A Feature, not a Bug: HBCU Executive Transactions, 2016-2017

Leadership is crucial to the success of large organizations, and professional stability is a key factor to bold, rather than simply titular leadership. In July, 2016, when I published a report on executive turnover at HBCUs in the preceding academic year, the feedback I received from concerned HBCU alums generally centered around apologetics—attempts to place the high turnover in the context of existential crises which threaten the survival and growth of HBCUs. While I tended to agree with many of those concerns (after all, declining federal and state funding, crumbling infrastructures, and winnowing availability of low/no-cost loan programs for students are externally created), the data, notwithstanding, is bleak. An Inside Higher Ed report on presidential turnover trends noted that presidential tenures shortened by nearly 20% in the past five years (from an average of 8.5 to 7 years), but also noted that executive turnover has only impacted roughly 25% of higher education institutions in recent years. At a time when HBCUs need stable and consistent leadership more than ever to navigate existing challenges—as well as new ones introduced by considerations for the 2018 FY budget out of Washington—HBCUs are continuing to experience executive turnover at a rate that exceeds any other institutional peer group in American higher education (impacting over 30% of HBCU institutions the past two years).
Moreover, a disturbing trend has continued to present itself within the HBCU spectrum, as leadership failures have resulted in school closures, state takeovers, accreditation losses, and votes of no confidence at nearly a dozen HBCUs in 2016-17. Increasingly, newly selected leaders at these institutions are not only inaugurated in the wake of such scandals, but are being “welcomed” to campus amid controversy over their selection by less than excited alumni bases and students. The 2016-17 year has been one in which HBCU leadership has been under a microscope, as the pronouncements of a president and secretary of education demand response and defense from alumni, and even a historic photo-op and listening session involving all HBCU executives visiting the White House for the first time spun into accusations of leaders being used for political and public relations purposes and yielding little return.
After a second consecutive year in which HBCUs as a sector experienced turnover at over 30% of its institutions nationwide, it appears that high turnover may be more of a trend at HBCUs than an aberration. The continued stressors of dwindling state and federal funding, declining enrollments, and compliance and accreditation challenges aside, unique crises emerged this year at several HBCUs that seem to suggest the problems are unique, and if not evergreen, perennially expected as of late. Consider, for example, the issues concerning operating funds dwindling down perilously at Jackson State University, which led to the controversial termination of President Carolyn Meyers. When news broke in Fall 2016 that the institution’s reserves had been exhausted during her tenure as president, to the point that only 30 days of reserves remained, it signaled the abrupt end of her tenure, which though occasionally fraught with personnel complaints and concerns, had seen unprecedented fundraising and enrollment growth at Mississippi’s flagship HBCU. Once she was removed and interim president Rod Paige was installed, suddenly, the reserve funding concerns evaporated from the news cycle, and within seven months a new president had been identified. The problem of declining reserves existed before her arrival and persisted her entire tenure, so why the news made national headlines days before her forced resignation seems inopportune at best, and suspicious at worst, in retrospect.
Consider, also, the non-renewal of President John Silvanus Wilson at Morehouse, one of the nation’s most prominent HBCUs. Mid-spring, when it was revealed he would not have his contract extended, an all-too-public breakup ensued as he continued to lobby support and received it from many prominent alumni, including a blistering open letter penned by Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jeh Johnson. Ultimately, with the board’s approval of his non-renewal and the introduction of an interim president, a vote of no confidence in the board and a board chair/board officers’ resignation ensued, casting a dark cloud over the recruitment process of a new leader for the institution. Protracted, contentious, and controversial decisions at Alabama State University (involving President Gwendolyn Boyd) and Florida A&M University (involving President Elmira Mangum) ended the tenures of two of the few female HBCU presidents and hampered each institution’s forward momentum, as well.
The challenges HBCU executives face remained a focus of news coverage in 2016-17 even for presidents and chancellors who were newly hired or whose jobs were not threatened. Several institutions suffered negative alumni and public relations casualties when decisions about newly hired executives were announced, including Jackson State and Kentucky State, and sitting presidents at Howard University and Clark-Atlanta University have suffered through votes of no confidence that have received national attention. While turnover in the executive position has impacted over 30% of HBCUs this academic year, many more suffer through leadership challenges and crises which seem to indicate that the percentage is not likely to go down in the near future, especially as scandals seem to rock HBCU campuses on a regular basis—existential crises and external pressures notwithstanding.
