
In a sense, Verret said, Mother Katherine “rescued the Church from herself” at the time, because she opened an institution where students of all colors were welcome. Xavier University was also the first Catholic university where men and women studied together, he added.
The spirit of Mother Katherine, now St. Katherine Drexel, and her mission to provide a quality education to those in need is still foundational to the mission of Xavier today, Verret said.
“Mother Katherine, when she came here with her sisters in 1915...she had in her mind those who needed an education,” Verret said. “...and every 15 years, maybe even 25 years, we look at ourselves and say - who else needs our service? If Mother Katherine was beginning today, she would have others on her list as well, because this is our mission.”
When it comes to academic performance, Xavier is a school that “is punching above our weight,” Verret said.
Though the school enrolls only 3,000-some students, Xavier ranks first in the country for the number of black graduates who will go on to complete medical school, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
It is also ranked among the nation's top four colleges of pharmacy in graduating African Americans with Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm D) degrees, and is number one in the nation in awarding bachelor's degrees to African American students in the biological and biomedical sciences, the physical sciences, and physics, and number three in the nation for the number of African American graduates who go on to earn a Ph.D. in science and engineering fields.
Verret said that Xavier’s achievements show the important role that smaller, specialized colleges, such as HBCUs, or women’s colleges, or other religiously-affiliated colleges, can play in American higher education.
“That diversity of education (options) to satisfy young people’s needs is important to us, and HBCUs are one part of that landscape.”
HBCUs were founded at a time where it was illegal for black students to attend other institutions of higher education, and so they catered to black students out of necessity. Xavier is still predominately black, Verret said, but it always has been and continues to be accepting of students of all ethnicities and creeds, which was something Mother Katherine anticipated.
“We have an important reservoir of experience and knowledge and intuition about what America should become, which came from the children and descendants of former slaves,” Verret said, but students of all races and creeds are able to receive a good education at Xavier.
Among the other ethnicities at Xavier are a large group of Vietnamese students, as well as students from Iraq who came to the United States during the Iraq war, Verret said. More than 71 percent of Xavier students are African American, while just 19 percent are Catholic, in large part because African Americans in the south are primarily from Protestant or Evangelical ecclesial communities, Verret said.
Still, Verret said, it is important to have HBCUs as predominately black institutions, where black students who are still a minority in this country can go and not feel like they stand out.
Speaking from his own experience as a young college student, Verret said that HBCUs offer students a place where their race is “not an issue.”
“I’m not the representative (of blacks or African Americans). I am the editor of the school newspaper. I am one of the members of the chemistry club, I’m not the black member of the chemistry club,” he said. “It’s a certain freedom that many whites in the United States cannot understand because they're not experiencing that.”
As for it’s Catholic identity, Verret said the school has a strong sense of Catholic service and social justice engrained into its mission.
As one example of service, Verret said that every year, student deans and other peer leaders volunteer their time to help move in new students on campus. When asked why they did so, Verret said one of the student leaders told him: “So that they'll know next year, it’s their turn.”
The school’s sense of service can be seen in its mission statement, which notes: “The ultimate purpose of the University is to contribute to the promotion of a more just and humane society by preparing its students to assume roles of leadership and service in a global society.”
Another example of the school’s Catholic mission, Verret said, is in its spirit of camaraderie and solidarity in its successful pre-med program. Often schools will try to scare off medical or pre-medical students by telling them: “Look to your right and look to your left. One of you won’t be here (by the end),” Verret said.
“That notion, that doesn’t exist at Xavier. We gather and pull each other so that we should all go cross that finish line together.”
Enrollment is back up at Xavier after a couple of years of decline following Hurricane Katrina, Verret noted, and the way that the school, as well as other HBCUs, will preserve their legacy is by “telling their stories” and telling of their current successes, Verret said.
“The other HBCUs are of very different sizes and very different complexions. But at the same time, what I can say is the uniting theme is that they continue to educate and graduate students who go on and are at the core of what America needs to be.”