Miles College renaissance provides a model for THE YARD, a national HBCU initiative born in Birmingham

Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, President George T. French Jr

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Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, President George T. French Jr
Miles College President George T. French Jr. with students. Photo submitted

THE YARD is a national initiative whose goal is to take HBCU’s (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) across the country from surviving to thriving. So what is the THE YARD’s blueprint for success? None other than Birmingham’s own Miles College.

Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, THE YARD
Photo via Miles College’s Facebook page

Miles College, a model for HBCU success

In January 2019, U.S. Senator Doug Jones of Alabama hosted the inaugural HBCU Summit. With goals echoing those of THE YARD, the summit brought together HBCU leaders to talk challenges and opportunities. Solving funding hurdles is a major part of that equation—and as you’ll see, it’s an equation that Miles College in Birmingham has cracked.

“(HBCU’s) are part of the foundation of our higher education system in Alabama and around the country, and it is a top priority to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to continue their legacy of success. They are doing incredible work to prepare the next generation of leaders, particularly on the workforce development front.”

Doug Jones, U.S. Senator

Dollars and Infrastructure

Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, President George T. French Jr
President French with Miles College students. Photo submitted

“I’ve had the unique privilege of seeing the transformation of Miles College under Dr. French’s leadership. Miles is the model having success in each of the focus areas of infrastructure, innovation and inclusion.”

Erskine “Chuck” Faush, founder, THE YARD

Today, Miles College boasts three new state-of-the-art buildings, with a combined cost of $20 million. They include a gracious welcome center, a 208-bed dormitory and a student center featuring a cafeteria, game room and theater.

Building funds came from Miles’ recent capital campaign, which under the leadership of its president, Dr. George T. French Jr., raised $42 million. In total, since becoming president in 2006, French has helped the college raise $100,000 million.

Such infrastructure investments, which are a major focus of THE YARD, are crucial to the long-term vitality of institutions of higher learning. For proof of that, look no further than UAB’s infrastructure plans in Birmingham, or President’s Village at the University of Alabama. To survive, HBCU’s must compete.

Birmingham, Alabama, HBCU, Miles College
One of Miles’ older buildings, Brown Hall, built in 1927. Photo by Bham Now

Now, if you’re wondering why start with improvements that are central to student life versus, say, academics, there’s a reason. In fact, French had three other buildings in mind to enhance Miles’ campus until he talked to students.

“I sat down with the students and asked them what they needed to feel they are at home and comfortable, and what it would take to make a good atmosphere conducive to learning. And they told me.”

Dr. George T. French Jr., president, Miles College
Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, THE YARD
Campus map via Miles College’s website

And that’s just the beginning. The acquisition of 41 acres for North Campus, now under development, will more than double the size of Miles’ campus.

Raising Awareness with Football

Birmingham, Alabama, HBCU, Miles College Golden Bears
The Miles College Golden Bears versus the Tuskegee University Golden Tigers in November 2018. Photo via Instagram @hbcu_football_nation

Strong college athletics programs build excitement and thriving alumni bases, catch the eye of prospective students and help bring the dollars colleges need to upgrade infrastructure and stay competitive. Not to mention, HBCU Classic football games generate millions of dollars for local economies.

In THE YARD strategy, Classic athletic events can be leveraged holistically to raise awareness of academics and the three I’s—infrastructure, innovation and inclusion—on every campus yard.

Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, marching band, THE YARD
Miles College Purple Marching Machine. Photo via Miles College’s Facebook page

It makes sense, then, that while French is 100 percent focused on academics and student success, he has his sights set on a best-in-class athletics program.

In 2011, he took the first step toward that goal by hiring Reginald Ruffin—then a highly successful  defensive coordinator and linebacker coach at Tuskegee University—as head football coach at Miles College.

The Conversation Went Something Like This

Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, Reginald Ruffin
Ruffin celebrating the Golden Bears football team’s 2018 SIAC win. Photo via Miles College’s Facebook page

Before 2011, Miles College had never won an SIAC (Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Championship) title in football. When French began talking to Ruffin about coming aboard, he asked him straight, “How long will it take you to start winning?”

