How Historically Black Colleges and Universities are Navigating Coronavirus

Historically Black Colleges and Universities have unique challenges that were highlighted in the past year as they navigated the COVID pandemic. In this article and the related podcast, Drs. Billy Hawkins and Drumm McNaughton identify ways higher education leaders were put in difficult positions, and how they focused on bringing students back safely in the “new normal.”

Dr. Billy Hawkins, president of Talladega College, has successfully led several higher education institutions through transformational change. During his 13-year tenure at Talladega, the college has undergone a transformation and quadrupled its enrollment. The institution is listed among Princeton Review’s best colleges in the Southwest and U.S. News and World Report’s most innovative colleges. He is currently the chair of the 37 presidents of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

Historically Black Colleges and Universities Working Collaboratively

Leading any institution requires collaboration, but especially during this time of crisis. This is especially true for a university president, but it is multiplied by a factor of 10 for the president of an HBCU. Dr. Hawkins, who is the UNCF presidents’ chair,, used this role to foster interaction among the 33 other HBCU presidents who serve on the organization’s advisory board through Zoom calls and meetings. These meetings and calls allowed presidents to collaborate and work through the many challenges that their institutions are facing.

Closing Campus

Talladega College and similar institutions had to make the difficult decision on closing campus to send students home in mid-March. In making the decision, Hawkins reviewed what other institutions were doing across the nation. He then sat down with his leadership team to analyze this information.

Using this data, Talladega College’s leadership made the decision to shut down on-campus instruction during spring break so that students wouldn’t return from other parts of the nation and inadvertently infect members of the university’s community. Closing campus also meant that Talladega’s faculty had to convert their classes to an online platform.

One of the major challenges that Talladega College faced was helping students through this difficult time. Some students were international students who couldn’t travel home; other students’ hometowns were hotspots for the coronavirus.

Talladega College approached this uniquely and with compassion, telling students that they could remain on campus if they didn’t feel they could return home. Those who stayed were given jobs on campus working in the physical plant. In addition, the institution was able to tap into a campus emergency fund to help international students return home if they were able to do so.

Many students also faced challenges because of a lack of technology and Internet connectivity. For those who remained on campus, Talladega College set up technology stations in the library so students could easily take classes online.

There are two major educational institutions in the city, Talladega College and Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. The two presidents often talk, and AIDB’s president serves on Talladega College’s board. In addition, the institution reached out to the community, continuing its long partnership, and the city council and community businesses were very supportive of the college during the pandemic.


Talladega College received approximately $4 million from the CARES Act and the PPP loan program. The institution used the 50/50 part to support students through a grant application process. Students were asked to log into the institution’s portal to complete the application form. This gave Talladega College a current address where the student was residing as well as hard data in terms of where they are residing at the present time.

Once the school received that information, the business office cut a $500 check for each student. Hawkins sent a letter with the check that acknowledged Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, and the UNCF, which provided key leadership in the CARES Act passage.

If students didn’t access that website portal, the institution did not send a check; this gave the college a better accounting of the funds.

This was the first of two checks. Talladega College sent out a second check-in in early July, which Hawkins believes helped with student retention. Furthermore, by allocating these funds in two distributions, the institution was encouraging students to use the amount on what they truly need in their daily life.

Creating a Family Atmosphere

Dr. Hawkins believes that the institution’s leaders, faculty, and staff must connect with the students to be able to help them — and he reminds employees that the students are their customers. If they treat these customers right, they’ll keep buying their “product.”

The college’s small enrollment allows Dr. Hawkins and the faculty to get to know every student personally. He wants students to be able to walk up and have a conversation with him. He also hosts students at the president’s residence.

The family atmosphere on campus is important — and can be been seen in the college’s various activities. For example, Talladega College has 400 band members (even without a football team) and is striving to be the largest band among HBCUs. The band has participated in the Inaugural Parade, been the lead band in key Mardi Gras parades, and performed half-time shows with the New Orleans Saints football team and two senior bowls.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities Student Retention

Dr. Hawkins and faculty members continued to check on students, and many were ready to return to campus for fall term. He said that the institution needs to show they care about the students, which also convinces their parents that they have taken the appropriate measures to ensure everyone’s safety.

The retention office also actively worked to stay in touch with students. The office did weekly podcasts and also reached out to students on a weekly basis. They had regular chats and chat groups had faculty participation specific to groups, such as the band. There also was an e-blast that went out regularly.

The institution took advantage of students being away to renovate older dorms so that they are more comparable to its new dormitory. Talladega distributed information on renovations of the dormitories, and it created a “wow” factor for students — campus leaders listened to student feedback and took that into account with the renovations.

Dr. Hawkins and his cabinet also continue to meet with student leaders every month. The vice presidents and the director of the physical plant are allowed only to sit and listen, as Dr. Hawkins wants them to hear how students feel about what’s going on around campus. After the meeting, the administrators discuss how to fix a specific issue, if it is indeed a problem.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides governance consulting; strategic planning, implementation, and change management consulting, and accreditation consulting for higher ed institutions. To find out more about his services and read other thought leadership pieces, visit his firm’s website,

Higher education innovator, strategic management pioneer, accreditation / turnaround expert, and governance professional.