‘America Needs Us’: A Conversation With Xavier University President On How HBCUs Are Preparing Students For The Future Of Work

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The Plug hosted a live discussion with Xavier University President Reynold Verret about how HBCUs are preparing students for the future of work. “America needs us. America needs these students that we are educating. If America is now becoming majority-minority, the talent that the United States needs to become and remain what it wishes to be, is among those young people,” Verret said, going into detail on how he measures the success of Xavier’s corporate partnerships and how to make sure they are impactful for students.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Mirtha Donastorg: I want to start off by acknowledging Hurricane Ida and everything that happened in New Orleans, and I was wondering how the Xavier community is doing?


Reynold Verret, President of Xavier University: Many of the students went home and those who remained on campus, we moved them to Dallas. But we returned within 10 days and began to bring the students back on campus. We have some buildings that were damaged, some spaces that we have moved faculty and classes out of while the repairs are being made, but it is not an unmanageable crisis right now. As we say, in our prayers of thanksgiving, that the levees held, we were not flooded.


MD: Oh that’s great! So, I want to jump into this conversation about the future of work. As we have seen with the pandemic, people having to work from home may have accelerated the shift that we’re seeing towards more technological jobs. And McKinsey estimates that about 42 percent of the Black labor force have jobs that are going to be disrupted in the next 10 years. How do you think HBCUs will be able to help those workers whose jobs are going to be disrupted?


RV: The effect on students in colleges versus students who will go into professions that do not require a college education will be somewhat different. One of the pieces that’s important to us is that we’ve always educated students to be very flexible and very plastic in how they apply their majors. The analytical skills that a physicist or chemist brings can be adaptable to many things. Likewise, the analytical skills that someone may have learned in the social sciences are adaptable to many things. It’s the ability to think deeply and think well, which will be the tools that we’re providing them. Therefore, it is important that we educate them and push them at the highest level so that they develop their capacities.


MD: Do you think that HBCUs are uniquely positioned among two-year and four-year colleges in this country, to educate people and prepare them for the future of work?


RV: I think they are. And really, the central thing is about the cultivation of faculty with the capacity and passion to work with these students and to expect much of them. I think the key element, for example, the success we have at Xavier in sending more students to medical school or the fact that we send more African Americans into PhD programs in the sciences, is about the commitment of faculty, but also the fact that faculty expect much of them and push them hard. At the same time, the faculty do not say, “I’m pushing you, but then do it on your own.” They are walking with them and journeying with them.


MD: Especially since last summer, there seems to have been an influx of corporate partnerships with HBCUs. What impact do you think these partnerships have on getting students career ready?


RV: From one perspective, what they do create are opportunities for students to actually practice their fields as interns, to create options for students to actually develop their skills within corporate settings. That’s part of the practical experience that we encourage our students to have. So they are opening those opportunities and also opening up students to certain fields and possibilities that they may not have considered. 

Some of those partnerships have been to collaborate and expand our programs, whether they are in finance or in computer science or even fundamental engineering. So those collaborators are very important. The other important piece is that some of these partnerships have created scholarship opportunities for students. Many of our students have low socio-economic resources; they are making it possible for that talent to go to school. 

We are truly acting as partners in that we are recognizing an important need for the country. America needs us. America needs these students that we are educating. If America is now becoming majority-minority, the talent that the United States needs to become and remain what it wishes to be, is among those young people. We’re educating a significant number of those people and our success is quite impressive.


MD: That’s something that is key with HBCUs, right. HBCUs are about 3 percent of four-year colleges, but they educate anywhere between 17 to 20 percent of Black undergraduate students in the U.S. and often do a much better job graduating those students than when they go to a non-HBCU. So, what you were saying, the U.S. is going to become majority-minority, and HBCUs are doing the bulk of educating Black students. It is very important that corporations are looking at them for talent in the future.

How exactly do you measure success or impact from your corporate partnerships?


RV: Using both qualitative and quantitative analysis. For example, are some of the students pursuing these careers? We have to consider students’ satisfaction and also the mentoring that students receive in the workplace, that’s very important in preparing them for the next steps in their career.


MD: What do you want executives and recruiters and people who are looking for talent at these organizations to know about Xavier and HBCUs?


RV: One of the essentials that we find among our partners that I would ask of anyone who would like to partner with us is a commitment to the development and success of our students long-term. Really being partners in the development of these young people for their full potential. That is important. We welcome partners who can engage with us, even expanding the programs, the offerings and helping us think of things that our programs could be enriched with. We’re quite humble in being able to listen to good ideas. The other piece is that we would love partners who can come onto the campus and also share their thoughts and be present to our students so they can actually think of the possibilities with their corporations.


MD: Do you think these corporate partnerships play an important role in the future of work and preparing students for what may come?


RV: Yes, I do. And I would also acknowledge that many of our corporate partners at this point are like us. We’re all thinking, “Exactly what will work look like?” Work has a very clear answer right now. As technology methods and means of production change, work will change and we will co-evolve. So that conversation between higher ed, including HBCUs, and industry is necessary. I believe that what you’re hearing from HR directors and other managers within industry is that what they want is good thinking. That capacity to think well is important.


The most useful tool you have, whether you are a contractor building houses or a computer scientist building high-end computers, the most useful tool you have is your brain.

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.
Contact: mirtha@tpinsights.com