RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – A diverse group of legislators came together Wednesday morning and made official a longtime dream for some of them: They announced a bipartisan HBCU Caucus to explore opportunities to enhance those institutions in North Carolina.

With 10 historically Black colleges and universities – five public and five private – North Carolina boasts more HBCUs than any state and touts them as a significant driver of not only education but also economic impact, and members of the caucus said their goal is to educate their colleagues about HBCUs and examine how lawmakers might be able to help.

Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Whitset)
State Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro)

State Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro), a longtime active contributor to higher education across North Carolina, led a group of four legislators – Rep. Zack Hawkins (D-Durham), Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Whitsett) and Sen. Carl Ford (R-Rowan) are the others – as they announced their plans during a press conference at the state legislative building.

Robinson said she and state Sen. Paul Lowe (D-Winston-Salem) and others had been working on this concept for years. She and Hawkins will serve as the group’s chairs, with Hardister and Ford as their deputies, and their announcement became very much a pep rally to display the pride for the schools from which some of them graduated and others represent.

NC A&T State University (WGHP)
NC A&T State University (WGHP)

NC A&T, with its 14,000-plus students and glossy, high-profile engineering program, is the nation’s largest state-supported HBCU, and Winston-Salem State UniversityNorth Carolina Central, Elizabeth City State and Fayetteville State also are part of the UNC System.

Venerable and historic Bennett in Greensboro, which turns 150 this year, is joined among private schools by Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, Livingstone College in Salisbury, Saint Augustine University and Shaw University in Raleigh.

Rep. Zach Hawkins (D-Durham)

“I’m a proud Aggie and Bennett Belle,” Robinson said.

“It’s a great way to follow up with an Eagle [NC Central] and a Viking [Elizabeth City State],” Hawkins said. “That’s Centennial Bowl, national champion North Carolina Central.”

Ford touted his longtime work with private Livingstone in Rowan County. “By the way, national golf champions last year,” he said. “The Bears play some mean golf.”

Hawkins said the General Assembly is “the first state legislature in the country to launch a bipartisan and bicameral HBCU caucus.”

Sen. Carl Ford (R-Rowan)

How this began

With the research and guidance from the Hunt Institute, a public policy forum created by former Gov. Jim Hunt, the group reinforced the estimated $1.7 billion in economic impact created by HBCUs and the 15,000-plus jobs they provide.

“Education is an economic driver,” Robinson said. “I have spent my entire career in support of our colleges and universities to support HBCUs.”

She cited her 10 years on the NC System Board of Governors, her role as board chair at Bennet College and her efforts during 12 years in the Senate.

“Our mission: educate and engage members of General Assembly in a bipartisan and bicameral manner … to identify ways to help,” she said.

“It was pretty clear that we need to make sure that we need to bring together our publics and our privates to talk about their successes and their futures,” Hawkins said.

Bennett College looking ahead to fall semester amid coronavirus pandemic
Bennett College in Greensboro is 150 years old this year. (WGHP)

He cited Elizabeth City as having the state’s only 4-year aviation program to train pilots. He mentioned A&T’s size and NC Central as having been the first public HBCU in the country. He touted Shaw University and St. Augustine, where St. Agnes Hospital “provided care for most African-Americans.

“In North Carolina, 44% of Black 4-year college graduates are from an HBCU,” he said.

Hardister said that “each and every one of those institutions has a unique story. Half of Black educators in North Carolina came from HBCUs. Given our teacher shortage and need for diversity in the classroom, that’s something we can focus on as we think about ways to enhance that impact.

“How can the General Assembly better invest in these schools? … Not just academics, but research and innovation?”

What’s next?

The group will have its first formal meeting next week, Robinson said, and they have drafted a mission statement and a list of ideas. But she said the creativity within the group will be important.

Winston-Salem State University (File, WGHP)
Winston-Salem State University (File, WGHP)

“Sen. Lowe and I are working on an HBCU study bill,” she said. “Hopefully, we can do it across both houses. Look not only at history but also the challenges … and, for our publics, in terms of the funding.

“Last year we finally were able to give A&T the funding it needed to match the federal money it gets for agriculture. It was in danger of losing USDA funding.”

Hawkins listed a few goals that he said started with the need “to make sure that we got policymakers highlighting the success of HBCUs … to inform our legislators. Quite a few that just don’t know.

“Second is to draft legislation. Everyone of course probably has a million ideas. Small initiatives to help with infrastructure on campus. We need to put our collective ideas together.

State Sen. Paul Lowe (D-Winston-Salem)

“Third, how they connect to the economy. Maximize relationships and ensure we have direct engagement. How can we help HBCUs to have lobby days and come down to the legislature… to present to this body of legislators?

“We want to do that first, just for blocking and tackling purposes. This will not be the last thing we do.”

Hardister said the GOP majority fully supports this idea, citing how lawmakers had spent federal COVID relief dollars in a manner that was “weighted for HBCUs. … My colleagues support an increase in the dollar amount for need-based scholarships.”

Rep. Deb Butler (D-Wilmington): “One of the great things about this body is the breadth of its diversity. We all are the fabric of North Carolina. I’m excited to see a community get behind and polish the gem that is the HBCUs.”

Said Lowe: “We are the bright light as it relates to HBCUs, and we want to do all the work that we can.”