Inside Yale’s new HBCU partnership
As President Salovey gears up to strengthen ties between Yale and HBCUs — including the recently announced Pennington Fellowship — the News looked at the historic partnership between Tougaloo College and Brown University, and what Black student leaders at Yale are searching for.
President Salovey has promised to connect Yale with historically Black colleges and universities, joining the ranks of Ivy League peers.
This commitment resulted in last month’s announcement of a new scholarship program for New Haven youth and will see updates in the coming year. The Pennington Fellowship, announced last month, was created in collaboration with four HBCUs across the country. Kimberly Goff-Crews, who serves as secretary and vice president of university life at Yale and directs the Belonging at Yale Initiative, says that the “most helpful” recent conversations between the University and HBCU leaders have been about future academic partnerships and faculty relationships.
Across the Ivy League, the program is not the first of its kind. Harvard administrators recently pledged $100 million, partly to HBCU partnerships, following its work to address its ties to slavery. Students at Spelman College, a historically women’s liberal arts college and HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia, are able to enroll in classes at schools such as Columbia University and Dartmouth College.
To some members of Black student organizations on Yale’s campus, the University has not yet gone far enough.
“I think [Yale’s] plans to connect with HBCUs … are very useful,” said Simon Debesai ’24, a co-president of the Yale Black Men’s Union. “But incomplete insofar as the university hasn’t necessarily promised direct forms of funding to HBCUs themselves. Of course, HBCUs historically have been underfunded.”
Jailon Henry ’23, who serves as president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, suggested that the University provide institutional financial support to an HBCU in order to best increase intellectual diversity at Yale through the partnership.
Debesai added that there is “a lot more” that Yale can do financially for HBCUs to build up a positive relationship with those institutions than simply paying for Black students to attend.
“I don’t know if HBCUs need students more than they need financial assistance,” Debesai said.
Henry also interpreted the scholarships as “pushing [Black students] away” from Yale to HBCUs, which he said clashed with Yale’s branding as “the premier institution of learning.” The scholarships aid students attending institutions other than Yale, which Henry said was discordant with Yale’s attempts to make the University more inclusive.
Joaquin Estevez ’24, who is co-president of the Black Men’s Union at Yale, also questioned the University’s financial priorities. He thought the scholarship was a great start — but said that far more effort on the University’s part is called for.
“I feel like when Yale covers for students to go somewhere else, you know, it’s just Yale’s way of cheapening out a little,” Estevez said.
In response to student criticisms, Salovey said that he wanted to underscore that the Fellowship “is part of Yale’s initial steps” — and that the University has made significant efforts to connect with students from underrepresented backgrounds, including Black students. He added that Yale already meets the full financial need of all admitted students, regardless of race.
According to Salovey, these efforts have led the number of undergraduate students in the first-year class who identify as Black or African American to increase by 71 percent over the past decade. Currently 13 percent of the student population identify as Black or African American according to Yale admissions.
He also said that Yale “is broadening the pipeline of prospective students” from ten HBCUs through its partnership with the Leadership Alliance, a group dedicated to supporting the development of students from historically Black and minority-serving institutions, and is increasing the number of HBCU students who participate in an eight-week-long summer undergraduate research fellowship program.
Salovey said that when the Yale and Slavery working group publishes a book later this calendar year, he will announce additional actions.
Forging genuine relationships
Henry, Estevez and Debesai all pointed out the Harmony Classic — a football game that took place between Yale and Howard in October — as an example of a relationship that Yale “got right.” The Classic was organized by the Connecticut NAACP to “inspire fellowship across college campuses.”
Following the game, a mixer for the event occurred at the African American Cultural Center, known by students across campus as The House.
“I think what this type of event does is it brings together two student bodies and blends the culture of the students and the academic traditions or the traditions that came from the schools,” Henry said. “And so I think that was new. That was something that I haven’t seen from Yale a lot.”
For Debesai and Estevez, giving Black students the opportunity to be in a space where the culture “is set by them” — like that which was offered at the Classic — is a victory. It is especially important, Debesai said, because many Black students often turn down admissions offers from HBCUs, only to end up feeling like a minority at Ivy League schools such as Yale.
