There was a stretch of years during the mid 2010’s that felt like HBCU board corruption, mismanagement and amateurism were at all-time highs. Much of the tension revolved around bad policy under the Obama Administration that made a lot of HBCU students leave campus, substracted a lot of revenue, and pressured a lot of presidents to save institutions from permanent damage or closure.
Historic appointments of Black women ended in acrimony. Boards fought publicly about retaining bad presidents and hiring unpopular ones. And by the time the sector was beginning to brace for the Trump era, leaders were just recognizing that HBCUs were in the midst of a growing enrollment crisis.
It feels like leaders at a few institutions are trying to bring that old thing back. The public is well aware that something is wrong and insiders are desperate to leak everything but the details of what is causing issues with leadership and operations. But some of these schools have taken a “nothing to see here” approach, which makes people work that much harder to expose these boards as the root of all troubles.
Bethune-Cookman trustees have gone out of their way over the last few weeks to suggest nothing is wrong, to include public appeals from third-party observers and letters of confidence from staff members. The school didn’t have this kind of outpouring of support when former president Edison Jackson and trustees were in a hurricane of lawsuits, accreditation sanctions, and controversy over Trump-appointed commencement speakers; but a president leaves without telling the board of his departure and the time has arrived to communicate strength and stability?
SCSU is retaining a president whom trustees know should have never been hired in the first place. James Clark has received a vote of no-confidence from every stakeholder group in Orangeburg with the exception of local Girl Scouts, and even they may be whipping votes against him.
Three of Tuskegee’s eight presidents have been dismissed in the last eight years. Like Bethune-Cookman, the private HBCU has no obligation to the public trust to disclose the root behind the turnover, but petitions and calls for a board overhaul tell a story that all is not well within the highest ranks of the institution.
Last year, the boards at Lincoln University and Saint Augustine’s University were in the news for weeks for firing and hiring presidents while questions piled up about their decision making. In Pennsylvania, elected officials and their appointees interefered to stop board recklessness at Lincoln. In Raleigh, a tragic death of a former president threw SAU back into a cauldron of inquiry about how the school was being managed, and at what potential cost to the stability of the university.
It may not seem like a great number of schools, but five boards acting with a lack of transparency —even if justified in their actions and trapped by personnel law and confidentiality protocols — took a significant toll on the sector. Other than Tuskegee, none of these schools have received transformative funding from MacKenzie Scott, and none of been targeted for substantial gifts from regional corporations or wealthy donors.
While they are all independent actors in autonomous schools, they all speak for the sector and play a role in how much confidence the public holds in it.
In HBCU leadership, gears are always turning in a variety directions and rarely in cadence with each other. The goal of an executive board and the president is to work together in making all of the gears of finance, infrastructure, human resources, external relationships, legislative lobbying, culture and auxiliary operations turn in unison and gradually speed up to meet the demands of community and industry.
At every institution, things happen to make the gears spin at different rates, and sometimes in opposite directions. That is the nature of higher education and given the fragility of HBCUs in nearly all of these areas, makes that much more remarkable how high functioning these institutions are in spite of their challenges.
The goal is synchronicity, and when operations are strained, priorities are misaligned or egos are involved, the machine malfunctions in a spectacular and often public way. There’s too much money and public opinion at stake for that to happen now, and boards should quickly figure out a way to agree upon common goals before all that’s left is the shrapnel of good intentions and the best laid plans.