When John Moseley, the president of Lincoln University, recently discussed his vision of the Missouri institution with a local newspaper, he described the college as having dual identities. He noted that it’s a historically Black university, founded by Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, that draws Black students from a handful of major metropolitan areas around the country. He also described it as a “regional” university rooted in central Missouri, a predominantly white area, which has led to a student body that is about 40 percent white.
The description of Lincoln as a “regional” institution with a double role rubbed Sherman Bonds, the president of the Lincoln University National Alumni Association, the wrong way and chafed against his own perception of his alma mater. He wrote an essay in response titled “A Framework for Collective Dialogue,” voicing concern about the president’s emphasis on recruiting students from the region and arguing that it minimized the university’s legacy as a historically Black university and its broad national appeal.
“The tone of the narrative was perplexing,” Bonds wrote in the essay this month. “It presented the African American ‘space’ as a renegotiable platform that could be reduced to the status of a regional college, which diminishes the institution’s national and international prominence.” Bond called the comparison to a regional college “an insult.”
He said he got positive feedback on the essay from fellow alumni via email and on social media. But he fears his commentary may have been misunderstood by local media after an article in the News Tribune implied he and Moseley don’t “see eye to eye” on the university’s identity. He doesn’t consider himself to be at odds with the president, but he believes they have a difference in perspective. While he sees nothing wrong with the university continuing to enroll large percentages of local white students, he disagrees with the notion that drawing these students gives Lincoln a second mission or identity.
“It doesn’t affect the identity of the institution,” he said. “You recruit from wherever you want to recruit from and whoever you get to come … The institution is a historical Black college and university founded by the 62nd and 65th Colored Infantries. That doesn’t change. It’s a Black university—and you’re welcome to come.”
For his part, Moseley believes Lincoln’s diversity does create dual identities that can co-exist.
“There are those, primarily from the metro areas, who choose Lincoln because we are an HBCU and they’re looking for the traditional HBCU experience, which I have a vast amount of appreciation for,” Moseley, who is white, said in an interview. “But for us, there’s also a number of commuter students from all races that attend the institution because of our value, our affordability, the quality of education that they receive and the fact that it is close to their home, so it comes at even greater cost savings for the student.”
Bonds says the marketing of the university should focus on its history as one of the oldest HBCUs in the country and its national reputation, an approach he believes naturally “encompasses the region” but doesn’t characterize the university as a central Missouri–serving institution.
“To suggest we need to lift up the region as an identity crisis is, to me, unnecessary,” he said.
Rhonda Chalfant, chair of the education committee of the Missouri NAACP and vice president of the Sedalia chapter, said the state’s and region’s fraught racial history, especially in terms of educational opportunities, is a relevant backdrop of the current discussions about Lincoln.
She noted that prior to desegregation, school districts were either required to have a Black school if there were at least 20 Black children in the district or to bus thoe students to the nearest Black school. In practice, educational opportunities for Black children varied widely depending on where they lived, she said.
“Some towns were willing to provide elementary education but not high school education,” she said. “Some towns were willing to provide vocational education but nothing else to their Black students. Some towns simply didn’t provide education at all.”
Meanwhile, Black students had to fight for admission to universities in the state. For example, a Black prospective student sued the University of Missouri to attend its law school in the 1930s. He ultimately won his case in the U.S. Supreme Court but disappeared shortly after and is believed to have been killed.
“There’s this long history of racism on the part of the white schools and the white colleges,” said Chalfant, who is white. “And Lincoln University filled a large gap there by … being designed to cater to African Americans.”
The identity of HBCUs is a perennial point of debate among HBCU administrators, scholars, alumni and students, as well as those outside the bubble of Black colleges. As the student populations at these institutions grow more racially and ethnically diverse, more questions are being raised about the legacy and future of the institutions.
Non-Black students made up 24 percent of enrollment at HBCUs in 2020, compared to 15 percent in 1976, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The book A Primer on Minority-Serving Institutions (Routledge, 2019) notes that about a quarter of HBCU faculty members are white. High-profile hires of white administrators at HBCUs have also caused tensions on campuses and led to difficult conversations about whether the institution’s public image matches its historic mission to serve Black students.
Robert Palmer, professor and chair of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C., said the “bifurcated mission” at Lincoln touches on larger questions about identity at HBCUs that are attracting high numbers of non-Black students.
HBCUs experienced a jump in Black enrollment after the killing of George Floyd triggered nationwide protests and increased focus on social inequities and racial injustice. Black students turned to these institutions for a sense of safety and community. But many of the institutions were experiencing enrollment declines prior to that incident, prompting some HBCU leaders to recruit non-Black students, Palmer said. He noted that more HBCUs now feature photos of non-Black students on their websites and in their marketing materials.
