Xavier University in Louisiana, one of the nation’s 99 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU), was recently awarded $20 million — the largest endowment in the school’s history — from an anonymous donor. As private wealthy donors signify an unprecedented push to support HBCUs’ growing needs, PwC (DiversityInc Hall of Fame) has outlined its continued commitment to these institutions. Rod Adams, PwC U.S. and Mexico Talent Acquisition Leader and Dr. Reynold Verret, Xavier University President spoke with Carolynn Johnson, DiversityInc’s CEO about the importance of investing in HBCUs.
The Power of HBCUs
Johnson, who sat on the boards of Bennett College and Howard University, led into the conversation with the issue of systemic racism, especially in light of recent protests against police killings of unarmed Black citizens, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic having disproportionate negative effects on Black and Brown communities. She suggested the desire to achieve justice for communities of color may be fueling donations to these institutions.
“We’ve seen firsthand how global shocks like COVID-19 has had on Black and Brown people, in particular, and not just from loss-of-life perspective, but also from a widening-of-the-wealth-gap perspective. And so that, coupled with the murders that led to civil unrest, people can draw their own conclusions about why large contributions from private donors similar to what you received are on the rise,” Johnson said.
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HBCUs provide valuable education experiences for Black students who often find themselves greatly outnumbered at predominantly white institutions (PWI). Dr. Verret said aside from the benefits of self-discovery and community, HBCUs provide students with academic challenges that help them discover their strengths and weaknesses in a supportive environment. HBCUs foster the success of Black students who often go on to be doctors, lawyers and other professionals who have the potential to change systems of injustice.
“I do credit that individuals will turn their gaze to HBCUs,” Dr. Verret said. “I give [donors] credit for understanding the impact of their gift to ourselves. Even as I say, we educate more African American physicians. We send significant numbers of doctors, lawyers and federal judges from Xavier … we’ve been helping to build the American society in significant ways.”
Corporations and Colleges Advocating for Systemic Change
Another effort many HBCUs and corporations have made to advocate for systemic change is the CEO Action Pledge. In 2017, PwC’s CEO Tim Ryan co-created the pledge, which focuses on dedication to diversity and inclusion in the corporate world. Other founders of the pledge include leaders from Accenture (No. 5 on 2020 DiversityInc Top Companies for Diversity list), BCG, Deloitte US, The Executive Leadership Council, EY (DiversityInc Hall of Fame), General Atlantic, KPMG (No. 12), New York Life and P&G.
“We needed to bring CEOs together because together we can have more impact than by ourselves,” Adams said.
Xavier University has also signed the pledge. “We actually felt it was something that we could and really should engage in,” Dr. Verret said. “[The pledge] was a recommitment of making industry — the corporate sector — see itself as an important contributor in shaping our nation, not just in an economic point-of-view or just from a financial point-of-view, but also … the well-being of society, in general.”
The Successes of HBCUs
Johnson and Verret also discussed the metaphor of punching outside of one’s weight class and the reality of how many HBCUs, despite being underfunded, under-resourced and undervalued, have served talented graduates who go on to contribute to the working world with the same levels of success as students from PWIs. In fact, HBCUs were the highest producers of STEM students who went on to earn Ph.D.s, according to a study by the National Science Foundation.
“Corporations like PwC and others should … not have a view of or undervalue black talent if they’re racializing their thinking,” Johnson said. In reality, Black students come out of HBCUs with the same — or better — career preparedness as students who graduate from PWIs.
“It is important for any enterprise to have a diverse workforce,” Dr. Verret said. “Briefly, here’s the ‘why’: Because to be able to serve the client base that you wish to serve, in a very broad client base — not just in this nation, but internationally — people can engage and serve people who are very different, or have very different needs and perspectives than you. And to be able to earn their respect, you’ve got to believe that you need a diversified workforce.”
Tapping into HBCUs to Build Diverse Talent Pipelines
PwC’s commitment to HBCUs is informed by the fact that diversified workforces benefit business and society. Investing in young talent attending HBCUs helps build a diverse talent pipeline that will ultimately advance within the company.
“What we are hoping to accomplish in the corporate world with CEO Action — you know, more awareness, building better inclusive leadership skills — we got to do the same thing at the college level. In my mind, if we can do more there and start there as professionals in our corporate America, they will already have a better mindset,” Adams said.
Some of the actions PwC has taken to support HBCUs include sending recruiters to these institutions, listening to professors’ and students’ needs and working to fulfill them with trainings, grants and other resources. In May 2019, PwC held its first HBCU Faculty summit to listen to the challenges HBCUs face. Adams said as a result of that event, PwC donated $10,000 to 28 HBCUs to help them obtain technological resources for students. In the future, Adams said, PwC will be looking into aiding HBCUs in curriculum development.
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In the technology space, PwC has also made its internal digital upskilling resources available to faculty from 26 HBCUs. To help support students, PwC offers scholarships. Additionally, its Start internship program, although not HBCU-specific, focuses on building up students from underrepresented communities.
“It’s incredibly competitive to find this talent,” Adams said. “So we want to identify them early, introduce them to the firm,” Adams said. He added that this past summer, the program accepted 700 students.
Ultimately, Dr. Verret said investing in underrepresented talent through HBCUs will help dismantle racist systems that do not value Black and Brown communities’ contributions.
“We have to actually begin to interrogate how our notions of race, our notions of who is valued and who is not valued came to be,” he said. “There’s a lot of truth-telling that has to be taught. I think these universities have a lot of power.”