In this study, we explore historically black colleges and universities (hbcus) and the legitimated procedures of increasing capacity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (stem) education. Conducting interviews with hbcu presidents, we argue that as hbcus contend with a conflicting national context, investment in stem education is perceived as a strategic pathway to address institutional concerns. Our findings suggest a departure from institutional theory, in that hbcus choices demonstrate a strategic motive of survival and adaptability to changes in the organizational field of american higher education. Their unique location in the american higher education system means they have to balance both organizational and institutional pressures to both survive and maintain fidelity to their historic mission. 2019, 2019 Informa uk limited, trading as taylor & francis group.