HBCU boards must resist the temptation of proving innovation through untested leadership

As the historically Black college and university sector moves into the conclusion of the academic year, there is a growing sense of cautious excitement about the future of some institutions. In recent weeks, two more presidents of HBCUs have announced their plans to retire over the course of this year, increasing a tally that will grow significantly in the coming months at some of our largest and most prestigious schools. 

With every departure comes the opportunity for new leadership to take these schools boldly into an uncertain future. Most presidents are leaving schools better than they inherited them, and at a time where financial crisis is not, at least for the moment, an imminent concern. 

Leaders like Ruth Simmons at Prairie View A&M University, Jimmy Jenkins at Livingstone College join the ranks of Mary Campbell Schmidt at Spelman College, and William Harvey at Hampton University, who will depart this summer. They vary in lengths of tenure but not in impact on their institutions and communities; they truly will be hard acts to follow. 

That difficulty in following them also makes the work of their boards and supporting communities much tougher. Times are never easy but they are manageable when competent and compassionate leadership is in place. But when confronted with the prospect of losing those traits, boards and stakeholders can sometimes fall prey to prioritizing the ambition to grow over the important work of keeping an institution stable. 

Sometimes in the effort to be innovative, boards can look for an out-of-the-box candidate to brig a corporate perspective into the president’s seat. Sometimes, this can work; the dynamics of schools like Paul Quinn College and Morehouse College are undeniable in how they’ve used unconventional presidential hires to reach unprecedented heights in institutional productivity. 

But sometimes that effort can create the opposite effect. In former president James Clark, South Carolina State University hired an unconventional leader and will pay a severe price for years to come in enrollment losses, the absence of strategic planning, and the loss of executive talent on his watch. West Virginia State University saw the resignation of former president Nicole Pride, less than a year after taking office and under controversy of alleged hostile leadership practices. 

If proof is needed about how delicate the matter of a new president and skill set can be, the Alabama A&M University search is a most recent example of the balance that board members must strike. Even a tenured campus executive with notable achievements can, with the right mix of politics and anxiety, draw the ire of many stakeholders and create confusion.

Boards should reserve the right to be bold in their approaches and in support of their institutions. But they must consider the time and temperature of their work and the long-term impacts they can create by miscalculating institutional fit between campus and leadership. While times are not bad now, they have the very real chance to become perilous in the next few years. Enrollment trends are sagging, particularly for Black students and Black colleges. There will be no more unprecedented funding in the form of covid relief, and its absence will not relax accreditation standards for finance and available resources. 

Industry is changing rapidly and requiring colleges to produce work-ready graduates, not just those willing to take on the debt of college completion with no skills to show for their sacrifices. These are just a few of the most significant areas that presidents and chancellors have to think about every day, beyond the relationship building and political work of being a campus CEO. 

Times are changing, but the HBCU presidency must stay the same in order to adapt to these socio-economic shifts. It still requires experience in executive hiring, relationship building with lawmakers, accreditors, and opponents. Value remains in leaders who can see trouble coming and who know how to pull themselves, and their institutions, out of harm’s way.

There is a rising crop of dynamic young sitting presidents who have proven themselves across the public and private HBCU sector to be adept at leadership and open to the invaluable lessons of trial and error. There are a number of men and women ready for roles of distinction in our schools, who, in the right positions, can rise to meet the moment of sober, serious leadership in the mold of some of our departing campus generals. 

All of these leaders need patient, competent and fearless boards that will fundraise for them, shake political tables for them, and stand with them to meet the complexities that lie ahead. We need stability now more than ever. The urge to innovate can always be satisfied, but not at the risk of stability and not as an antidote to uncertainty. 

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