Rumors about the HBCU community come a dime a dozen, but if there’s any truth to the speculation circulating around Hampton University, it could prove to be a mess with premium, long-term costs for one of the nation’s most venerable institutions.
A growing number of alumni and faculty say that a president has been chosen to succeed long-standing leader William R. Harvey, who will retire in June. A name has emerged but hasn’t been confirmed by the university’s board of trustees, which has been silent from the start about the search process and the candidates who may have been involved.
Insiders say that the presidential pick is a Hampton alumnus and high-ranking member of the military. He doesn’t have higher education experience and emerged as the preferred candidate in a finalist pool that included current and former presidents.
There’s no way to predict what the board’s calculus is, but it is difficult to make it all add up. Hampton is saying goodbye to one of the longest-serving presidents in history and hello to a new era of leadership, but without the heraldry or transparency one would expect for these goings and comings.
Hampton has great ambitions and important work to accomplish in the next few years. Program accreditations, enrollment growth, research classifications, and revenue growth are some of the areas for urgent attention and would be challenging tasks even for an experienced president, much less one with no exposure to higher education leadership.
There are examples of non-traditional presidents excelling at HBCUs. Paul Quinn College and Michael Sorrell are the contemporary models of what worked for Virginia State Univerity under Eddie Moore. But those schools aren’t Hampton and even in their success to confront high stakes of sustainability, they weren’t asked to do so with a lens of students, alumni, faculty, and supporters who look at Hampton through a lens as tinted with Ivy League sensibility as any HBCU can reasonably create.
There are some Hampton subgroups who hoped that this search would’ve yielded the university’s first woman CEO or at least a more youthful take on the Harvey Way. How do these failed hopes extend in a community where some feel may substitute Harvey’s no-nonsense compassion and fiscal conservatism with military-style dictatorship?
HBCUs and higher education operate within too much gray area to hire someone whose career has been defined by achieving black and white outcomes that are typically predefined by operational standards and metrics. Student achievement, faculty empowerment, alumni engagement, and community enhancement aren’t managed that way and never will be.
Hampton is not a reclamation project, and neither is its presidency. Considering what we don’t know and haven’t yet heard about this search, maybe these things are more fragile and more in question than we’ve known.