PrezLez Opinion: History Being Made for HBCUs and MSIs in Historic Philadelphia

With the 2016 Democratic National Convention officially underway in historic Philadelphia, PA, meeting site for the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, tremendous attention is being paid to the pundits, protesters, politicos, and side shows leading up to the historic nomination of the first female major American political Party standard bearer and nominee for the President of the United States of America. Amidst this exciting display of American democracy at its best, we must not focus on the people and the pageantry to the exclusion of the Party platform and planks.  Under the leadership of Congressman Elijah Cummings (MD-7), a richly diverse group of Democrats with divergent views on a range of policies, debated, thrashed out, and reached consensus on the 2016 Democratic Party Platform. The Party Platform and its planks are in some regards as important to the future of this nation as the person who will be the Party standard bearer.

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The Party Platform provides the Democratic Party candidate for President of the United States, and Democrats who will stand for elective office across the nation between now and 2020, clear policy positions on which to campaign and lead if elected. It provides voters a clear sense of what matters most to the Party, how Democrats will address the most pressing issues and how they will pay for the policies. The Platform established a blueprint for Democrats in elective office to shape and fund priorities and programs.

The 2016 Democratic Party Platform is of itself, historic in many regards. I am writing to draw attention to the education Platform planks that establish the vision of American Education closer to an America in which all Americans have a right to a public education of equal high quality regardless of their zip code, and an opportunity to attain a postsecondary education devoid of funding as a barrier. The Platform’s education planks establish a vision of an America in which “every student should be able to go to college debt-free, and working families should not have to pay any tuition to go to public colleges and universities.”  The Platform commits to making:

“….community college free, while ensuring the strength of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions. The federal government will push more colleges and universities to take quantifiable, affirmative steps in increasing the
 percentages of racial and ethnic minority, low-income, and first-generation students they enroll and graduate. Achieving these goals depends on state and federal investment in both students and their teachers. Whether full-time or adjunct, faculty must be supported to make transformative educational experiences possible.”

While delineating measures Democrats will take to make college affordable for future students, the 2016 Platform also includes important measures Democrats will champion to relieve millions of current borrowers from the burdens of unsustainable levels of student debt.

The crown jewel in the 2016 Democratic Party Platform is that for the first time in the two decades in which I have been involved in shaping Party platforms, the Platform recognizes in actionable ways, the shifting of the higher education landscape and the fact that America will not reach important education, economic, entrepreneurship, sustainability, security or justice goals without strong Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-serving Institutions. The Party acknowledged the importance of HBCUs and MSIs in years past to be sure, but this year, there was an historic shift in the narrative that should bode well for these institutions and their core constituents.

The 2016 Democratic Party Platform narrative relative to HBCUs and MSIs shifts from    strengthening and making them more competitive, to also acknowledging their strengths, their successes in educating and graduating disproportionate percentages of the growing populations of this nation in high- and critical-need disciplines and their centrality to a thriving nation and to undergirding the best American values:

“We will strengthen our nation’s public and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Predominantly Black Institutions, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions, [and] Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions…. Many of these schools educate disproportionate percentages of growing populations of Americans: students who are racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, and first-generation students. As the nation is grappling with how to expand educational access and increase success, especially for communities of color and low-income students and families, there is evidence that the nation’s HBCUs and Minority Serving Institutions have honed promising models for educating these students to prepare them for high- and critical-need positions while containing costs. We will create a robust and historic dedicated fund to keep costs down, provide quality education, and ensure dedicated support for students at these schools, as well as other students across the country, by restoring year-round Pell funding so that low- and middle-income students from all backgrounds can get the support they need to make progress toward a college degree throughout the year.”

Americans who believe in the richness of the diversity of American higher education options and who understand that America cannot realize its 2020 goal of having 60% of Americans with a 2- or 4-year certificate or degree without thriving institutions that are graduating the lion’s share of the growing populations must celebrate this historic platform and put in place people who will pledge fealty to the education planks in general and the HBCU and MSIs planks in particular. The students, families, administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, friends and supporters of public and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Predominantly Black Institutions, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions, and Native American-Serving Non-tribal Institutions, and those who are beneficiaries of their services and their excellent alumni– whose education is grounded in the best of the “salsa, soul, and spirit” (Juana Bordas), the “something extra” they offer to the world– must mobilize and deliver the vote for candidates who will run on and support these and related planks.

Lezli Baskerville, Esquire
President & CEO
National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO)

(NAFEO was privileged to work with Dr. David Wilson, President of Morgan State University a NAFEO Member, members of the Platform Committee and staff in shaping and advancing the planks we submitted. We offered identical packages of planks to both major and third party platform committees for consideration.)