Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) originated in 1837 with the purpose of educating freed slaves, an act of defiance in the face of discrimination in the mainstream school system. Today, there are more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities, dedicated to educating and empowering the Black community. Inspired by the successes of HBCUs in producing much of the country’s Black leadership, Dr. B. Roberto Cruz embarked on an initiative to create a counterpart for the Latino/a community. Thirty years later, National Hispanic University has yet to gain the growth and public acclaim that HBCUs such as Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse have come to receive, calling into question the future possibilities of success for the institution.
In 1981, Cruz established the National Hispanic University in San Jose, California with the mission to serve Latino/a and other underrepresented groups to facilitate their success in higher education. As of August of this year, 800 students are enrolled in the university, with more than 1,200 alumni having traversed the campus since its inception. Following Cruz’ death in 2002, Dr. David López assumed the role of University President, equally as enamored by the idea of a historically Latino/a university that could produce the nation’s future leaders. Despite the conjuring of an all-star team of professionals appointed to the advisory board of the university, including Janet Murguía, president of the National Council of La Raza, and Henry Cisneros, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under former President Bill Clinton, the university has yet to gain accelerated traction. The overall graduation rates for the student body are dismally low—22% for the 2004 cohort, the latest available data year.
There are multiple factors that would make the widespread growth of NHU difficult. The conspiracy-theorist rhetoric surrounding Latino/a assimilation patterns, as seen during the Tucson ethnic studies ban, would likely reemerge if large-scale plans to garner further investment were put in place. From the student perspective, it is unclear whether or not there is enough support to continue the institution. Retention and graduation rates are low. Hispanic-serving institutions, a federally created definition for an institution of higher education with a Latino/a student body of more than 25%, currently constitute 6% of colleges and universities and enroll over 50% of the Latino/a student body. It is unclear, however, whether this is by explicit choice or systemic barriers to other institutions. Is there a desire for Latino/a student populations to attend institutions of higher education with peers of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds? Is the National Hispanic University considered a form of segregation or empowerment?
Despite these potential setbacks, the future possibilities for National Hispanic University are compelling. The graduation gap between Latino/a and White students currently stands at 11.1%. With constant media coverage of the Latino/a education crisis, but scarce solution planning, there is much needed innovation to increase Latino/a completion of higher education. During a time in which the validity and legitimacy of ethnic studies in school environments have been called into question, a nationally respected institution dedicated to promoting Latino/a scholarship, both by graduating higher rates of Latino/a students, and celebrating the work of Latino/a research could serve as a powerful source of empowerment for the community.
The invisibility of Latino/a success is an issue plaguing the community. The Pew Hispanic Center reported this year that three-fourths of surveyed Latino/as feel that their community lacks a “national leader.” With trailblazers such as Sonia Sotomayor, Luis Gutierrez, and Antonio Villaraigosa leading the political scene, the question becomes, do we lack Latino/a leaders or do we lack visibility of Latino/a leaders? Indeed, the growth of an institution such as the National Hispanic University could serve as a physical reminder of the long-standing history of the Latino/a success and leadership within the United States. At its core, such an institution could serve to finally affirm a necessary community belief—the belief that Latino/a students have long held a space at the table of higher education.