The worst-kept secret in the HBCU community was finally affirmed this morning, as Hampton University’s Board of Trustees announced Gen. Darrell K. Williams as its next president. The general is a Hampton alumnus with a world of military experience, particularly in logistics management and personnel training modules.
But he isn’t a credentialed or experienced leader in higher education and certainly not within the historically Black context beyond his undergraduate years at Hampton in the early 1980s. The Hampton University he knows and the challenges he faces therein are dramatically different from anything he’s ever seen in industry and culture; soldiers don’t protest as students do. Officers don’t consider first-amendment and academic freedom protections for critiques of leadership the way that faculty do, and veterans don’t challenge the standing and adaptability of the military the way that alumni do for alma mater.
Those are just the cultural elements orbiting around the Hampton campus. They speak nothing of the tough sociopolitical landscape a president has to navigate just to support funding for student access, technological and structural maintenance of campus, endowment growth, programmatic development, and compliance with federal and accreditation standards.
Gen. Williams is smart enough and eager enough to learn, but learning and leading aren’t always mutual dancing partners in higher education. Hampton’s trustees will now have to showcase some of its best work, or at least a better showing than it made of this presidential search.
For generations, the Hampton board got to smile and approve of outgoing presidential icon William R. Harvey’s catches and kills on behalf of the university. They never had to worry about if new programs would match industrial needs because Harvey was often ahead of the curve of where Black graduates would be needed and hired. They didn’t have to worry about big donations because Harvey always had friends in high places with deep pockets, and backed up his own work with his own personal wealth.
The board didn’t have to worry about the messiness of bipartisan political gamesmanship that could sully their business or personal brands, because Harvey built his brand off of it. In return for its happily silent co-signing, Harvey transformed Hampton from Booker T. Washington’s chapter on the struggle for education into the standard of excellence for 40-plus years.
Harvey’s work is finished and his time as leader will soon be entreated to the realm of legacy. But now the board has to etch out its own independent legacy of giving, galvanizing, and growing alongside its general. Board members now have to learn what running a school really looks like instead of how it should look in a quarterly meeting with the president or in charts and graphs, so they can fill in gaps of what Gen. Williams must learn and won’t easily recognize as worth learning.
Hampton doesn’t get to stop growing, fall in rankings, drop further in enrollment, or lose federal funding just because there is a new president for the first time in 44 years. Students, faculty, and staff shouldn’t wait for or create theories about how campus culture will be, because the new campus CEO fell in love with and appreciates the military as both vocation and lifestyle.
A new leader doesn’t mean a new standard for Hampton, just for the board charged with its future.