For nothing is fixed,
forever, forever, forever,
it is not fixed,
the earth is always shifting,
the light is always changing […]
James Baldwin, “For Nothing is Fixed”
Executive turnover has become routine and perennial at HBCUs, but in so many ways, this year was unremarkable. National scandals due to behavior unbefitting and intra-campus palace intrigue were fewer in number than in years past, but the year didn’t start that way as announcements came in early and often.
Several were made within weeks of the start of the academic year, leaving parents and students wondering who’d be president/chancellor when they arrived in the fall, and leaving administrators and faculty wondering who their new boss would be weeks before convocation. Several were announced months in advance due to the length of tenures served, giving those executives an opportunity to transition carefully and to cement legacies through carefully scripted farewells to their campuses and alumni (Talladega, Dillard, Southern, and of course Hampton come to mind).
There were fewer public incidents of board meddling, legislative chicanery, and fragile institutions facing multiple crises, the elements that have become part and parcel of HBCUs in recent years of dismissals and retirements. Several institutions that have been featured on this report virtually every year that I started writing it in 2016 are absent this year, which is a positive sign.
A handful of the transactions are unorthodox, and have driven curiosity among some, and optimism among others: How will Southern fare with the installation of a President-Chancellor whose first day at Southern will be his first on an HBCU campus (as a student or administrator), first time working in Louisiana, and first time helming a university system? How will perennial U.S. News and World Report top-5 HBCUs like Hampton and Spelman fare under the leadership of new presidents from outside of the traditional higher education administrator talent pools (President Williams at Hampton did oversee the division that houses the Army Logistics University and President Gayle at Spelman comes from the non-profit sector after spending two decades at the CDC and previous experience as an adjunct associate clinical professor of health)? Unorthodox decisions can have significant payoffs of course; everything we now consider a trend was once performed for the first time, eliciting gasps and guffaws equally before becoming a norm.
There is cause for cautious enthusiasm. Jackson State’s Deion Sanders has brought attention to HBCU football that has benefited many other HBCUs in the process (selfishly, I wish more people would pay attention to President Hudson’s leadership in guiding JSU towards Research 1 university status, which is far more important to the university and the sector AND generating more revenue than Jackson State football in the process). Morris Brown College is back and the AUC is four-members strong again. A year after making headlines for receiving record-setting donations from Mackenzie Scott at many HBCUs, institutions like Prairie View are making national headlines for how they invested the largesse.
What will likely make this year a pivotal year isn’t the volume of transactions, but the loss of collective executive experience. Dillard, Southern, Talladega, Hampton, Prairie View, and Livingstone, for example, are losing a combined over two centuries of higher education experience. The leaders that replace them will need patience, prayers, guidance, and support (both of the metaphorical and quiet, no-jangling varieties) but most of all they will likely need us to retire the phrase “but ____________ didn’t do it this way.” Because no matter how beloved these institutions’ previous leaders are, the sun will be up tomorrow and we must encounter challenges associated with each day thereafter.
Nothing, after all, is fixed.
2021-22 HBCU Executive Transactions (28 announcements/18 colleges and universities)
Alabama A&M University:
- President Daniel Wims appointed
- Interim President Hiram Powell assigned
- Interim President Larry Drake assigned
- President Walter Kimbrough resigned
- President Rochelle Ford appointed
- President William Harvey resigned
- President Darrell Williams appointed
- President Wayne Frederick announces resignation
Harris-Stowe State University:
- Interim President LaTonia Collins Smith assigned, later named President
Lincoln University (MO.):
- President John Moseley appointed
- President Jimmy Jenkins resigned
Kentucky State University:
- President M. Christopher Brown resigned
- Acting President Clara Ross Stamps assigned
- Interim President Ronald Johnson assigned
Prairie View A&M University:
- President Ruth Simmons announces retirement
South Carolina State University:
- President James Clark fired
- Interim President Alexander Conyers named President
Southern University—Baton Rouge:
- President-Chancellor Ray Belton resigned
- President Chancellor Dennis Shields appointed
- Chancellor Rodney Ellis resigned
- Interim Chancellor Vladimir Appeaning assigned
- President Mary Schmidt Campbell resigned
- President Helene Gayle appointed
- President Gregory Vincent appointed
Trenholm State College:
- President Kemba Chambers appointed
- President Charlotte Morris appointed
West Virginia State:
- President Nicole Pride resigned
- Interim President Ericke Cage assigned, later named President
William Broussard, Ph.D. (@DeadLecturer) is the Associate Vice President-University Advancement at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He is the author of “Under the Radar, Below the Fold: Fundraising at Public Regional Universities” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023).