HBCU Alumni Deserve Say in Selecting Presidents…But We Better Know What We're Talking About

Jackson State, FAMU, Kentucky State – these are just three of the HBCUs in the last few months to attract headlines for alumni using social and traditional media to bring attention to their preferred choices for presidential hires. This is good news for the HBCU community – it means that as graduates, we are taking a more active role in identifying and advocating for leaders we are willing to support with financial and political capital over a course of years.
We want stability. We want leaders who know the value of attentive ears and instructive tongues, especially in meeting our demands for performance and transparency. But real advocates who wish to get involved in executive searches, particularly when our efforts contrast those of state boards and elected officials, know the value of shouting vs. silence at every step of the selection process.
The time to shout is when it becomes clear that the HBCU presidency is a political football; best exhibited when presidents are chosen and installed without searches, without input from campuses, or when mentioned by political operatives with unclear motives.
Take the FAMU presidential search. Last week, Florida Senator and FAMU alumnus Bobby Powell criticized the university for the dismissal of four deans, and the loss of a partnership with the Black Television News Channel. From the Tallahassee Democrat:
I am deeply disappointed in the current administration of my alma mater, Florida A&M University. As a former student and current state legislator, I have made it a priority to be actively involved with FAMU and to advocate on its behalf while in the Capitol.
However, with the increasingly negative news that continues to come out of FAMU, it is becoming more and more difficult to be an advocate. On the bright side, I also received a degree from Florida State University.
A PWI degree being a bright side in legislative advocacy is a direct threat lobbed by a black state legislator. But more than this, his dissatisfaction with interim president Larry Robinson is virtually the opposite of recent efforts from FAMU alums to have Robinson appointed as the permanent choice.
Their desire matches that of Florida State President John Thrasher and Tallahassee Community College President Jim Murdaugh, who both publicly endorsed Robinson for the top spot; which shouldn’t be viewed as a good thing in any respect.
Robinson meets the profile of most candidates preferred by alums for a presidency; a likeable person who knows university culture and understands why certain demands need to be met, and why certain traditions must be upheld. But when these demands and traditions are too costly, render leadership too fragile, or empower enemies of the campus to jeopardize operations with audits, inquiry or scandal, then a president is needed who can stand up with alumni to collaborate on a new path which treasures the past while preparing for an uncertain future.
Again, that president should stand with, not against, alumni. And alumni should make the first overtures for that partnership; because a good president would give them a better view of the state of HBCU culture, which would make them fear the real prospects of closure.
Alumni can never know how high debt runs at most HBCUs for construction loans, or how much paying off these loans, along with pension and retirement commitments, drains endowments. We’ll never realize how many lawsuits have been settled or are in active legal processing, how much embezzlement and loss happens among employees, or chargebacks work in federal financial aid or with food service contracts. And the reason we’ll never know is that if we did, we’d truly know just how hopeless future prospects are for too many of our schools.
We’d run to the media to help ‘disinfect’ the incompetence of our leadership. Surely, this wouldn’t happen if we had better leadership, we’d think; never realizing that it happens because we simply don’t have enough students, don’t receive enough gifts, and do not get enough funding from state and federal governments.
So instead of operating on data and projects, we operate on good vibes and interpersonal loyalty. And because so many presidents have been fired in such a short time, and because we find our schools’ survival urgent about 15 years later than we should have, we now want to be involved; but from a sunken place of little insight and virtually no information on executive fit or responsibility.
We don’t do the basic reconnaissance like looking up tax returns, looking at annual reports, or searching statistics in federal databases. But we think we know who can be a president based on who we like, and what they’ve done at other campuses or in other jobs.
It is a good thing that we want to be involved in the future of our schools, but we have to first be more adept at understanding the needs of our campuses before going toe to toe with systems, state lawmakers, and executive political culture. Because without information and insight, we can win the battle for a person in a seat, and lose the war of having it occupied by a leader willing to listen and to lead us to better days for our campuses and our culture at large.