“They understood the types of connections and they understood the weight of Yale degree and oftentimes students pick that over an [HBCU] because they wanted to prioritize sacrifice,” Debesai said.
The first Ivy-HBCU partnership
The first and longest-lasting Ivy-HBCU partnership — between Tougaloo College and Brown University — could offer a primer for Yale at the outset of this initiative.
In the early 1960s, Tougaloo hosted various sit-ins and meetings with leading activists during Mississippi’s Civil Rights Movement. Tougaloo’s influence in the movement garnered national attention, particularly among those affiliated with Northern educational institutions.
Providence businessman Irving Fain and his Mississipian wife Macie Fain formed the Rhode Island Friends of Tougaloo group, with hopes to raise money for the school. They approached then-president of Brown University Barnaby Keeney for his support.
By May 1964, a collaboration was in place. Keeney and Fain’s group formalized a “cooperative agreement” to pair Brown and Tougaloo together. After a few years, student exchanges between the two schools began taking place, and the then-director of the Brown-Tougaloo program advocated for more funding for HBCUs on the national stage. A decade later, Brown Medical School began admitting students directly from Tougaloo — a response to a faculty partnership.
Daphne Chamberlain, a history professor at Tougaloo who serves as director of the Brown-Tougaloo partnership, explained that during this early period, Tougaloo leaders wanted Brown students “to be immersed in the culture around the campus here in the state of Mississippi and also the activism that was taking place.” On the other side of things, the partnership would also give students at Tougaloo College access to new academic and cultural experiences in the Ivy League.
Brown and Tougaloo, today
Over the years, Chamberlain said, both schools’ leadership have engaged in “open conversations” about the direction of the partnership. She also noted that some of these conversations “take place at the ground level at both campuses.”
As part of an internal community committee, she told the News, Tougaloo committee members travel to Brown during the fall semester while the Brown committee travels to Tougaloo in the spring. Doing so has “enriched the partnerships”, and in-person campus visits encourage a “new generation of students and even faculty” to be engaged in the partnership at some level.
“We’re working in tandem with one another,” Chamberlain said.
News of the partnership has reached Yale. Joel Rosenbaum, a professor of cell biology at the University, told the News that he has “always pressed” for the University to have a stronger relationship with HBCUs, one similar to what has been achieved at Brown.
Rosenbaum praised several of Brown-Tougaloo’s partnership initiatives, including the faculty exchange, as “more than talk.” People at both universities, he said, are willing to “do more than pay lip service” to their ambitions for the partnership and “actually put [them]selves and their time” on the line.
The Ivy-HBCU Connection
Chamberlain said that there are some challenges that Tougaloo and other smaller HBCUs face that Brown and other Ivy League schools — or other larger, predominantly white institutions — do not have to face.
“Tougaloo is a private historically black institution where, say, the human resources are rich, but the financial resources can be meager,” Chamberlain said. “With Brown University, we’re talking about an Ivy League institution that has a significant endowment and has a much larger student body enrollment than Tougaloo College.”’
With only over 650 students enrolled and an endowment of $22 million, Tougaloo is significantly smaller than Brown, which has over 10,000 undergraduates and over $6.5 billion to its name.
However, Chamberlain emphasized that the academic mission of both institutions remains the same: each seeks to “prepare generations of students to go into their respective fields of profession and be successful and also be the change agents.”
Chamberlain said that in the coming years, the partnership is looking at “new directions” — which means expanding beyond faculty and student relationships.
Brown and Tougaloo will look at potential administrative staff exchange initiatives as well as joint fundraising, which would include efforts to jointly submit grant proposals for students at both schools.
Chamberlain looks optimistically to the future. She emphasized the role of “genuine” connections passed down through generations of faculty, students and staff at both schools, as pivotal to its continued national success.
“And again, it’s about the relationships that are being built,” Chamberlain said. “Because people are really looking at how do we make this [and] how do we continue to let this be a model for other institutions.”
The Brown Tougaloo partnership will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year.