We will remember 2020 as the worst of times, and how they couldn’t possibly have been worse for American higher education. As a global pandemic reached America and university leadership teams scrambled to adjust their spring plans for delivering educational experiences for students and safeguarding their campuses, the fallout we imagined then has become manifest now. Perennial executive leadership concerns, such as new degree programs, athletic conference affiliations, and dealing with first amendment/academic freedom challenges have not abated, even as we have sheltered in place and studied remotely.
Several small private universities and law schools have announced that they will suspend operations this fall or make radical cuts including campus closures (here, there, this, that, the other, etc.). Officials are accelerating plans for mergers of universities within systems, universities are announcing plans to return to campus in the fall amid controversy and disagreement between executive leadership, faculty, and public health officials, and early attempts of returning students to campus have had unfortunate, if not predictable results: further outbreak and spreading of COVID-19.
Divergent paths will have yields we can only imagine down the road, as some colleges and systems announce fully online delivery in the fall and cancellations of on-campus gatherings such as athletic events and homecomings; while others pronounce without wavering that classes will resume in-person, athletic events will commence on schedule, and business will go on as usual. As I have remarked elsewhere, we no longer have to wait for history to judge the decisions/gambits of university leaders, and regardless of the merit or outcome of the decisions they make now, one thing is certain: pronounced, ongoing criticism is inescapable for the contemporary university executive, and consensus nearly impossible.
An especially acute problem for HBCU executives, as America’s cold becomes Black folks’ pneumonia, those leaders stand in the breach along with medical professionals, legislators, and pillars of community charged with caring for us, helping us survive, and preparing us for the uncertainty ahead. One might assume that the uncertainty we face moving forward coupled with the increased need for thoughtful, experienced, and careful leadership might slow the pace of turnover in the executive office at HBCUs.
Alas, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, and the center of this logical assumption does not hold.
As parents, students, alumni, and the country starve for stability, 24 HBCUs announced that they were hiring, firing, or accepting the resignation of 31 campus executives this year. From well-earned retirements after dutiful service to prostitution stings; from governing board/presidential controversy … to more governing board chicanery; and from the historic to the baffling and more baffling, (or maybe it’s just me…Selma University has a new president, yes?); executive turnover at HBCUs continued apace in 2020, pandemic be damned.
As colleges and universities across the country face troubling and uncertain futures, necessitating multi-faceted collaboration with federal, state, and municipal entities and alumni donor, private and corporate support to close the gaps left by suspended operations and refunded revenues following campus closures, many HBCUs will engage in this process with newly-minted leaders.
As I have reported for the past five years on executive turnover at HBCUs (here, and there), every year, 25-30% of America’s 107 HBCUs announce that a president or chancellor has resigned, been terminated, or hired. The effects of this high turnover are significant, scattered, and highly concentrated among institutions considered to be extremely vulnerable within American higher education’s most vulnerable sector.
While recent announcements of new investments from private donors and debt cancellations/new funding sources made via executive orders and through Congressional budget outlay will undoubtedly aid many HBCU’s, these positive impacts are scattered and concentrated, as well. Often times, the beneficiaries of these investments are the most recognizable “name-brand” HBCUs (e.g. Howard, Spelman, Morehouse) and just as often, the result of long-tenured, experienced executives who have assembled great leadership teams, grown their institutions enrollments, financial stability, and branding (Michael Sorrell at Paul Quinn College, for example, has been more adept at obtaining national press and seven-figure donations than most ‘elite HBCU’ presidents).
A widely-held perception of businesses and institutions across the spectrum notes that organizations’ failure to retain their leadership is a predictor of myriad internal problems, and thus, likely a poor investment. Extend the logic to a favorite sports team, name brand, or band—what does it typically mean when they cannot keep their head coaches, CEOs, or lead singers? Have any of your faves had more than three leaders in the past five years? The answer is almost certainly “no,” especially without a well-established brand and a widely-held positive reputation.
2021 will be a pivotal year in the tales of HBCUs. It could possibly be the final chapter for some. And at 25 HBCUs, a new president is responsible for playing the role of griot. For all of their leaders, especially the newly-appointed, may this be a season of light and a spring of hope, rather than a season of darkness and winter of despair.
2019-2020 HBCU Executive Transactions
Alcorn State University—new president Felecia Nave
Bennett College—new president Suzanne Walsh
Bluefield State College—new president Robin Capeheart
Central State University—new president Jack Thomas
Clark Atlanta University – new president George French
Coppin State University—new president Anthony Jenkins
Delaware State University—resigned president Wilma Mishoe and new president Tony Allen
Denmark Technical College—new president Willie Todd
Fayetteville State University—new interim chancellor Peggy Valentine
Harris-Stowe State University—new interim president Dwayne Smith and new president Corey Bradford
Jackson State University—resigned president William Bynum and new acting president Thomas Hudson
LeMoyne-Owen College—new interim president Carol Johnson-Dean
Miles College—new president Bobbie Knight
Morris Brown College —interim president Kevin James promoted to president
Paine College—new acting president Cheryl Evans
Rust College—resigned president David Beckley and new president Ivy Taylor
Saint Augustine’s University—new interim president Maria Lumpkin
Savannah State University—new interim president Kimberly Ballard-Washington
Selma University—resigned president Alvin Cleveland and new president Eddie Hill*
Shelton State College—resigned president William Ashley
Southern University Agricultural Research Center—new dean/chancellor Orlando McMeans
Southern University New Orleans—resigned chancellor Lisa Mims-Devezin and new interim chancellor James Ammons
Texas Southern University—resigned president Austin Lane and new interim president Kenneth Huewitt
Tuskegee University—acting president Ruby Perry (as president Lily McNair takes medical leave)
West Virginia State University—new interim president Charles Byers
William Broussard, Ph.D. (@DeadLecturer) is a scholar of HBCU executive leadership trends and a contributor to the HBCU Digest.
*June 12 article in Selma Times-Journal notes that Eddie Hill has been named new president as of June 12, 2020. As of June 28, 2020, Selma University’s website still acknowledges Alvin Cleveland as the president and there is no news of an announced resignation reported.