HBCU Presidents Sit To Discuss COVID, Social Justice And Other Topics

The presidents of four HBCU schools came together Thursday to discuss the issues affecting HBCUs today at a roundtable event presented by FedEx.

The event, Reflect. Listen. Act.: A Conversation with HBCU Presidents was presented by FedEx and included the presidents of Tennesee State University (TSU), Jackson State University (JSU), Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU), and LeMoyne-Owen College. The roundtable was hosted by Chris Winton, the senior vice president of human resources for FedEx Ground.

Here are some of the highlights.

COVID and Mental Health

The first topic of the roundtable was the COVID-19 pandemic which has upended the academic world for both teachers and students. According to Winton, a study by the Health Minds Network found that depression among college students has increased since schools closed due to the virus.

MVSU President Dr. Jerryl Briggs Sr. discussed how the university is helping its students deal with the pandemic and mental health issues.

“The mental health issue is something that is not talked about enough and really doesn’t express the impact it had on our students,” Briggs said. “They’ve really had to adjust to understanding that life is different because of the pandemic. Life is different at home, life is different as far as how they took their classes. All that had a tremendous impact on their mental health, and I think all of us saw that in our students.”

Briggs added that the double-edged sword of the coronavirus and the drastic change in education had pushed MVSU to expand mental health services and counseling at the HBCU.

TSU President Dr. Glenda Baskin Glover agreed with Briggs and added that today it’s easier for people to ask for help without judgment.

“Many of us had to bring on additional counselors because we know COVID has had various effects on our students,” Glover said at the roundtable. “Fortunately, we live in an age now where it’s OK to say I have an issue, it’s OK to say I need to see a therapist. At one time, students hid behind the fact that there was some stigma in saying I need some assistance, but not we encourage students to come forward.”

Navigating The Financial Hardships Created By COVID

Winton asked each president how they’ve been able to make it through the financial hardships COVID has created and how each school is still pushing to give its students the tools and knowledge they were seeking.

LeMoyne-Owen College president Dr. Vernell Bennett-Fairs said one of the ways her HBCU has been able to keep moving forward is through partnerships the college has.

“We’ve had to become very strategic, we’ve had to create partnerships and collaborations across the campus and within the community,” Bennett-Fairs said. “We’ve also partnered with the city (Memphis) and with federal agencies. FedEx and other large corporations have also been very supportive. The gift from FedEx Cares is one that will impact us immediately and long term. The support system that their providing for our career services will impact our campus long after COVID-19 is gone.”

Briggs talked about the partnerships that MVSU has and what these partnerships mean to HBCU students and staff.

“I think the impact had been tremendous, because for one, overall, it shows that you care,” Briggs said. “You care about our institutions, and more importantly, you care about our students, and that is something that is valued. It’s allowing us to help our students who’ve had to navigate through some of those financial challenges, so those partnerships show support but also that you care about who we are and what we do.”

Social Unrest

In addition to the pandemic, last summer saw the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Those same HBCU presidents and faculty who marched in the 1960s got to see the next generation continue the fight for freedom and civil rights, and it meant a lot to them.

“Students started this movement years ago at the lunch counters; movements are led by students,” TSU President Dr. Glenda Baskin Glover said. “I think what’s special about this is about the role HBCUs play in this social unrest. It has solidified the need for HBCUs. It’s time to really sit down with HBCU leaders and talk and see what we can do from an HBCU standpoint to assist this community.”

JSU President Thomas Hudson added that this movement was different from the 1960s movement because it was seen across the country and the world.

“It was visual, which was the difference between what we’ve experienced over the last couple years versus maybe the last 20 or 30 years,” Hudson said. “Last summer was a visual reminder of where we are as a society. Our students were greatly affected by it, and you add in the pandemic, it was really important for our students to be a part of the movement that took place.”

The roundtable also discussed the partnership between the four HBCU schools and NASCAR, the future of HBCUs. The groups also discussed the new awareness around HBCU schools due to Black politicians, including Vice President Kamala Harris.


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