It is fair to say that the power of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, to change lives is imprinted in my DNA. 

Both my parents graduated from Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta and were very active in the college scene. Growing up, I spent a lot of time at the Atlanta University Center, Clark College and various other HBCU campuses attended by my siblings and relatives. I have written two books about historically black colleges and universities and worked at several, in addition to working at predominately white institutions.

So, when I saw a notice that the University of Utah was hiring an inaugural manager for its HBCU Partnership Program, I felt as though I had written the job description! It described a perfect blending of my experiences and called for someone with a special ability to engage in outreach to the HBCU community.

There are more than 100 HBCUs across the country and in the Virgin Islands, enrolling some 300,000 students. Nearly 50,000 degrees are awarded annually by these schools, with 70% of those bachelor’s degrees. But these schools have often been cut off from other institutions and academic networks, creating a barrier and a good deal of untapped potential. The hope of the U.’s partnership is that it will help us recruit, retain and promote diverse talent at the U. and in our local community — while also benefiting our HBCU partners by connecting them to our networks. And, as the first partnership of its kind in higher education, what we achieve here could be a model in the future for other predominately white institutions.

Related
University of Utah, US Air Force strike historic education partnership

The public has become more aware of HBCUs and the excellent education they provide in recent years, though they have been around since before the Civil War — beginning with the establishment of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1854. Founded originally to educate Black students, HBCUs now enroll students of all races. HBCUs include schools such as Morehouse College, which has been the largest producer of African American men receiving doctorates, and institutions like Fisk University, the alma mater of W.E.B. Du Bois, Nikki Giovanni and civil rights activist John Lewis. Xavier University in Louisiana has produced the most African Americans who seek medical degrees for the past 20 to 30 years.

And they’ve achieved this excellence in education with comparatively fewer resources than their predominately white institution counterparts. There’s something unique about these institutions and their students that I think our majority institutions — be it colleges and universities or the corporate community — could really learn from.

There was an early recognition of that by University of Utah President Taylor Randall, who launched the HBCU Partnership Program in 2020 while dean of the David Eccles School of Business. Randall had developed a professional connection with Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, and these leaders saw that forging a relationship between a top-tier HBCU and a top-tier research institution would accrue great benefits on both sides. 

Initially, the relationship focused on arranging summer internships for Howard University students with Utah businesses. The program is now overseen by Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the U and its scope and number of partners has grown.

Related
New alliance seeks to boost number, diversity of U. graduates

We are enriching students’ academic experiences through collaborative research, faculty/student exchanges and access to advanced degrees. In addition to business, programs have started in pathology, applied radiation therapy, genomic research, surgery and anesthesiology. Partner institutions now include Morgan State University, Morehouse College, Alcorn State, North Carolina A&T State University and an upcoming collaboration with Florida A&M University.

And there is more expansion coming, including partnerships between the U. and HBCUs in the areas of biomed and cancer research and, in the future, engineering, education and possibly law. 

A key component of the partnership program continues to be expanded cultural perspectives of students as they engage in genuine and authentic interactions. That benefit extends to local communities, too. Many HBCU students would never have considered spending time in Salt Lake City were it not for this partnership. It allows them to say, “Hey, you know, I’m here for the summer doing research and you know what? This is an all right city, an all right community, a community I may want to be part of.”

Rodney T. Cohen is the inaugural manager of the HBCU Partnership Program at the University of Utah.