How One Architect Helps Shape Higher Education’s Future

When Floyd Cline began his career in architecture at Perkins & Will in 2000, just 2% of architects were Black. Nearly 23 years later, that percentage remains the same.

To overcome the lack of diversity in industries including his own, Cline has dedicated his career to creating inclusive educational environments for marginalized groups from elementary schools to colleges.

These include projects such as Identity Spaces at Emory University in Atlanta, where Cline lives. The Emory building is designed to provide a home for the university’s Asian Student Center, Black Student Union, Center for Women, Centro Latinx and LGBT Life group. The design process has incorporated dozens of engagement sessions to help the designers understand the needs and wants of the groups that will use the space.

“When you consider the importance of these spaces, especially at predominantly white institutions … they need connection, they need a place where they feel safe, where they can find people like them,” Cline said in an interview. “That’s where we get the opportunity to change the lives and experiences of the students by coming in and shaping a space, shaping experience.”

Cline’s focus has brought him to a number of high-profile projects at historically black colleges and universities, where he has witnessed an influx of development projects over the past couple of years. HBCUs are having relatively strong enrollment and endowment, which has opened the floodgates for new development after decades of being financially snubbed and unable to upgrade facilities.

“Being able to give [HBCUs] as good a design, if not better, than any other higher ed client elevates their place in the educational landscape,” said Cline, whose parents met a HBCU. “We can enhance and highlight that by giving them the facilities that they deserve and that reflect the education they’re receiving.”

Cline joined Chicago-based Perkins & Will after earning an undergraduate degree in architecture at the University of Kansas. During his more than two decades at the firm’s Atlanta office, he has earned a reputation as someone who supports young people and has nicknames including the “voice of reason” and “collaborator in chief.”

His Perkins & Will bio says, “Floyd sees design everywhere, from the shoes on his feet to the skyscraper he has always wanted to build.”

Cline is leading design on an interdisciplinary science, technology, engineering and mathematics building project at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The STEM Center is part of the largest capital construction initiative in the institution’s history.

The $758 million project, announced in March, would include facilities for health sciences and medicine, and arts and communications. Though Howard is the HBCU with the largest endowment, these will be the first newly constructed academic buildings on campus since 1984.

Floyd Cline is working on designing a major project at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (Howard University)

“Over the years … the data shows how HBCUs have not been getting their cut of the funding. They’ve been cheated out,” Cline said.

State funding for public and land-grant colleges has historically created major financial disparities between HBCUs and other schools. A 2022 Forbes report found that, over the past 33 years, HBCUs such as Tennessee State University and Southern University were shorted billions of dollars compared to their historically white counterparts.

A major contributor to this disparity dates back to the 19th century when land-grant colleges were formed, allotting parcels of land to every state to be used for higher education campuses. In many Southern states, land-grant colleges were all-white, so the government passed another law requiring those states to create sister colleges to serve Black students, the origin of the first HBCUs. Until the 1970s, these HBCUs went without government funding, besides an original lump sum, while white land-grant schools received annual allowances.

Among other things, this chronic underfunding has done a number on infrastructure and facilities.

“When you go to some of these older schools and some of these HBCUs, students are having to learn in a space that was built in the ’30s and hasn’t been updated,” Cline said. “It’s stagnant, there’s poor lighting and the equipment they’re using is unsafe because it’s so old.”

Over the past three years, things have begun to change. HBCUs have bucked trends in higher education and seen increases in both enrollment and endowment, while most colleges and universities struggled through pandemic shutdowns. From 2020 to 2021, the 99 HBCUs in the United States saw their collective endowment grow more than 33% from $3.9 billion to $5.2 billion, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some, including Cline, have postulated that this upsurge is correlated with the 2020 resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which arose after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd.

“People are recognizing the value in our HBCUs, some of them are recognizing that HBCUs even exist,” Cline said. “You’re starting to get a lot of people to look and say, ‘Hey, I can be an ally and support the Black community by supporting HBCUs.’”

During the 2021 academic year, HBCUs received record-breaking funding from philanthropists and corporations, most notably a $560 million gift from Mackenzie Scott, a billionaire and the ex-wife of former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

St. Phillip’s College in Texas, the country’s largest HBCU, is undergoing a $61 million, eight-building renovation that began in the spring of 2022. The year before, Prairie View A&M University broke ground on a $70 million engineering building. Meanwhile, Cline is designing a 110,000-square-foot STEM center at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“These schools are churning out world changers,” he said, noting that Vice President Kamala Harris graduated from Howard. “Many of the most prominent leaders to come out of the Black community come out of HBCUs.”


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