Even institutions who announced enrollment increases, bucking a national trend, faced public relations exposure and press coverage which intensify the focus on the leadership challenges their campus’ executives face. Louisiana’s HBCUs exemplified the dichotomy of campuses celebrating successes but facing critical leadership challenges. Southern and Grambling both noted significant increases in first-year student enrollment, but suffered as the press profiled Grambling closing its university library due to its dilapidation, and Louisiana’s governor, as he toured Southern’s facilities in Baton Rouge, remarked that its $120 million in deferred maintenance was “unsafe … critical … unacceptable.” The state’s failure to properly fund public institutions of higher education played no small part in contributing to Southern’s recent accreditation warning from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, according to Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo. Even as Xavier and Dillard’s enrollment stabilized and the institutions’ athletic and academic reputations continued to improve, the challenges for both their leaders intensified. Dillard’s decision to host a U.S. Senate debate on campus is exactly the kind of media coverage and attention that HBCUs crave. Except for the fact that former grand wizard of the KKK and U.S. Senate candidate David Duke was an invited participant, leading to protests and arrests on the New Orleans campus, and a significant challenge to the age-old adage that ‘”any news is good news.” Finally, as President Trump drew criticism for his comments on the HBCU Capital Financing Program, it drew attention to the fact that several HBCUs have extremely large loans through the program that must be repaid over 30-year terms—and Xavier ($165 million) and Dillard ($160 million) owe more than any other HBCU (Grambling is also one of only 5 HBCUs who have been loaned more than $100 million).
What does the data from the last two years signal for the near future of HBCU executive leadership? It’s difficult to offer the traditional advice—that big wins in increased retention, graduation rates, fundraising, enrollment, and infrastructure development can build trust and loyalty among board members and alumni—because too many presidents with track records of success at HBCUs have been terminated despite these successes. Additionally, advising aspiring campus executives to only seek out institutions to lead that have stable enrollments and growing endowments to ensure professional stability means, in the same breath, that we are advising capable and talented leaders to avoid pursuing leadership opportunities at the most vulnerable institutions. One can only hope that during the comparably quieter summer months ahead that boards, alumni, and campus leadership meet not only to plan Homecoming festivities and parlay at conferences and conventions, but reflect and strategize about their institutions and the industry of HBCU education writ large, which enters a new academic year anticipating crisis and little comfort.
2016-17 HBCU Executive Transactions (37 on 31 campuses):
Allen University: President Lady June Cole (terminated)
Alabama State University: President Gwendolyn Boyd (terminated)/Interim President Leon Wilson
Arkansas Baptist College: New President Joseph Jones
Barber Scotia College: New President David Olah
Benedict College: President David Swinton (resigned)
Bennett College: President Rosalind Fuse-Hall (resigned)
Bowie State University: President Mickey Burnim (resigned)
Bowie State University: New President Aminta Hawkins Breaux
Cheyney University: Interim President Frank Pogue (resigned)
Concordia College (Alabama): New Interim President Constance Smith Hendricks
Concordia College (Alabama): Interim President Constance Smith Hendricks (resigned)/Interim President Dexter Jackson
Denmark Technical College: President Leonard McIntyre (terminated)/Interim President Chris Hall
Fisk University: New President Kevin Rome
Florida A&M University: President Elmira Mangum (non-renewed/resigned)
Grambling State University: New President Rick Gallot
Jackson State University: President Carolyn Meyers (forced resignation)/Interim President Rod Paige
Jackson State University: New President Andrew Bynum
Johnson C. Smith: Resigned—President Ronald Carter
Kentucky State University: New President M. Christopher Brown
Lincoln University (Missouri): Resigned—President Kevin Rome
Lincoln University (Pennsylvania): New President Brenda Allen
Mississippi Valley State University: Resigned—President Andrew Bynum
Morehouse: President John Wilson (non-renewed)/Interim President William Taggart
Morehouse: Interim President William Taggart (deceased)/Interim President Harold Martin, Jr.
Morris College: President Luns Richardson (resigned)/Interim President Leroy Staggers
North Carolina Central University: Chancellor Debra Saunders White (deceased)
North Carolina Central University: New Chancellor Johnson Akinleye
Paine College: New President Jerry Hardee
Prairie View A&M: President George Wright (resigned)/Interim President Ruth Simmons
Southern University Agricultural Research Center: New Chancellor Bobby Phills
Southern University New Orleans: New Chancellor Lisa Devezin-Mims
Stillman College: President Peter Millet (resigned)/Interim President Cynthia Warrick
Stillman College: New President Cynthia Warrick
Tuskegee University: President Brian Johnson (non-renewed)
Voorhees College: New President W. Franklin Evans
West Virginia State University: New President Anthony Jenkins
Wilberforce University: New President Herman Felton
Schools experiencing closures, loss of accreditation/probation, declaration of bankruptcy, state takeover
Paine College, Bennett College, Saint Augustine University, Morris Brown College, Knoxville College, Barber-Scotia College, Denmark Technical College
No Confidence Votes vs. HBCU Presidents/Boards in 2016-17
Clark-Atlanta, Howard, Kentucky State, Morehouse
Update to 2015-2016 Transactions (bringing total to 35 at 35 institutions):
Bishop State College: New President Reginald Sykes