“He said, ‘Right away. We’re going to start winning the first year.’ I said, ‘That’s okay, coach. Just give me a reasonable time.’ But he insisted, ‘No, the first year.’ Then he said, ‘Let me show you how.’

Dr. George T. French Jr., president, Miles College

Ruffin pulled out the roster books from Tuskegee and Miles. First he opened Miles’ book and showed French a list of student-athletes from Detroit, Chicago, California and New York. Then, he showed him the list for Tuskegee, a much more successful team. No one was from outside a 150-mile radius. The key to winning, Ruffin said, was keeping it local.

Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, Pleasant Grove High School, THE YARD
Miles College signing day at Pleasant Grove High School, only seven miles away. Photo via Miles College’s Facebook page

And he was right. When Ruffin became head football coach of the Golden Bears in 2011, Miles College brought home its first SIAC title that very year.

“Now we’ve won three SIAC football championships (2011, 2015 and 2018) because we focus on the local talent and what’s already around us.”

Dr. George T. French Jr., president, Miles College

That’s the recipe for Miles’ success in athletics. In 2018, Ruffin became athletics director at Miles, where he continues his duties as head football coach. Moreover, his “keep it local” approach to recruiting student-athletes has become Miles’ approach to student recruitment overall. (More on that later.)

Innovation and Academics

Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, Pleasant Grove High School
Miles College alumni thrive. Photo via Miles College’s Facebook page

Along with championship-winning athletic teams, fundraising and infrastructure, French has ushered in an era of deliberate academic focus at Miles, with an emphasis on technology and innovation.

The college has increased the budget allocation for education and educational support services by 11 percent. Meanwhile, faculty have secured some of the largest grants in the college’s history.

Of course, all of this would be for naught without one final piece of the Miles College renaissance: student recruitment.

That’s why when Birmingham executive Erskine “Chuck” Faush approached French about his idea for THE YARD—a national HBCU event series centered around thought leadership, pitch competitions and celebrations of alumni achievement—French was adamant about one thing. High school students should be part of it, too.

That brings us to the final component of the Miles College model.

Inclusion—Bringing Students to the Yard

Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, Cheerleaders, THE YARD
Miles College cheerleaders. Photo via Miles College’s Facebook page

“The yard, within our culture, is a significant and special place. It’s a gathering place and a place where academics are at the forefront. There’s a social context when we talk about the yard that distinguishes higher education in a campus environment.”

Dr. George T. French Jr., president, Miles College

Today, a pilot high school recruitment program led by THE YARD is unfolding at Miles College.

This semester, four top high school students from George Washington Carver High School in Birmingham—including Deja-Janell Jackson, Steffen McClendon, William Odom and Kendra Smith—began visiting Miles College regularly to study TV production and coding.

Birmingham, Alabama, HBCU, Miles College, Carver High Schools
Angela Lake (second from left), academy coordinator at G. W. Carver High School, with students (from left) Odom, Jackson, McClendon and Smith at Miles College. Photo by Bham Now

Next, the students will begin journaling about their experiences. Finally, if they are ready to commit to Miles by the program’s end, a full scholarship will be on the table.

The goals are (1) to keep top students close to home at their local HBCU to build their communities and (2) to demonstrate the benefits of a physical campus versus online programs, which have become a big competitor for HBCU’s over the last decade.

Birmingham, Alabama, Miles College, President George T. French Jr
Carver students’ campus visit included meeting Dr. Bala Baptiste, communications division chair at Miles, as well as a hands-on TV production class. Photo by Bham Now

Here is the message Miles College is sending to top high school students in Birmingham:

“Listen, we’re going to place you in the middle of the yard, and all around you will be the support systems that you need to survive. And we will not speak to you simply from traditional trajectories of higher education, but we’ll include inclusion, innovation and technology and make sure that you don’t miss anything by not going the online route, that you grasp the full experience by being on the yard.”

Dr. George T. French Jr., president, Miles College

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