HBCUs “have never excluded students from other racial and ethnic groups, but they were founded with the intent of providing education, access and support for Black students, and that’s still the primary mission,” he said. “I think there are a lot of stakeholders who are Black who would fear that when the institution becomes increasingly racially, ethnically diverse, what does that mean for the institution? Does it mean that the safe space that Black folks have known at an HBCU will dissipate, will become diluted? I think there’s a lot of concern and fear when those racial dynamics are kind of played out. It’s kind of like, well, whose territory is this?”
Palmer noted that when white administrators are hired to lead HBCUs, it can heighten concerns among Black students and alumni. But regardless of who’s at the helm, he believes these are discussions HBCUs should be having on their campuses as they diversify.
“How do we still maintain that mission of being an HBCU, because that is important, but being inclusive of all students?” he said. “Those are really sensitive and delicate conversations.”
White students sometimes choose HBCUs over predominantly white institutions “for reasons of access, affordability, and specific program offerings that their local PWI [predominantly white institution] might not have,” Andrew T. Arroyo, assistant vice provost for academic programs and associate professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, wrote in an email. Arroyo, who is white, previously taught at two HBCUs, Norfolk State University and Hampton University, and has conducted research on the presence of white students and faculty at HBCUs.
He noted that, unlike other kinds of minority-serving institutions, HBCU status doesn’t depend on percentages of Black students. It’s a historic federal designation, which means “history and tradition are crucial” to these institutions, and they’re also a limited resource. More of them can’t be created.
“For that reason, it is understandable why some stakeholders and advocates would push strenuously for the highest percentage of Black enrollment possible, and to hold on to history and tradition,” he said. “At the same time, it is also understandable why HBCU stakeholders would want to enlarge their tent. HBCUs are a gift. They tend to offer a distinctive educational experience, and passing more students of all races and backgrounds through their halls will both improve their bottom line and, more importantly, improve society.”
From Moseley’s perspective, explicitly recruiting from the surrounding region is a practical and fiscally prudent response to more than a decade of enrollment declines. The university had 3,975 students at its peak in 1994; it had just 1,854 students as of spring 2022. From 1960 to 2017, the student body was majority white, in part because of the closure of Jefferson City Community College in 1960, Moseley said. Jefferson City, where Lincoln is located, is 75 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“When you look at enrollment, if we did not have local students, the university wouldn’t have enough students to exist. So then, the soldiers’ dream dies out completely,” he said, referring to the university’s founders.
He believes the university needs to openly recruit commuter students, who are mostly going to be white, and said other HBCUs in rural parts of the country are likely in similar positions. For example, West Virginia State University is a historically Black institution with a student population that was more than 72 percent white in fall 2020, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Bluefield State College, also an HBCU in West Virginia, reported about 77 percent of students were white in fall 2021.
Darius Watson, former chair of the Faculty Senate and interim dean of admissions and enrollment at Lincoln, said there’s a “friction” between “the HBCU concept when it was originally formed versus the environment that HBCUs need to operate in today.”
“It’s a business model that was designed for a closed market,” he said. “When HBCUs were created, African Americans didn’t have other options.” Lincoln and other HBCUs are asking themselves, “How do you promote a singular identity within a market system that requires you to engage and recruit beyond that identity?”
He said well-known HBCUs, such as Howard University and Spelman College, may not need to reach beyond Black communities to stay economically viable, “but at institutions like this one, economic survival requires that we engage market opportunities beyond those that we were originally built for,” he said. “It’s a dilemma a century in the making—more than a century.”
Watson said he regularly hears from alumni concerned about the racial composition of the student body.
Moseley also recognizes that his presence as a white president, a rarity in the HBCU world, likely amplifies people’s worries that the institution is shifting away from its mission. He wants to reassure students and alumni that recruiting locally, and describing Lincoln as having a regional identity, “doesn’t change the fact that we’re a historically Black college,” he said. “That doesn’t change the fact that students looking for that experience are provided that experience.”
He believes students of all backgrounds can benefit from the hallmarks of an HBCU education, including a “sense of family” and a “sense of obligation that when a student arrives on your campus, you have to help them achieve their education, because it’s not only going to change their life, but it’s going to change the lives of generations after them.”
Chalfant, of the NAACP, worries that the changing demographics at Lincoln could affect the pedagogy and curricula taught at the institution, especially in history classes.
“If Lincoln is 40 percent white, the balance has shifted, and many of the teachers will begin catering to the white students, and they’ll shift the way in which they teach and the focus of their education, and I see that as problematic,” she said. “White students tend to be very upset when racism is pointed out in history classes. I can foresee teachers being told to downplay certain aspects of history as to not offend the white students. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I can foresee that it probably will.”
Moseley said embracing a regional focus doesn’t mean neglecting the institution’s past.
“It’s my expectation that every student that attends our institution learns and understands why this institution was ever created,” he added. “Its initial mission was to provide an education for free African Americans who were former slaves.
“We celebrate Black excellence,” he added. “We want our students of color to know this is a space where they can feel comfortable being themselves … We don’t shy away from that one bit.”