Tennessee has been considered a national leader in college success — from being the first state to offer free community college to its formal partnerships between education and business. Now, the state has become the first to appoint a director of HBCU success, modeled after the White House Initiative on HBCUs executive director position.
We recently caught up with Brittany Mosby, the nation’s first state director of HBCU success, to talk about what the position means to her as an HBCU alumna — she is a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta — and what she hopes to achieve in her new role in Tennessee. (Mosby is the first woman on the left of the photo.)
How have the first few months on the job been?
It’s been a lot of building the plane while we fly it, really just figuring out what makes sense
One of the key functions [the job is created to serve] is around research, policy agenda setting — that’s 65% of the job — so I really see that as the bread and butter of this office: developing a policy agenda for the state HBCUs and staying on top of policy and data in order to advocate successfully. I’m a policy wonk myself, so I’m excited about that.
I’ve been wanting to focus on programming and training, webinars, professional development, putting on different kinds of [programming] in an ad-hoc, as needed way for the state HBCUs. One of the topics we’ve been focusing on is around [open educational resources].
I’ve been thinking about open educational resources and what they mean for low-income students — who make up a large percentage of the population at most HBCUs. Most students are coming to campus with phones that have access to the internet, but not all of them are coming with computers. How do you balance that industry desire to shift to digital with not creating another access barrier for students?
We get all gung-ho about technology, and then we have to balance that with the actual access to technology. But I reconcile like this: part of open resources is not just online resources, but also lower-cost physical textbooks
The thing about open resource is it doesn’t have to mean online, it can also mean our traditional, physical what we’re used to, but at lower cost.
A good way to look at it for students who have access to the internet, but they have limited screens.
It can’t just be that we’re all going to assume that students have ways to get online or even internet access at home — I had students [when I taught at Pellissippi State Community College, where I served as an Associate Professor] who had to go to McDonald’s to get online, because they can’t always get it at home.
I think one of the things that I bring in particular to this position is coming from community college, there’s such an overlap in demographics … socioeconomic status and academic preparation, so I am not blind to the unique challenges that exist within the student body.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced on the job so far?
Stepping into a peerless role and really having to figure out what my benchmarks are, so not only trying to make up the benchmarks, but meet them as I go. But certainly, it’s been an enjoyable learning curve.
This position is housed within the academic affairs unit of the education commission. All of the staff here have been super supportive, the data teams have been answering all kinds of planning requests.
There has been an overall push for higher education in Tennessee ... but I don’t think anyone has stopped to say what is different about students of color, and what specifically can we do, or what is different about low-income students, and what specifically can we do?
I think the commission here welcomes this other approach [into asking these kinds of questions] that seems to be presenting itself.
I want my position here to be more than just a cheerleader for HBCUs. What I really want to do is to be an overall pusher of equity and inclusion for all students across the state, no matter where they’re going. Of course, my focus will always be HBCUs first. But I think in Tennessee, with everything we have going on in higher ed, to benefit the maximum number of students, we have to think about equity in all that we do, from Tennessee Promise all the way through.
I’m currently engaged in a listening tour of public and private HBCUs in the state. No one from the state has ever gone around to each HBCU and just said what’s up?
What’s going to be very interesting is this private-public bridge we’re trying to build to ensure success for all of the students.
Watch: Mosby reflects on what the position means to her.